Review: War and Peace

War and PeaceLeo Tolstoy, War and Peace (trans. Anthony Briggs)

“Set against the sweeping panoply of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, War and Peace — presented here in the first new English translation in forty years — is often considered the greatest novel ever written. At its center are Pierre Bezukhov, searching for meaning in his life; cynical Prince Andrei, ennobled by wartime suffering; and Natasha Rostov, whose impulsiveness threatens to destroy her happiness. As Tolstoy follows the changing fortunes of his characters, he crafts a view of humanity that is both epic and intimate and that continues to define fiction at its most resplendent.” (Summary from Amazon.)

It took me more than three months to read this book, and I’m still not quite sure what to make of it. I feel a bit presumptuous in criticizing such a well-known classic, but certain parts of the novel worked for me much more than others. There’s a lot of social comedy in this book, which I loved! And I find the Napoleonic era fascinating, although I’ve only been exposed to it from a British point of view, so it was interesting to see that conflict from a Russian perspective. However, there are reasons most people never finish this book, and those reasons are: the overly long, mind-numbingly tedious descriptions of battles; philosophical digressions; and tirades about the right and wrong way to study history. I do think this book is worth reading once, but I’m glad I don’t ever have to read it again!

I also want to note that I liked the Briggs translation; it’s not as word-for-word accurate as the Pevear-Volokhonsky translation is rumored to be, but I suspect it’s more readable. Instead of footnoting the long French passages, Briggs just translates them directly into English, although he does note when certain characters are speaking French. I actually preferred this, but some readers may not. Also, the Briggs translation is pretty aggressively British; for example, some of the lower-class soldiers have Cockney accents! Again, I didn’t mind this, but I can see how others might. All in all, I’d recommend this translation for casual readers but maybe not for serious scholars.

Review: Conquest

Juliet Barker, Conquest: The English Kingdom of France 1417-1450

The title of this nonfiction work is pretty self-explanatory: Barker narrates the progress of the Hundred Years’ War starting shortly after Henry V’s victory at Agincourt. She describes the major battles and sieges in meticulous detail, while also painting a picture of the broader diplomatic situation between England and France. The book depicts the major players during this phase of the Hundred Years’ War, including Henry V of England; the Duke of Bedford, Henry’s brother and the chief military leader in France; Charles VII of France; the Duke of Burgundy, whose relationship with the English informed much of the course of the war; and Joan of Arc. Ultimately, Barker analyzes the course of events and offers an explanation for why England eventually lost its claim to the crown of France.

Honestly, this is a book you’re only going to like if you’re already interested in the subject matter. Personally I’ve always been fascinated by the Middle Ages; I’d also previously read Juliet Barker’s Agincourt, so in some ways I was the ideal audience for this book. Barker is a good writer, and this book appears meticulously researched. The book is told more from the British perspective than the French; I wouldn’t necessarily call it a pro-British bias, but there is definitely more time spent on England than on France, perhaps because of the availability of sources. I will say that I struggled at some points because of the repetitive nature of events (“then X castle was besieged and taken by the English, and then the French got mad and took it back,” etc.). But I would definitely recommend this book as a source for anyone studying the period. For someone with less knowledge of or interest in the late Middle Ages, I’d recommend Agincourt instead.