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War And Peace
(Leo Tolstoy)

War and Peace is a huge tent of a novel that hangs off just a few poles, these being three main families: the Rostovs, the Bolkonskys and the Bezukovs. It is set at the time of Napoleon?s invasion of Russia, and the year 1812 is the primary axis around which the characters and events circle, and from which they derive their meaning. From this basic structure Tolstoy packs in every conceivable attribute of human nature, so that his novel has lost nothing with the passage of time, and every character and trait is as recognisable today as when the book was written. After all, war and peace are perennial seasons in human affairs, and all that has changed since the beginning of the nineteenth century is the technology.

The novel opens with the death of the old Prince Bezukov, a grandee of the previous regime and the richest man in Russia. Scandalously, he leaves all his money to his illegitimate son Pierre, who is widely regarded as a buffoon, and who is really the central character in the book. It is his spiritual and emotional development, as he experiences love and loss in the context of the war, that constitutes the main thread of the plot. Pierre socialises with the large and boisterous Rostov family in Moscow and the neurotic Bolkonskys on their estate at Bald Hills, where the elderly prince rules his small household autocratically. His son Prince Andrei is the flip side of Pierre, with his preoccupations with self-discipline and duty, and the two become firm friends. They are popularly regarded as representing the two sides of Tolstoy?s own character.

There are love affairs, scandals, duels and tragedies as members and friends of the three families interact in the first parts of the novel, but gradually all become sucked one way or another into the inferno of the Napoleonic war, and action moves away from the earlier concentration on individual interactions in the style of the nineteenth century novel of manners and into darker, more sweeping and philosophical climes as vast, impersonal forces are identified and observed dispassionately by the narrator.

The French army is a great beast obeying objective, almost mathematical laws, whose defeat and destruction are as foreseeable as the solution to an algebraic formula. The small people and their multitudinous affairs and preoccupations become absorbed like particles into the bodies of enormous forces, and Napoleon himself, despite his belief that he controls the course of events through the sheer force of his will, is as much at the mercy of these earth-moving energies as the humblest peasant.

The Russian military leader, Kutuzov, on the other hand, is fully aware of the nature of what is taking place, as he ignores popular opinion with its calls to stand and fight, and instead retreats before an enemy that he knows full well is projecting itself like a missile into a body ? Russia, and the Russian spirit ? that will in due course absorb and destroy it. He remarks time and again that events will take their course naturally, and the role of the Russian army is simply to allow them to do so. Borodino, Austerlitz and even the burning of Moscow are seen as simply events that had to happen in the natural order of things, though their descriptions in the book are unsurpassed. Kutuzov dies shortly after Napoleon is defeated, like a bee that has used its sting and is no longer needed.

Pierre?s experiences in all this ? especially his near-death by firing squad and his friendship with a simple serf, as a prisoner during the retreat from Moscow ? bring out the best in him. He finally ?finds himself? through pain. The Biblical exhortation ? ?Behold! I have refined thee, but not with silver. I have chosen thee in the furnace of affliction? ? may fairly be applied in his case, and in the end he comes through a better man and marries Natasha , the young Rostov princess he fell in love with earlier in the book.

No summary can do much justice to this great novel, because there are so many layers and strands in it, but at the same time it is not a sprawling book like some of that length: it is indeed tightly held together and the thrust toward the eventual conclusion is relentless.

I eventually, after many attempts over the years, managed to finish reading it from cover to cover recently, by doing one chapter a night in bed (the chapters themselves are quite short) for a year. I kept track of the action by simultaneously watching Sergei Bondarchuk?s version of the film with English subtitles, and must say that it is almost word-for-word faithful to the novel.

The best translation is generally agreed to be that by Louise and Aylmer Maude.

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