A Summer of War and Peace

We might as well face it at the outset -- War and Peace is a big book. In length, obviously: nearly 1,250 pages in the new translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. That makes it heavy to lug around, and when I read it in bed it left a dent in my sternum. And it requires a big commitment: unless you took the same speed reading course Woody Allen did (he read it in 20 minutes and reported: "It involved Russia"), it takes a big chunk out of your life to read. It's big in ambition, too: there's Tolstoy's, of course -- it took him more than ten years to write, research, and rewrite -- but closer to home, there's yours, if this is a mission you choose to accept. Reading War and Peace -- or being seen to do so -- is a sign that you are a Serious-to-the-Verge-of-Pretentious Person. The few times when I was caught reading it in public I felt sheepish.

I'm not trying to be flippant. Since reading War and Peace over the summer, I've come to think that everything important one takes away from it is due to its size. Because Tolstoy deals with world-historical events like Napoleon's invasion of Russia, the book could feel like potted history. But Tolstoy cannily uses the vast space at his disposal to make the experience of reading about these bygone battles and people both real and made-up seem rounded and authentic. At one end of the scale, he periodically stops the flow of time and action to contemplate lots of stuff that doesn't fit in a narrative sequence: the presumptuousness of human ambition, the limitations of our ability to analyze the reasons why things happen as they do, the differing roles of the historian and the novelist.

At the other end of the scale, Tolstoy positively luxuriates in small moments, lounging about in details that a tough-minded editor would cut on grounds of space and yet which stay in my mind far longer than abstractions, no matter how profound. There's an exhilarating moment when Denisov, a short hussar with a speech impediment whom none of the women ever takes seriously, moves to the floor to dance the mazurka: "On the downbeat, he gave his lady a victorious and jocular sidelong look, unexpectedly stamped his foot bounced off the floor springily.... preading his legs, he stopped on his heels, paused like that for a second, tapped his feet in place with a clanking of spurs, spun quickly, then, tapping his right ankle with his left foot, again flew along in a circle." There's the old nanny Anna Makarovna, who has a trick that never fails to thrill the children (and me): "y a secret known only to herself, Anna Makarovna knitted at once on her needles, and which she always drew triumphantly one out of the other before the children, when the stockings were finished." (By the way, there's video online of knitters who can perform Anna Makarovna's trick -- and a lot of them quote Tolstoy.) These are moments when a private piece of a person's character flashes out; Tolstoy grants us the ability to glimpse and understand these moments intimately, but how many times in life have we seen such moments and missed them?

Tolstoy has us enter his imposing edifice through a frippery occasion, although the hostess, Anna Pavlovna, wouldn't thank us for saying so. She has carved out a niche in political soir?es where everybody speaks the best French. Tolstoy likens her to a factory owner who keeps the spindles and wheels running smoothly. Why begin here? Well, for one thing, we get a glimpse of the people inhabiting the corridors of power in Russia, with public grandstanding and private influence peddling, and we also experience for ourselves the shiny banality of their faces, clothes, smiles, and conversation. For another, we meet the two main male characters, neither of whom fits comfortably into this world. The aristocratic newlywed Prince Andrei ought to, and yet he holds himself sardonically aloof, even from his cute little pet of a wife. Pierre Bezukhov, the illegitimate son of a dying count, is a bit more of an outsider, newly arrived from Paris and eager to enter into the swing of things. He is merely inadvertently awkward.

Life is so messy and disorganized -- or, conversely, so structured by outside forces -- that it's hard to know which man has adopted the better strategy for coping. Neither, though, is happy with his choice; both come up against a moment that seems to call them imperiously to some more authentic way of living. I think of Rilke, faced with an implacable ancient torso of Apollo: "You must change your life." Easier said than done. Tolstoy's Napoleon hasn't an inkling of that kind of heroism. And how to persuade us of its possibility, let alone accomplishment, in fiction?

I come back to size. Ever since high school English, I've distrusted short stories with that moment of epiphany that's supposed to betoken a cataclysmic change of heart. Even the most skilful -- Joyce's "The Dead," say, or Flannery O'Connor's "Revelation" -- don't really manage to overcome my suspicion that the life that will continue after the story stops wouldn't really turn out to be all that different. Give me a good couple hundred pages at least to see how someone can muster the will over the long haul to change his life. Tolstoy gives us plenty more than that, allowing his characters the room they need to develop in credible ways.

War and Peace covers a long span of time -- about 15 years all told. And precisely because it can seem to take almost as long to read, whatever change characters undergo -- or choose -- feels real. Take Natasha: to my mind charming even when infuriating, she starts as an ardent 13 and ends a very different figure at 27 -- but that's such a stage of flux that it's not surprising. (I can't resist quoting: "She valued the society of the people to whom, disheveled, in a dressing gown, she could come striding out of the nursery with a joyful face and show a diaper with a yellow instead of a green stain, and hear comforting words that the baby was now much better.") Lying wounded on the battlefield of Austerlitz, the initially cynical Prince Andrei has a vision of the eternal that alters everything about his life -- but precisely because it's so far out of everyday experience he cannot express it to anyone. Tolstoy, however, opens Andrei's heart to us in a way that makes what is inexpressible entirely believable. And then there is Pierre. He begins as an overgrown frat boy, bumbles into a spiritual conversion, hatches a ludicrous plan to alter the course of history...what a mess! He's also fat and conversationally a bit odd, which makes it all the harder for a lot of people in and out of the novel to take him seriously. And yet by the end, we see him become magnanimous, even wise. How has this come to be?

Pierre is (if I were forced to choose) my favorite character, and the constant effort of his inner self's unfolding -- seeking, striving, losing its way, giving up, regrouping -- is for me the most compelling plot line. Through a typically human combination of ill-informed choice and accident, Pierre becomes a common prisoner of war when the French reach Moscow. But something odd happens when he shares a life of imprisonment with ordinary foot soldiers: "The very qualities which, in the world he formerly lived in, were, if not harmful, at least a hindrance to him -- his strength, his scorn of life's comforts, his absentmindedness, his simplicity -- here, among these people, gave him almost the status of a hero. And Pierre felt that this view obliged him." Are we here witnessing in Pierre, about one thousand pages in, a real understanding of what humans owe each other, a true conversion? Maybe so -- but it doesn't mean there aren't a few slips, follies, and downright failures in his future. And that feels authentic, too.

I've read War and Peace once before, at 21, and vividly remember holding forth in class about it. It was chastening this summer to discover that I'd forgotten almost everything about the novel except that it involved Russia. Fortunately, the bits I did remember -- the Battle of Austerlitz, the scenes from family life at the end -- were still compelling. There were many times in the past few months when Tolstoy's world became my world. Sometimes I'd just slip in for a little visit -- reading a chapter or two (almost all are conveniently short) standing by the stove while waiting for the coffee water to boil or sitting in the car in the interstices of suburban-mother carpooling. At night I would fall into it for chapters at a time, and snatches of Tolstoy would roll about my head during the day, such as the memory of Andrei falling in love despite himself: " 'And what makes her happy?' Prince Andrei asked himself with involuntary curiosity." Or the bedtime prayer of Platon, a peasant whose life seems to have no discernable shape: "So there, Lord, lay me down like a stone, raise me up like a loaf." I hope never to witness a wolf hunt or a mob baying for the blood of a scapegoat, but there's been time for them, too, in Tolstoy's vast narrative expanse.

The novel is so long there's even time to be bored every now and then. I say this, by the way, as a compliment. "Bored" might be the wrong word; what I mean to describe are moments when nothing much to my mind is happening, or nobody I like is talking. My longueurs are probably not yours. But such moments are part of life, too, and have their own lessons. Long novels, I find, teach me patience with characters and ideas that would be easy to turn away from in life (and short fiction). Natasha's younger brother Petya may dream of the tsar, Mother Russia, and glory in battle in ways I don't find congenial, and yet I feel more tender toward what I see as his foolish gallantry than I might have if I had not encountered them in the context of Tolstoy's enormous canvas. I also have Petya to thank for the hypersensitive description of nocturnal waiting for the dawn of battle, just as memorable as Henry V walking the fields incognito the night before Agincourt: "Drops dripped. Quiet talk went on. Horses neighed and scuffled. Someone snored."

So the short version is: I loved my summer of War and Peace, and am grateful for the translation that inspired me to read the novel again. I don't know any Russian, but I have read a number of other translations by Pevear and Volokhonsky -- most memorably, for me, their Brothers Karamazov, which was an absolute revelation. It was like a brilliantly cleaned painting, bringing out thrilling touches, caustic details, and even grimly funny highlights that just hadn't appeared to nonexperts before. This Tolstoy translation doesn't sound at all like the other ones of theirs I've read, but then, of course it's a different book. At first, I found the language stilted and artificial; it made the party scenes and military planning meetings that open the book slightly slow-going for me. And yet isn't that part of the point? I quite like the decision they made about the French conversations in the original. They leave them untranslated in the text (which means you can tell when characters are speaking in French and speculate about why they might be doing so), but they render them in English in notes at the bottom of the page. Pevear and Volokhonsky also have scads of historical and explanatory commentary tucked in the back, which I mostly ignored in the full flood of reading but which made a kind of fun self-quiz when I'd finished.

For anyone who still hasn't had enough of War and Peace, there's another new translation newly available -- this one of Tolstoy's first version of the novel. When it reappeared in Russia a few years ago, the publisher pushed it as "half the usual length, less war and more peace, no philosophical digressions." Tolstoy had apparently thought of calling it All's Well That Ends Well. You'd be quite correct to think that it's a rather different book from the one he went on to write. Andrew Bromfield, the English translator, gamely tries to make the case that even first-time readers of the novel will enjoy it, but since most of his descriptions of what's truly interesting about the book lie in comparing the two versions, it makes more sense to read the famous longer one first. And as if all this weren't enough, I've been intrigued by the unabridged audiobook Naxos puts out -- 70 hours over a span of 51 CDs. It sounds like a big project for all concerned, but summer will be here before I know it.

July 23: Jessica Mitford died on this day in 1996.

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