If the World Could Write . . .

Self-portrait of Sophia Tolstoy with daughter Sasha and daughter-in-law Sonya in Khamovniki, Moscow in 1895.
Self-portrait of Sophia Tolstoy with daughter Sasha and daughter-in-law Sonya in Khamovniki, Moscow in 1895. (Krause & Johansen)
By Michael Dirda
Sunday, October 28, 2007


By Leo Tolstoy

Translated from the Russian by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

Knopf. 1,273 pp. $37

In sweep, grandeur and carnage, War and Peace calls to mind the greatest cinematic epics -- "Gone with the Wind," "Lawrence of Arabia," "Dr. Zhivago." The novel takes place against the backdrop of Napoleon's military operations in Europe between, roughly, 1805 and 1812. Tolstoy takes us onto the field at Austerlitz, through the battle of Borodino, to the burning of Moscow and, finally, into the midst of the retreating Grande Armee, worn out by the Russian winter and increasingly picked at by commando raids. The descriptions of soldiers and battles should satisfy even the most strategic-minded student of Napoleon's campaigns. In these pages men march toward their death with faces "fearful and merry."

Still, the alternating scenes "back home" are even more true to the civilian experience of war: Life goes on largely unchanged -- until sons, brothers and lovers begin to be wounded or killed:

"The enemy could already be seen ahead. Suddenly, something lashed at the squadron as if with a broad besom. Rostov raised his sword, preparing to strike, but just then the soldier Nikitenko galloped past, leaving him behind, and Rostov felt, as in a dream, that he was still racing on with unnatural speed and at the same time was staying in place. . . .

'What is it? I'm not moving ahead! I've fallen. I've been killed. . .' Rostov asked and answered at the same moment. He was now alone in the middle of the field. Instead of moving horses and hussar backs, he saw the immobile earth and stubble around him. There was warm blood under him. . ."

"Some day," nearly all serious readers say to themselves, "I really should sit down and start War and Peace." For many of us, though, that day never quite comes. After all, the book is enormously long: Some editions take up two, three or even four volumes. Those confined to one, like this new translation, possess the heft and appearance of small cinder blocks: With the right mortar, you could lay foundations with them. What's more, the book's extensive action embraces multiple storylines, three generations, and half of Europe; and, as the pages mount up, Tolstoy repeatedly theorizes at tedious length about the nature of history. Even the characters names can be confusing -- at one point a man named Kuragin courts a young woman named Karagin. Still, for many readers the book's most off-putting element is probably its reputation: It's not just a novel, it's, well, it's . . . War and Peace.

But a fine new translation, especially one by the widely acclaimed team of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, offers an opportunity to see this great classic afresh, to approach it not as a monument (or mausoleum) but rather as a deeply touching story about our contradictory human hearts.

Stressing that their War and Peace sticks more closely to the Russian text than any other, including Louise and Aylmer Maude's semi-canonical 1923 version, Pevear and Volokhonsky retain the considerable amount of French used by Tolstoy's counts and princesses, preserve the author's penchant for word repetition and aim to match his tidy syntactic conciseness. The result certainly reads smoothly, its English being neither egregiously contemporary nor inappropriately old-fashioned. In this respect, the Pevear-Volokhonsky War and Peace joins company with recent translations of The Tale of Genji, Don Quixote and In Search of Lost Time, these being among the few works of classic fiction equal to Tolstoy's in scope and richness. Given so capacious and generous a masterpiece, it's simply impossible to do more than offer -- with due humility at how much is being overlooked -- a few introductory propositions for the would-be reader.

Nearly every man and woman in War and Peace is deeply flawed, and will make at least one truly terrible mistake in his or her life. This may be an epic, but there are no larger-than-life heroes in it. The main character, Pierre Bezukhov, is illegitimate, clumsy, naive, absent-minded and fat. He has red hands and wears glasses. The exuberant, impulsive Natasha Rostov, the principal heroine, eventually settles down as Tolstoy's ideal woman, but not before her unnaturally repressed libido wrecks her own happiness and that of her fiance, the noble-minded Andrei Bolkonsky.

Minor characters tend to be unconsciously corrupt or simply depraved. Boris Drubetskoy starts off as a charming young man and turns into an ambitious, calculating trimmer, always looking out for his advancement. Though the Countess Helene Bezukhov is promiscuous and stupid, her beauty ensures that the world finds her profoundly witty. The gorgeous Helene knows that her smile can reduce all male arguments to nonsense. Salons and drawing rooms reveal the French-speaking Russian aristocracy as venal, unctuous and self-important.

Though Stendhal's Charterhouse of Parma helped teach Tolstoy how to describe battle, most of War and Peace might be likened to a compact version of Balzac's multi-volume Com¿die humaine. In these pages an old man's heirs connive over his fortune. Parents strive to marry off their worthless children for money and status. Couples form and break up, young girls attend balls, their admirers quarrel and duel, fortunes are lost at cards, babies are born, families face social or financial ruin, and the most cherished dreams are dashed. The book never flinches from showing us deliberate cruelty, repeated heartbreak and survivor guilt.

While his villains never change, only worsen, Tolstoy's heroes evolve, deepen, see more clearly into the nature of things. Society, the novelist believes, corrupts us because it is built on falsity and pretense, on role-playing and the acceptance of the unreal. It's all opera. Only the very young and the very holy can ignore the pervasive artificiality. "As with all people, the moment she looked in the mirror, her face assumed a strained, unnatural, bad expression." However, those chastened by suffering or allowed ecstatic moments of insight may sometimes escape the world's meretricious allure.

As its title suggests, the novel examines two opposing realms, alternative paths through life. Tolstoy repeatedly contrasts war and peace, the artificial and the natural, erotic torment and family happiness, the city and the country, Moscow and St. Petersburg, Germanic military tactics and Slavic submission to the force of history, intellectual complexities and Christian simplicities, this world and the next. But note that copulative "and" rather than "or" -- we are both apes and angels. Still, our movement through life should be spiritually upward.

Some of these same polarities recur in another classic juxtaposition: Tolstoy or Dostoevsky? Young people nearly always prefer the latter -- Dostoevsky's alienated heroes are anguished intellectuals, often murderous and dangerously attractive. But then Dostoevsky is fundamentally romantic. By contrast, Tolstoy possesses an almost Homeric indifference to his characters' fate. His only interest is truth. This is Natasha, this is Pierre, he seems to say, I am not creating them so much as simply recording what they felt and did. As Isaac Babel once observed, "If the world could write by itself, it would write like Tolstoy."

For the author of War and Peace -- and Anna Karenina, The Death of Ivan Illich and Hadji Murad -- excels in just this unblinking focus, coupled with the artistry to illuminate a scene or a character by employing the exactly right but sometimes startling detail. When Napoleon surveys the field of battle, "on his cold face there was that particular tinge of self-confident, well-deserved happiness that can be seen on the face of a boy who has happily fallen in love." In one of the most endearing scenes in world literature, Tolstoy describes the happy hubbub as Sonya and Natasha ready their young selves for a ball, while the maid crawls on her knees to pin up a dress and Natasha's blushing mother retreats from her husband's embrace "so as not to have her dress rumpled."

War and Peace constantly overturns expectations. The great questions of the book, with a surprising set of answers, are the most fundamental ones: Who will die? Who will marry whom? Just when we think that Andrei and Natasha are established as the perfect couple, we realize there are 600 pages to go. One can't even be sure that the admirable Sonya, unwavering in her adoration of the soldier Nikolai Rostov, will be rewarded with the storybook ending she deserves. Much turns on sheer coincidence: When Prince Andrei lies wounded in a field hospital, who should be on the next operating table but the man he has sworn to kill?

But, then, God's ways are mysterious, and Tolstoy's main characters are all spiritual pilgrims. Prince Andrei, convinced he is dying, peers at the eternal sky and finds a strange joy. The abused Princess Marya invites holy wanderers into her home and dreams of joining these primitive Christians. Pierre becomes a Freemason as he searches for how best to conduct his life, but learns the answer he seeks only from a saintly peasant. Is love that answer? Not really. To gain peace of soul we must surrender our wills to the will of God. Similarly, Tolstoy insists that Field Marshal Kutuzov is able to defeat Napoleon not through cleverness but by submitting to the historical moment and becoming its instrument.

Though Tolstoy believes in spiritual meekness, he still knows the flesh is frail. Sex suffuses every other page of War and Peace. Being in love doesn't prevent characters from frequenting brothels. The rake Anatole Kuragin looks at Natasha and perceives only a youthful loveliness that invites his practiced attentions. Soldiers hoot and whistle at any woman in skirts. In a chapter about the French occupation of Moscow, Tolstoy creates chilling sexual tension, using the kind of simple factual sentences that taught Hemingway how to write. Two Frenchman confront a frightened Armenian family:

"One of the soldiers, a fidgety little man, was wearing a dark blue greatcoat tied with a rope. There was a cap on his head; his feet were bare. The other, who especially struck Pierre, was a tall, stooping, thin, flaxen-haired man with sluggish movements and an idiotic expression on his face. This one was dressed in a long frieze coat, dark blue trousers, and big, torn jackboots. The bootless little Frenchman in the dark blue greatcoat went up to the Armenians, said something, and at once took hold of the old man's legs, and the old man at once began to take off his boots. The other one, in the woman's coat, stood in front of the beautiful Armenian girl and looked at her silently, fixedly, with his hands in his pockets. . . . [Before long] the old man, sobbing, was saying something, but Pierre saw it only fleetingly; his whole attention was turned to the Frenchman in the long coat, who meanwhile moved towards the young woman, swaying slowly, and, taking his hands out of his pockets, put them on her neck. The Armenian beauty went on sitting in the same motionless position, with her long lashes lowered, as if she did not see or feel what the soldier was doing to her."

After the main action of the novel is over, Tolstoy -- in a brilliant stroke -- appends a hundred-page epilogue, which brings the surviving characters into conventional middle age. Slender beauties broaden into "fruitful" mothers, military heroes devote themselves to farming, children get sick, recover, grow up. But in real life -- which is what War and Peace aspires to represent, even, in a sense, to be -- no lasting happiness this side of heaven is possible. Instead, Tolstoy's couples suffer irritations and minor jealousies, enjoy quiet pleasures as well as sweetly painful memories, and endure, as must we all, the eventual passage of one generation into the next. *

Michael Dirda's email address is mdirda@gmail.com. His new book, "Classics for Pleasure," has just been published.

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