It’s one of the biggest clichés for the literary minded: I’m finally going to read War and Peace. Ever since I read an ecstatic review of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s translation of Tolstoy’s famous doorstop, I’ve been eyeing copies at my local bookstore. In January, I made the leap, slightly to my wife’s scorn, and embarked on the journey.
Dear reader, if you haven’t read War and Peace, rush to your nearest bookstore and get the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation immediately. It’s a wonderful, gripping read (excepting part two of the epilogue). The characters will stay with you forever, the love stories are as good as any, the court and political intrigues provide a glimpse into a vanished society and the battle scenes have never been bettered. It has tremendous resonance for our (and I expect any) time.
Read the scenes at the battle of Borodino or Schöngrabern, for example. Tolstoy portrays vividly how strategies and plans in the mess and confusion of battle count for very little. Events take their own course, and commanders have decidedly little effect on the outcome. In the contest between Napoleon and Kutuzov, Kutuzov ultimately triumphs precisely because he recognizes the limits of his power and influence. He is a man largely without illusion.
In the swirling, confusing turmoil of our time, we’d do well to take Tolstoy’s counsel. Strategies and carefully laid plans are all well and good, but events are likely to render them irrelevant. We need our Kutuzovs rather than our Napoleons.
One caution: it truly is annoying reading a 1,300-page book in bed. I regularly wished for a way to cut my volume up into its separate books.