Book Review: War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy (translation by Richard Peaver and Larissa Volokhonsky)

Unknown-1

What is there to say about War and Peace that hasn’t been written? It is known as one of the great Russian novels, and yet it isn’t really a novel. Even Tolstoy acknowledged that it is neither a novel, or a history (or an epic poem). It sits on its own, quite unlike any book I’ve read before. There is a fabulous love story, woven between Tolstoy’s philosophising and essays about war, history and the greatness (or otherwise) of Napoleon.

War and Peace, depicts Russia’s war with Napoleon and its effects on the lives of those caught up in the conflict. He creates some of the most vital and involving characters in literature as he follows the rise and fall of families in St Petersburg and Moscow who are linked by their personal and political relationships. His heroes are the thoughtful yet impulsive Pierre Bezukhov, his ambitious friend, Prince Andrei, and the woman who becomes indispensable to both of them, the enchanting Natasha Rostov.

It is a daunting book – of course it is. It was to me, anyway, which is what the Reading Challenge digs away at. However, very soon into it, it wasn’t such a tower of a book. Some said the number (and names) of the characters was overwhelming. Maybe initially, but not distractingly so. War and Peace makes you want to work hard as a reader, as the rewards are great. Tolstoy is an astonishingly good observer of people, writing War and Peace before Freud was out of short trousers. His understanding of motivation, development makes for rounded characters that need to discover something before they can be who they need to be. None more evident than in Pierre Bezukhovf and Natasha Rostov, and Prince Andrei Bolkonsky who is a kind of bridge between them.

The insights to Russian nobility is intriguing, and the reader is thrown into the heart of society in the opening chapter, at a party of Anna Pavlovna, and the heart of what seems to matter. The language of the court was French, which the translation maintains, to great effect.

Tolstoy writes from all perspectives, as the reader moves from character to character, right in their mind and thoughts. It shouldn’t work, but it does. Tolstoy is the narrator and owner. War and Peace ebbs and flows between the story and his narratives, with these rambling reflective views on war and power and history, and… At times they are repetitive, and dry. None more so than the epilogue. It is the writing of the story that Tolstoy’s writing comes to life. This is the artist engaging us with history, and it is like a light shining on the words. Some passages are achingly tender, like Prince Andrei believing he is dying on the battlefield.

War and Peace does not shy away from the ravages of war, and successfully portrays the impact on the ordinary Russian folk. The peasants, the infantrymen, and those below the Russian aristocracy. Tolstoy’s detail is astonishing – reflecting the five years he spend on his epic. It is the contrast between war and peace, and the change that it has on Pierre and Natalie that makes the story.

I hadn’t expected to enjoy, and devour War and Peace. I hadn’t expected to consider reading it again. I imagine the rewards will be rich. It is a keeper of a book.

War & Peace was part of my 2016 Reading Challenge, a book that intimidates you