The great­est war story ever told

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Peter Craven

TOL­STOY is one of the great­est won­ders of the world of lit­er­a­ture and he is ac­ces­si­ble to any­one who is ca­pa­ble of read­ing plain prose and sur­ren­der­ing to a story. Now we have a new and hand­some edi­tion of War and Peace based on the most fa­mous trans­la­tion, that of Aylmer and Louise Maude, but re­vised and edited by Rus­sian lit­er­a­ture scholar Amy Man­delker.

It’s printed on creamy light­weight pa­per so that it’s eas­ily held in the hand to read in bed, it has a gleam­ing dust jacket that re­pro­duces a de­tail from the gate of the Her­mitage in St Peters­burg (those Ro­manov ea­gles point­ing in both di­rec­tions, golden wings be­neath the tsarist crown) and it looks pre­cisely the sort of sump­tu­ous new hard­back de­signed to lure us into read­ing or re­vis­it­ing the great­est of all war sto­ries, which also hap­pens to be the pro­to­type of the pop­u­lar novel.

The as­ton­ish­ing thing about War and Peace is that it cap­ti­vates like a rip­ping yarn but the char­ac­ters are real and the emo­tions gen­er­ated in this im­mense saga of Rus­sian life dur­ing the Napoleonic Wars (cul­mi­nat­ing in Napoleon’s in­va­sion of Rus­sia) have a breath­tak­ing re­al­ity even as we tum­ble on to see how each in­ci­dent turns out.

The only thing that com­pli­cates this is the his­tor­i­cal stuff, re­plete with an ac­tual the­ory of his­tory in which Tol­stoy ar­gues the case against Napoleon and the ef­fect of great men on the course of events. But even here — where this great­est of nov­el­ists comes clos­est to the dragon-at-the-gates alien­ation ef­fects of the mod­ernists — he is, in fact, pro­vid­ing real his­tor­i­cal de­tail, of the smoke and blood and army for­ma­tion va­ri­ety, which will en­thral those read­ers who can never take any fic­tion as se­ri­ously as they take the last vol­ume by Antony Beevor or Les Car­lyon. And, sure enough, as a doc­u­men­tary war sto­ry­teller Tol­stoy is match­less.

So the trick with War and Peace, which Tol­stoy makes look like a force of na­ture, is the cen­tral story of Natasha’s love for Prince An­drei, of her aber­ra­tion, of what hap­pens be­tween her and that gen­tle bear, Pierre Bezukhov: all this is put in the broad­est pos­si­ble con­text. No novel gives us as full a sense of a so­ci­ety as War and Peace even though at one level it has the ex­hil­a­ra­tion of a ro­mance about love and war. In prac­tice you would have to put some­thing like the to­tal­ity of Balzac or Trol­lope in the bal­ance to get any­thing like the same breadth.

It’s partly that the cen­tral char­ac­ters are al­lowed the com­plex­ity of their in­ner lives even though they are never slowed down to a med­i­ta­tive pas­siv­ity. Pierre is Tol­stoy’s

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