Having read so much Russian literature I finally decided it was time to read War and Peace despite misgivings about the size and the importance of the novel. I found that there isn’t just one authoritative text – there was the original serialised version which was first published in 1865 based on Tolstoy’s first drafts of 1863. However, Tolstoy wasn’t happy with this version and decided to make it broader in scope – so he did additional research and a number of versions appeared over the coming years and these were much larger with a different ending. What causes difficulty in determining an authoritative version is that Tolstoy lost interest in the novel and so his wife Sophia kept adding and editing over the years with many more different renderings.
I decided to read the original version which some commentators have described as less war and more peace. There is something special about a first draft – it can be seen as a snapshot of something a bit more raw before things get too considered.
It was good to read this impression first. The novel really was great – I read it quickly – in nine days, the translation was smooth and it felt cohesive. The text did seem quite a ‘light’ read at times – it didn’t require too much discipline as the story carried me along and I just kept on reading. There were some excellent characters and the narrator’s occasional intrusions were very welcome to break up the plot. The writing was masterful and controlled – Tolstoy really knew what he was doing. Most of all I like the fact that the characters change and develop as the novel progresses – you can see personalities react in response to the events of the novel. As a result, I have found myself thinking about the various characters and relationships since finishing. There was also much left unsaid in this version in both the backstory and future events. I suspect Tolstoy, in broadening his scope in the later versions, may have left less to the imagination – in the same way that George Lucas did in editing his own ‘epic’ creation – which is a pity.
The main idea that interested me was Tolstoy’s argument that history is created by movements of people. Only afterwards, with the benefit of hindsight, do historians reevaluate and then paint in broad brushstrokes the individuals that supposedly shape history. Why do they do this? Maybe it is a basic human desire to prove that geniuses exist that can alter the path of history and/or mankind, and the knowledge of these higher beings gives some comfort. The wise are those that are aware of the irrational flow of events and move with it as shown by the actions of the commander Bagration early on in the novel.
As I really did enjoy the novel I find myself curious about the longer more epic version and I think I will have to read it. It is quite ridiculous really – because I read the original version of one of the longest novels ever written, I now have to read an even longer version. Maybe in March next year I will become a mad March hare and read about more war and less peace.
Soundtrack: Belle & Sebastian – I Fought in a War.