War and Peace

I wonder how many people have read Tolstoy's War and Peace (completed 1869) these days? It's a long slog, but worth the effort. I never thought I'd get round to it; but loading it onto my Sony Reader (much lighter than a real copy of the book!) meant I could read it on trains and in the intervals of concerts, as well as every evening over supper: it still took some weeks to get through.

Tolstoy himself didn't regard it exactly as a novel: it covered a vast range and a large number of characters. We meet several fictional families and watch their interactions in peacetime, gradually moving to the Napleonic invasion of 1912 and the devastating effect it has on them. The narrative also covers the progress of the war and the actions of real pesonages such as the Tsar, his generals, and Napoleon himself.

It struck me that the consrtuction was really more that of a soap opera, because of the very long ongoing and intertwined plot, though this is not to suggest at all that its literary method is that of a soap opera (heaven forbid). It also prefigures the standard Hollywood disaster movie - the first half letting us get involved with the characters in ordinary circumstances, so that we care about them when the disaster overwhelms them.

The actual writing (which of course I read in translation - probably a fairly old-fashioned one since I got it free from Gutenberg.org) is masterly, juggling so many characters - not just the families but their servants, and also many soldiers and officers in the course of the campaign - while examining the detailed (and presumably accurate) history of the war. It's not light reading, but it certainly repays the effort (though the Russian names and the tendency to use either the given name or the family name randomly don't make it any easier).

The two best-known cinema versions which will be more familiar to most people inevitably simplify the plot. The Hollywood version (1956) concentrated largely on Natasha (well played by Audrey Hepburn) and Pierre (a badly miscast Henry Fonda); the Russian version (1968) directed by Sergei Bondarchuk (who also played Pierre) covered more of the plot and was suitably spectacular, though as I remember it all seemed a bit heavy (it doesn't seem to have been shown in the UK for many years).

Tolstoy brings his characters to life vividly, and makes the milieu in which they live very real. His analysis of the progress of the war is one of the most intriguing aspects of the book. However, he has a bit of a bee in his bonnet about historical events being determined not, as is generally assumed, by the actions of leading figures such as Napoleon, but more by the random actions of chance. He makes this point rather frequently during the narrative: and then, in a second epilogue (after the first has shown the main characters settling down again) repeats the thesis, with numerous illustrations, at great length. I don't doubt the validity of his viewpoint (his historical research is evidently exhaustive) but the repetition of it does get a bit wearing.

That aside, I found it fascinating read and well worth the effort.

Posted: Sat - March 7, 2009 at 09:17 AM by Roger Wilmut          



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Published On: Mar 11, 2016 05:00 PM