War and Peace is the Russian Iliad. The battles are as epic, the forces as monumental, the vistas as wide. As Virginia Woolf wrote of Leo Tolstoy’s panoramic vision of his homeland during the Napoleonic invasions, ‘we feel we have been set on a mountain-top and had a telescope put into our hand entwined was Tolstoy’s masterpiece with the Russian psyche that despite a battering from the Bolshevik regime, which found the novel conservative and counter-revolutionary, Stalin refused to have it suppressed.
Above all it is one of the great books of the world, a captivating, wide-screen picture of the eternal conflicts of the human condition. Tolstoy’s canvas is immense: the corpse-strewn battlefields of Austerlitz and Borodino, the burning of Moscow, the retreat and capitulation of the Grande Armee. Entangled in ‘a strange delirium of war’ are the Rostov and the Bolkonsky families, and the brooding aristocrat Pierre Bezuhov – individuals swimming against the tide set in motion by ‘that Antichrist’ Napoleon. The commanding role is left to Russia The French never lose a major battle, but they succumb to the harshest of winters.
Tolstoy had fought in the Crimea and his writing reeks of the experience. The blood-curdling screams of a soldier as his leg is amputated; a drum beating the minutes before a prisoner is dragged in front of a firing squad; the raucous banter and gallows humour of the troops. His battle sequences are astonish lasting hundreds of pages, as the French and Russian armies snake their way across the map of Europe. But Tolstoy shows us how war infiltrates every corners of society. He takes us deep into life away from the front – soirees in St Petersburg palaces, glittering society dances, peasants tilling the land, the talk of the Russian elite, the strained partings and emotional reunions of husbands and wives, fathers and sons.
As a contemporary critic wrote, the result is ‘a complete picture of the Russia of that day; a complete picture of everything which people place their happiness and greatness, their grief and humiliation.’ This magnificent new leather-bound edition of War and Peace features the acclaimed translation of Rosemary Edmonds and the brilliantly distinctive illustrations of Feliks Topolski. Born in Poland, Topolski became one of Britain’s outstanding 20th-century artists, with a particular interest in capturing scenes of war. He produced more than 300 drawings in his highly idiosyncratic, swirling style for the Folio Society edition of 1971. They remain as timeless as Tolstoy page-turning prose.
‘There is unanimity in the decision that War and Peace is the world’s greatest novel’
Times Literary Supplement