Leo Tolstoi’s novel “War and Peace” revived by Comédie Française and Radio France Culture
by Olivia Kroth
Leo Tolstoi’s immortal novel “War and Peace” will always remain of special interest to French readers due to its historical content about Napoleon’s lost war against the Russian Empire (1812-1815). In autumn 2014, Comédie Française and Radio France Culture offer an audio version. Every day, the public can listen for five minutes to actor Denis Podalydès reading half a chapter of the Russian novel in a French translation. The project will last for quite a while because “War and Peace” contains 2.000 pages.
“By choosing this work I hope to narrow the gap between those who have only heard of the title and those who have really read the book”, Denis Podalydès said in an interview with Le Figaro (17.10.2014, page 39). Of course, listening is easier than reading oneself but the actor’s expressive voice could motivate some listeners to start reading Tolstoi’s monumental novel themselves. They might discover how interesting the book is, or rather the two books, since Edition Gallimard has published the French version in two volumes of about 1.000 pages each.
The novel as stream
Denis Podalydès thinks that the novel “War and Peace” flows like a steady, broad stream and compares it to the Donau river. Russians might prefer a comparison to the Beresina river in the West of the Russian Empire (today: Belarus). It proved to be a river of fate for the fleeing French army. They had to cross the Beresina, while furious Russian peasants and Cossack light cavalry attacked them from behind. Leo Tolstoi wrote in the 4th chapter of the 4th part: “This passage, so often described, was only one of the steps on the way to the total destruction of the French army. After crossing the Beresina, the remains of this army fell into an increasingly lamentable state of misery.”
Cossack Light Cavalry:
German readers might remember that the Beresina became a river of fate for the retreating Nazi troops as well, in 1944. When the Wehrmacht’s soldiers tried to return home, they were mercilessly hunted and decimated by the victorious Soviet Red Army. So the Beresina proved to be a river of no return for invading foreign armies twice. Russians consider the Beresina river as a symbol of their victories.
Small and great history
Denis Podalydès sees a “perfect alchemy between small and great history” in Leo Tolstoi’s novel. Great historical events, as Napoleon’s invasion in the Russian Empire, the Battle of Borodino (1812), the burning of Moscow and Napoleon’s retreat, are intervowen with small historical events: marriages and divorces, childbirths and deaths in the Russian aristocratic families of the Bezoukov, Bolkonsky, Droubetskoi, Kouragin and Rostov. A large number of characters appear, among them high-ranking generals like Mikhail Kutuzov, the saviour of Russia.
Battle of Borodino (1812):
The historical figure of Mikhail Kutuzov
Mikhail Illarionovich Kutuzov (1745-1813) is considered to be one of the best Russian military leaders of the 18th century. He led the Imperial Army in the decisive Battle of Borodino, a village in Mozhaysky District of today’s Moscow Oblast. Mikhail Kutuzov decided to withdraw the Russian Imperial Army after the battle in order to save it as long as possible. This came at the price of losing Moscow, whose population had to be evacuated. Moscow was burned down on purpose so that Napoleon’s troops would find neither food nor water supplies in the devastated city.
The Battle of Borodino was the turning point in this war. A third of Napoleon’s soldiers were killed or wounded. By withdrawing the Russian Imperial Army Mikhail Kutuzov preserved its combat strength, eventually forcing Napoleon out of the country. Mikhail Kutuzov’s decision was ultimately right. In recognition, he was promoted to the rank of Field Marshal and awarded the title “His Serene Highness, Prince of Smolensk”.
Mikhail Kutuzov during the Battle of Borodino:
Mikhail Kutuzov was popular among the Russian troops. He was a brave man who looked out for his soldiers’ well-being. He strongly believed in the Russian Orthodox Church. Therefore the clergy regarded him highly, just like Vladimir Putin today. An obelisk in Borodino and a statue in Saint Petersburg commemorate Field Marshal Kutuzov. In addition, a memorial was erected in Moscow, in 1973, to honour his leadership in the Napoleonic War which is called the Patriotic War in Russia. An order of the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation is named after Field Marshal Kutuzov.
The literary figure of Mikhail Kutuzov
Leo Tolstoi shows him as genius and victor but in quite a different way than most historians do. The author characterizes him in the 2nd chapter of the 4th part in an unusual way: “Kutuzov’s merit did not consist in a clever strategic move, as many have said, but rather in the fact that he was the only one to comprehend the sense of the events.” The writer compares the French army to a wounded animal: “There, near Borodino, the wounded animal lay stretched out, where the hunter had left it. However, this animal was still alive. Suddenly it began to moan. The moaning indicated that the end was near. For this reason Lauriston sent Kutuzov an offer of peace”, which the Russian general declined.
Commemorative rouble coin:
Tolstoi’s beautiful language
The actor of Comédie Française admires Tolstoi’s beautiful language. He finds his style easy to read. Denis Podalydès says that he became sensitive about details like the rustling of fabric and clinking of glasses, while reading the text aloud. Some translators do not find Tolstoi’s language as easy as it sounds, though. “Tolstoi knows the traps of conscience better than anyone else”, translator Boris de Schloezer writes in his introduction to the French edition of Gallimard.
“Of course, Tolstoi confides in language, but he does not confide in reality as it appears to be. He knows that truth is not an unalterable fact. Truth contains fallacies and challenges the author to reveal what lies hidden under the surface.” Yet Boris de Schloezer acknowledges the simplicity of Leo Tolstoi’s style: “He writes in a simple, serious and effortless way, always choosing the direct method to express what he finds important to say. His style of writing is natural and spontaneous” (Leo Tolstoi, War and Peace, Tomes I and II, Edition Gallimard, “Préface” by Boris de Schloezer, page 10).
Retreating French Army (Painting by Vasily Vereshchagin):
For Anglophone readers it might also be a challenge to read and re-read this great work, written by Leo Tolstoi in the years 1863 to 1868. Surely every new reading will reveal new interesting details of “War and Peace”.
Soviet stamp of 1987 commemorating the Battle of Borodino:
Olivia Kroth: The journalist and author of four books lives in Moscow. Her blog: