Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Book Review - "War and Peace" by Leo Tolstoy

This is the second major prose work by Leo Tolstoy that I’ve read (the first being Anna Karenina, which got 5 stars from me). I would’ve given this war novel 6 stars if it weren’t for the author’s slightly repetitive ramblings in the Epilogue about how historians’ method of recording history is flawed. Not that I disagreed with him, but only that after absorbing 1,200 pages of text in a limited time span (three weeks of library loan time with no renewal), my brain was starting to feel a little sated. That said, I’m giving this novel 5 well-deserved stars.

I guess probably all the merits of this masterpiece have already been well expounded on by other reviewers. Be that as it may, I’d still like to record my own thoughts and feelings in a proper review for future reference.

The edition that I read is the 2007 Knopf translation version by the renowned husband-wife translating team – Richard Pevear (American) and Larissa Volokhonsky (Russian). I don’t speak or read any Russian and therefore am in no position to comment on the quality of the translation as a competent Russian-English bilingual, but I find the English translation to be very fluid and lucid throughout, and that in appropriate places the translators appear to have tried to let Tolstoy’s poetic side shine through by not over-translating. Just to demonstrate by two quick examples: (1) in a description of rainy scenery - “Drops dripped.”; (2) in describing a sea change in emotion - “Love awoke, and life awoke.”). One particular feature of this edition of War and Peace is that many of the dialogues and letters are shown directly in French, the reason being that it was fashionable to speak and write French in Russian aristocratic society during that time period (Catherine the Great had made French the language of her royal court). English translation of such dialogues and letters are displayed in the footnotes. For me, it was like taking a refresher course in French.

Tolstoy is known to have said that War and Peace was not a novel, even less an epic poem, still less a historical chronicle. Richard Pevear thinks that Tolstoy wanted to “speak the truth as perceived by his eye and his conscience” about the period 1805 – 1812 of Russian life. For the literary world that came after the birth of this extraordinary work, it is a precious piece of Russian literary legacy. For me as a lover of historical fiction, it is a rich gem of a novel that weaves together the humanistic chronicling of various Napoleonic wars against Russia in the seven years from 1805 to 1812, their impact on civil and military Russian lives, in particular on two aristocratic households (the Rostovs and the Bolkonskys), the author’s existential doubts in face of Christian values as expressed through the thoughts of Pierre Bezukhov and Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, romantic love and betrayal, loyalty between friends and familial bliss and tragedies.

Parallel with the main narrative run Tolstoy’s own prolix but nonetheless valid arguments (in my view) against the conventional method of chronicling history. He insists that history is never determined, as experience shows, by the will or talent of any one or several key personnel in power, but rather, by the collective and haphazard movement of all those who participate in an event at a given time. In other words, he believes that history is governed by the law of predetermination.

“Indeed, each time conquerors appeared, there were wars,…..but that does not prove that the conquerors were the cause of the wars, or that it is possible to find the laws of war in the personal activity of one man.”

For the description of the battle scenes, of which there are many, Tolstoy lends much of his own experience while serving in the army from 1852 to 1856, especially his military experience in the Crimean War. Those battles that were fought prior to Napoleon’s entry into Moscow included: the battle of Schongraben, the battle of Austerlitz, the battle of Friedland, the battle of Smolensk, the battle of Shevardino and the deciding battle of Borodino in which the Russian army stood their ground despite heavy losses and which unexpectedly lifted the army spirit (Tolstoy termed it a “moral victory” for the Russians). On Napoleon’s retreat from a burned down Moscow, the battle of Tarutino and the battle of Vyazma were fought among other partisan wars. The battle of Vyazma completely broke the spirit of Napoleon’s remnant army.

Tolstoy’s leading characters, be they fictional or real, carry depth with their multi-dimensional facets, complete with believable emotions and thought processes. The dialogues faithfully mirror the social customs, etiquette and morals of the various social classes of the time and place.

Finally, Tolstoy delivers a clear ethical message through the spiritual transformation of Pierre Bezukhov, which results from his experiences in a major battle and his captivity as a prisoner of war. The message is that spiritual happiness varies in inverse proportion to material opulence.

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