One-Minute Book Reviews

January 9, 2008

A One-Minute Book Review of Leo Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’

Scaling the Mount Everest of literature through print and audio editions

War and Peace. By Leo Tolstoy. Translated by Constance Garnett. Modern Library, 1,386 pages, $24.95.

By Janice Harayda

Reading War and Peace is like walking into a large cocktail party at which you don’t know anybody until, hours later, Napoleon turns up fresh from his victory in the Battle of Austerlitz. How do you get your bearings on a novel that has more than 500 characters and, even in the relatively compact Modern Library edition, 1,386 pages?

More than most masterpieces, War and Peace asks you to make a leap of faith and repays the effort. The characters who at first swarm at you in a mob soon coalesce into sets. Chief among them are three well-to-do families – the Rostovs, the Bezuhovs and the Bolkonskys – whose fates rise and fall in the years just before and after Napoleon’s disastrous march on Moscow in the winter of 1812.

Leo Tolstoy sets their stories against a teeming panorama of Russian history as he develops the fatalistic theme that free will is an illusion. The choices people make reflect powerful historical forces: The higher someone’s social standing, “the more conspicuous is the inevitability and predestination of every act he commits.”

Tolstoy’s fondness for this theme involves digressions that have defeated many readers. Listening to an unabridged audio edition may help you ride out the philosophical and historical detours from the plot. A recorded version will also give you pronunciations of those 500 Russian or other names, and could add far drama to your commute than any all-news radio station. The radio may give you reports of one-alarm blazes in dumpsters. Tolstoy gives you: “The valet on going in informed the count that Moscow was on fire.”

Best line: The first, a line of dialogue at a party: “Well, Prince, Genoa and Lucca are now no more than private estates of the Bonaparte family.” This isn’t nearly as famous as the first line Anna Karenina (“Happy families are all alike …”). But it has its own genius. Part of it is that it reates the impression that you are eavesdropping with tantalizing effects.

Worst line: Tolstoy elaborates on his view of history and free will in the second of two epilogues in the book: “Napoleon could not command a campaign against Russia, and never did command it.” Is that clear? If not, he adds: “Our false conception that the command that precedes an event is the cause of an event is due to the fact that when the event has taken place and those few out of thousands of commands, which happen to be consistent with the course of events, are carried out, we forget those which were not, because they could not be carried out.”

Caveat lector: This review uses the Russian spellings in the Constance Garnett translation in the 1994 Modern Library hardcover edition Some scholars favor more recent translations. A newer Modern Library edition has a foreword by A. N. Wilson.

Published: 1869

Furthermore: Unabridged audio editions of War and Peace are available from Audible

You can also follow Janice Harayda on Twitter at

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.


  1. Janice. The Garnett translations are stilted. I recommend the Pevear translation. He and
    Volkonsky are superb tranlators and stylists.

    david garnett

    Comment by grinite1 — January 21, 2008 @ 12:10 am | Reply

  2. David,
    Are you related to Constance Garnett?

    I’m familiar with the objections to the CG translations and to some of the others. But that’s the one I’ve read, more than once. And if I waited until I had time to read the Pevear/Volkonsky translation to write about “War and Peace” — much as I would love to read it someday — I might be living in an Old Bloggers’ Home by then. It’s one of the hazards of posting almost every day …

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — January 21, 2008 @ 12:50 am | Reply

  3. *chuckle* I think it’s very brave of you to do a one-minute review of W&P, but as usual you have captured the essence!
    I think David might be right, though…I tried twice to read W&P using other translations and gave up. I breezed through the Pevear/Volkonsky and really enjoyed it.

    Comment by Lisa Hill — June 18, 2010 @ 7:31 pm | Reply

    • Believe it or not, I had Richard Pevear as my professor for a freshman English class in the literature of the Spanish Civil War at the University of New Hampshire.

      He was a great teacher, and I’ve always wanted to read one of his translations, so I’m grateful for your comments on them. Thanks!

      Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — June 18, 2010 @ 7:57 pm | Reply

  4. Oh, Janice, you might be just the person to suggest titles I could read before going to Spain for the first time later this year?

    Comment by Lisa Hill — June 19, 2010 @ 2:07 am | Reply

    • Strange that you asked this now: I have just been talking on Twitter about George Orwell’s great Homage to Catalonia, his personal account of fighting against Franco in the Spanish Civil War. Chapter 12 has an exciting story of how Orwell got shot through the neck and lived.

      Homage to Catalonia is not a travel book: closer to memoir. But Richard Pevear assigned it in that literature of the Spanish Civil War class, and I’ve always been grateful. Pevear also assigned Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, maybe the best modern classic about Spain.

      Bon Voyage!

      Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — June 19, 2010 @ 9:52 am | Reply

  5. Ah yes, I have read both of those and admired them greatly. I read Homage years ago when I was having my read-everything-Orwell wrote phase, and again not long ago when we started planning our trip; I discovered FWTBT first by a chance selection of it as an audio book and then buying a copy of it, a first edition, the rare one, which I found in a little country bookshop here.
    Do you know anything written by women? I suspect that they might have a different perspective…
    PS I’ll look for you on Twitter, now that I know you are there:)

    Comment by Lisa Hill — June 19, 2010 @ 10:01 pm | Reply

    • Can’t think of any by women, but you might look at Chris Stewart’s Driving Over Lemons: An Optimist in Spain (an English bestseller and “enchanting memoir,” according to PW). I haven’t read it but did enjoy an excerpt from the sequel, A Parrot in the Pepper Tree, collected in A House Somewhere. Sound as though you’re well-prepared for the trip!

      Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — June 20, 2010 @ 1:41 pm | Reply

  6. Thanks, Janice, I’ll check it out.
    But Ghosts of Spain, Travels through a Country’s Hidden Past by Giles Tremlett arrived tonight – must read that first!

    Comment by Lisa Hill — June 21, 2010 @ 6:11 am | Reply

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