the 1960 Modern Library dust jacket for War and Peace

War and Peace (Война и мир)

  • Author:  Leo Tolstoy  (1828  –  1910)
  • Rank:  #61
  • Published:  1869
  • Publisher:  Russkii Vestnik
  • Pages:  1273  (Pevear / Volokhonsky translation)
  • First Line:  ” ‘Eh bien, mon prince, Gênes et Lucques ne sont plus que des apanages, des estates, de la famille Buonaparte.’ ”  (Well, my prince, Genoa and Lucca are now no more than possessions, estates, of the Buonaparte family.)
  • Last Line:  “In the first case, the need was to renounce the consciousness of a nonexistent immobility in space and recognize a movement we do not feel; in the present case, it is just as necessary to renounce a nonexistent freedom and recognize a dependence we do not feel.”
  • ML Edition:  MLG #1 – three dust jackets  (1937, 1960, 1969); current Modern Library paperback  (all ML versions are the Constant Garnett translation)
  • Film:  1956  (***); 1968  (***.5)
  • First Read:  July, 1996

The Novel: The first line is left in French for a good reason.  It says so much more about the way Tolstoy wrote the book, about his intentions for the book and what it had to say when left in French.  After all, it was in French in the original Russian.  Most Russian aristocrats spoke and wrote French.  And here we open with a line in French about the imperial ambitions of the French, those ambitions that would eventually overrun Russia itself in bloody war.  The novel’s title is War and Peace, but it is the oncoming war, the inevitability of the conflict and its bloody consequences whose shadow lays across the entire book.

There is an enormous cast of characters in this work and several families bear the main bulk of the story, but for all intents and purposes, this is the novel of one man, Pierre, the bastard son of a Count, wasting his time at the beginning of the novel, who finds himself by the end, married to the beautiful woman Natasha, who has grown from this: “The dark-eyed, big-mouthed, not beautiful, but lively girl, with her child’s bare shoulders popping out of her bodice from running fast, with her black ringlets all thrown back, her thin, bare arms, her little legs in lace-trimmed knickers and low shoes, was at that sweet age when a girl is no longer a child, but the child is not yet a young lady.” to this: “in those rare moments when the former fire was kindled in her developed, beautiful body, she was still more attractive than before.”  While the men revolve in their love for Natasha and in her affections for them through the story, the story really does belong to Pierre.  He begins as a man with great admiration for Napoleon, eventually hatches a plot to assassinate him, but manages to survive the war and rid himself of his adulterous wife and earn the love of Natasha.  In the middle of it all, in some of the most interesting passages in the novel, he meets a mason and then becomes involved in the organization.  And in the end, the story always seems to come back to him: “his life, as he looked at it, had no meaning as a separate life.  It had meaning only as a part of the whole, which he constantly sensed.”

With Tolstoy’s gift for language is magnificent, it is three things that come together to primarily make War and Peace a novel that has been hailed for 140 years as one of the greatest novels, if not the greatest novel ever written.  The first is the epic scope of the story, the way it handles hundreds of characters, tells the story across the length of a decade and intertwines five different families.  Yet, the second is that he never loses sight of wonderful small little details: “As happens with perfectly attractive women, her flaw – a short lip and half opened mouth – seemed her special, personal beauty.”  It is his ability to properly balance the epic scope of the story with the intimate details that keeps it from losing its focus as so many epic longer works do (most notably Les Miserables).  The third detail is the humanism ever present in all of Tolstoy’s work.  There have been many novelists who have been worshiped in one manner or another.  It is the rare one who actually becomes the basis for an entire colony who devote themselves to his way of thought, his focus for life.

Throughout the novel, we get glimpses of the human within, such as when Prince Andrei dies, and with simple stark clarity that Tolstoy acknowledges the grief around him: “they did not weep from their personal grief; they wept from a reverent emotion that came over their souls before the awareness of the simple and solemn mystery of death that been accomplished before them.”  There is so much more to the novel, so many large storylines, so many small details.  You could turn to almost any page in the book and get lost in the characters and their lives and the language which captures them.

Note:  All quotes are from the Richard Pevear / Larissa Volokhonsky translation © 2007.  When going back to re-read the Russian classics, I have invariably read their translations for anything which exists.  One of the joys of reading something that is translated is that if you read it again, you can read a different translation and it’s kind of like reading it again for the first time.

the mediocre 1956 version of War and Peace

The Film:  1956 version (dir. King Vidor)

“I wish Stevens would hold Giant back a year so I can have a crack at an Oscar,” King Vidor said, back in 1956 (Inside Oscar, p 271).  It wasn’t the most unrealistic thought.  Vidor would end up getting nominated for not only the Oscar, but also the Directors Guild and the Golden Globe.  He would end up losing all three (though the film would get nominated for Best Picture – Drama at the Globes).  It is perhaps, a measure of the respect that all the groups held for Vidor, a director for over 40 years reaching the end of his career who had never won an Oscar (in five nominations).  The film is done on an epic scale, with great sets, wonderful costumes (it received Oscar nominations for both and they were well-earned) and large battles on a grandiose scale.

Unfortunately, it still had a story to tell and one of the jobs of directors is to direct the actors, and from the evidence, there clearly wasn’t a whole lot going on there.  Audrey Hepburn (way too old to play Natasha in the early parts, but in this film, not as much time seems to go by) is oddly flat and while Henry Fonda is adequate for most of the film, at one point, he does seem to lose all ability and give the worst line reading of his entire career (“Damn you, Napoleon.  Damn you to hell.”).  It was like someone gave them the cliff’s notes version of the book and asked them to film that, but remembered to fund the film well enough to provide the proper amount of spectacle.  Granted, whenever you make a film version of a classic novel, especially one as long as War and Peace, there must be a certain amount of cutting.  But so much is lost here in the relationships and the characters that all we get are a few drawing room scenes and the battles and then it all seems to be over.  There is nothing of the actual human drama that makes this such a great work of literature.  They knew that the war would draw in viewers.  But they forgot that the peace is what gave it depth.

the epic 1968 Soviet version of War and Peace

1968 version (dir. Sergei Bondarchuk)

Now, clearly, one of the ways of getting around the problem of cutting too much is to give your film an epic length, like, say, seven hours.  That is the decision made by Sergei Bondarchuk, made over the course of seven years at, supposedly, a cost of $100 million.  But it all shows in the production.  The costumes are not as showy as the Vidor production, but they seem so much more real, perhaps because this was a Soviet production, made in many of the places listed in the novel and a great call for nationalistic pride (it was the first ever Soviet film nominated for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars, which it won).

Bondarchuk not only gives the film the same sumptuous costumes and sets (it was nominated for Best Art Direction at the Oscars as well), and the battles on an even more epic scale (filmed in the same locations that the actual battles take place), but the length of the film allows him to give the story, the characters, the majesty of the novel, the depth that it needs.  We are not bogged down by being forced to focus on certain characters because they are being played by big Hollywood stars.  Instead, we can focus on the characters themselves, get all those wonderful moments (the moment where Natasha first kisses Boris is nearly word for word exactly as it is in the book – right down to the descriptions of the rooms).  Because of the time it took to make the film, we also get a Natasha who actually starts as a young girl and matures into a young woman.  The story grows around her.  Then there is Bondarchuk himself playing Pierre, beginning as much more of a milksop than Henry Fonda could ever be believable as, then maturing over the course of the film.  In this film, we actually feel the weight of the years and the war bearing down on all of these characters, but we also get the moments of peace.