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 www.randomhouse.com/modernlibrary/. Some scholars favor more recent translations. A newer Modern Library edition has a foreword by A. N. Wilson.
Furthermore: Unabridged audio editions of War and Peace are available from Audible www.audible.com.
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