“The totality of causes of phenomena is inaccessible to the human mind. But the need to seek causes has been put into the soul of man. And the human mind, without grasping in their countlessness and complexity the conditions of phenomena, of which each separately may appear as a cause, takes hold of the first, most comprehensible approximation and says: here is the cause.”
-Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy is, along with Anna Karenina, his most famous oeuvre. In this magnum opus, Tolstoy smoothly intertwines history and philosophy. In fact, significant portions of the story are devoted to just philosophical debates about the occurrences of phenomena and analyses of flaws in human nature. It might seem at a whopping 1200+ pages that Tolstoy rants on and on meaninglessly about senseless topics. However, if anything, Tolstoy elaborates on very much sensible topics — if anything, he created this book not just for chronicling history, but also to debate and philosophize on philosophy (pardon the redundancy).
This book takes place during the Napoleonic Wars (1805 – 1812) in Russia and centers on four Russian aristocratic families: the Rostovs, the Bolkonskys, the Kuragins, and the Bezukhovs. It starts amidst an aristocratic soirée hosted by Anna Pavlovna Scherer, the Maid of Honor to Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna, mother of the then-Tsar Alexander I. The main topic of discussion was inevitably the Napoleonic Wars, as Napoleon’s conquest to conquer Europe was approaching Russia and its allies. Napoleon’s army was then the largest and most powerful in the world. Simultaneously, there was talk of Count Kirill Bezukhov, the richest man in Russia, being on his deathbed, and to whom he will bequeath his wealth, since he has numerous illegitimate children. The top candidate is currently Pierre Bezukhov, who recently completed his education abroad and returned to Russia, but is socially awkward. From thence, the book unwinds into documenting the battles of the Napoleonic Wars and the life of the four aforementioned families.
The characters are personally my favorite in all of literature, and their personalities encompass a very vast spectrum. However, the character list is overwhelmingly long: 36 characters! And those are merely the main characters! After a certain point, especially during the battles, there are literally multitudes of characters which render it difficult to keep up with. Nonetheless, Tolstoy very brilliantly crafted these characters to include literally virtually every aspect of human nature. One good example of this would be the seduction of Natasha by Anatole because, notwithstanding Natasha’s already being in a relationship, she finds Anatole very enchanting and thus abandons her fiancé for Anatole. I can, or durst I say most people can, relate to Natasha’s dilemma and eventual action. It’s a typical plot twist in some romance stories.
Personally, my favorite character is Pierre. He, despite being socially awkward and overweight, undergoes the biggest and most dramatic transformation among all the characters. To Pierre, religion was nonexistent; he was atheist. One day, though, he meets a man who wholly changed his perspective on God, spirituality, and philosophy. He eventually becomes a Freemason to acquaint himself more with religion and commences his journey to discover the true meaning of life and human existence. His true epiphany, however, is when he is captured by the French as a prisoner of war. It is then when he realizes the purpose of life — essentially the meaning of human existence. His transformation from an ignorant atheist to a philosophical intellect is, personally, the zenith of all metamorphoses in War and Peace.
Tolstoy wrote two percent of War and Peace in French, and a few lines in German. French is only used as a medium of conversation among the four families and in Napoleon’s army. The usage of French is to depict the education and wealth — essentially the high social class — of the five families. It was not uncommon for aristocrats during the early 19th century to speak French. German was only used in conversations with Austrians and Prussians, Russia’s allies during the Wars.
I read the Vintage Classics edition translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. They are distinguished, award-winning translators of classic Russian literature. Now, there are plenty of people who don’t find their translations appealing chiefly due to their choice of words. Although I’m not fluent in Russian, nor have I read any other translations of War and Peace, I’ll have to say this translation reads smoothly and pleasingly. Yes, I do agree to a certain degree about the choice of words being unorthodox, but it can easily be compensated for with a dictionary. Some pluses of this edition include robust footnotes to clarify some of Tolstoy’s allusions, a character list (as aforementioned), a substantive introduction, and an appendix containing Tolstoy’s motives for writing War and Peace, written by Tolstoy himself. The paper quality is aesthetically pleasing to both view and touch and the book is quite sturdy. The super bonus, however, is the preservation of the original French. Rather than completely excising it or translating it with the Russian, Pevear and Volokhonsky chose to preserve the original French, and provide the translations as footnotes. All in all, this is a solid edition.
I would recommend this book to people who love war, history, and philosophy.