War and Peace

Written by Leo Tolstoy (trans. Anthony Briggs)
Review by Audrey Braver

Arguably the greatest literary masterpiece, War and Peace is an amazing blend of philosophy, history, spirituality and love told through two families, the Rostovs and the Bolkonskys. The Rostovs personify the Russian spirit. Count Rostov, a generous, kind spendthrift, can deny his family nothing. His countess is a warm, loving, overindulged woman. These characteristics are reflected in their children, while the austere Bolkonskys are duty bound. As normal human beings do, the three main characters grow, expand, and change over the course of fifteen years (1805-1820) beginning when Natasha Rostov is a young girl. It is a joy to watch her evolve into a beautiful, mature woman who loves two men: Prince Andrey Bolkonsky, an elegant, aristocratic army officer, and his friend, Count Pierre Bezukhov, a bear of a man who seeks answers to life in Freemasonry, mysticism, and superstition, and finally finding them in the philosophy of Platon Karatayev, an illiterate peasant soldier. Andrey and Pierre argue the plight of the peasants, the rights of the aristocracy, and the merits of war, mirroring Tolstoy’s own reflections. The main focus is Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and his ignominious retreat.

Reading War and Peace isn’t casual commuter fare. There are hundreds of characters and voluminous historical notes. Far from a groan, it deserves to be approached as a lavish feast with many varied courses. It has everything: multidimensional characters, descriptive battle scenes, social significance, and political maneuverings told from the perspective of hindsight. Anthony Briggs’s new translation is, perhaps, a purer version than we have seen heretofore, comparing favorably with the seventy-five-year-old Maud translation that had the benefit of Tolstoy’s input. There are some convoluted sentences better suited to the nineteenth century than the twenty-first. However, Briggs has managed to keep the narrative interesting, free-flowing, and easy to read.