The greatest war story ever told
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