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on 1 July 2005
How does one do justice to a work as monumental and vast as Tolstoy's 'War and Peace' in the short space this review grants? Indeed, I toyed with the idea of trying to encapsulate this epic work in 100 words, but failed. I do know of one review of 'War and Peace' that was even shorter; it read:
Perhaps that does encapsulate it. Tolstoy would have probably respected such as description, for, as verbose as he and other Russia novelists seemed to be (given a purely page-count analysis), he appreciated brevity and essentialism in the description.
This holds true for 'War and Peace'. I was amazed at the lack of what one might hold to be extraneous detailing in the text -- I would have expected long, drawn out and tedious renderings of situations, emotions or events, but such is not the case.
In Tolstoy's following of the Rostovs (poor country gentry) and the Bolkonskis (higher society), and a hero Pierre Bezuhkov, he illustrates basic truths in the way life is lived, and the way it ought to be lived. Tolstoy was a moralist, but no mystic in his writing (unusually so, given his general mystical sentiments in life). He felt it absolutely essential that the novelist should tell the truth, and mystical digressions lead away from that. His characters grow as we watch, and he recounts details that are important (such as Natasha and her doll as a child, and then later Natasha going to church -- these are two ages of the same person, to be sure, but not a simple updating of the character, as if an actress wearing a different costume).
Each circumstance, the day-to-day conversations and events, the family interactions, their dealing with life and success and death and defeat, all have an uncanny ring of truth about them. The family resemblance of characters leap off the page: the Rostovs all have a common element (beyond the basic social class attributes), and likewise there is and intangible similarity between Prince Andrei and his father.
'War and Peace' has been described as the Illiad and the Odyssey of the Russian people, with just cause. This is a work that speaks to the meaning and hope of life. His realism forced him to strip away much of the glorification of war and show the realities. Yet Tolstoy presents the events of 1812 as a moral crusade, and that the Russians won against the Napoleonic onslaught because of their adherence to simple, good and true virtues (as much as they relied on the snow to come to their defence). Even the upper classes, the urbane, wealthy and sophisticated Russians in 'War and Peace' have an underlying simplicity (contrasting to the French, and other foreigners', complexity and slyness) that gives them the moral upper hand.
One almost hears the echo of 'Simple Gifts' in this Russian epic:
Tis a gift to be simple...
Yet this is not a stupid or ignorant simplicity. It is a wise state of being. One could imagine Tolstoy being at home with the philosophies of Emerson and Thoreau, and while he might sympathise with Thomas Carlyle in moral and political terms, he would be opposed to his historical hero-worshipful stance, preferring to think of the collective of humanity as the true agent and mover in history.
'War and Peace' is often held up as an example of a long book that nobody can read. This is rubbish. I have three editions, each of which is fewer than 1500 pages (yes, I know that is quite a lot), fewer pages than the Bible, fewer pages than some anthologies of modern novelists. It is long, there is no denying that. But it can be read, and I contend, given the right translation, one might become so enthralled that one might wish it were longer. The Modern Library Edition is just such a translation.