Sunday, 23 May 2010

War and Peace. By Leo Tolstoy

War and Peace

Leo Tolstoy

Wordsworth Classics (This edition published in 1993)
It does not say who's the translator, except to mention on the blurb that 'this translation is the one that recieved Tolstoy's approval'.

There is also a brief introduction to the book, and a very brief biography of Tolstoy.

In a piece 'Some words about War and Peace', written in 1868 (after publication of the novel) and appended to this book, Tolstoy himself does not classify the book as history, epic or novel. In truth, it is all of these. Napolean's Russian campaign forms not just the backdrop to the events described but also merits a great deal of specific description from Tolstoy, together with large doses of historical theory. There are a huge number of characters, a huge number of events, viewpoints, philosphical discussions, etc., etc. Russian society (the very upper class Russian society) is depicted in great detail, mostly sympathetically, but some of the characters do come in for criticism. It is difficult to summarize the book (980 closely printed - 8 point type! - pages of it!), and to discuss it in detail. Anyway a Google search will fetch more than 43 million references. What I add here is only some impressions the book has left behind in me.

Firstly, there are several scenes that come to my mind as I think about the book. Here I will list them in no particular order (certainly not chronological).
1. The soiree (a kind of Page 3 party) at Anna Scherer's in Petersburg which opens the book and which introduces many of the characters.
2. At a drunken party Dolokhov gets Pierre (one of the main characters) to tie a policeman to a bear and throw them into the river
3. Dolokhov induces Nicholas Rostov (another important character) to gamble away 40,000 roubles of his father's ill-affordable money
4. Dolokhov and Nicholas have duel, which ends in Nicholas wounding and almost killing Dolokhov.
5. Some scenes from the Battle of Austerlitz, in which the combined Russian and Austrian army is defeated by Napoleon (Tolstoy's villian). A very young Prince Andrew Bolkonski is adjutant to General Kutuzov (Tolstoy's hero) and has his first taste of battle during which he is wounded and left unconscious on the battlefield, and is actually rescued by Napolean and well treated by him.
6. Pierre joins the Freemasons - his induction ceremony is described in detail.
7. The hunt organized by Count Rostov at their estate, in which Nicholas and Natasha Rostov take part.
8. The battle of Borodino, just outside of Moscow, in which Napoleon defeats the Russian army lead by Kutuzov, though Tolstoy presents it as a 'strategic' withdrawal by Kutuzov.
9. Pierre wanders through a burning Moscow, doing what he can to save property and lives. He is arrested by the French army as an arsonist.
10. In prison, Pierre meets an elderly peasant, who is the only sympathetic character of that class in the book.
11. Pierre is an illegitimate son of Prince Bezhukhov who inherits all the wealth against the wishes of the legitimate Princess. The death scene of the Prince, with the anxiety of the rest of the family regarding the inheritance is one of the memorable scenes.
12.Pierre tries to free the serfs on his estate and settle them with farms and jobs of their own, but his efforts come to nought because the feudal system is too strongly woven into the society and many intermediaries (priests and foremen, for example) undermine the project.
13. Andrew Bolkonski's strict, rather nasty father dies.
14. Andrew's love affair with Natasha Rostov, which comes to an abrupt end when she is seduced by Dolokhov and almost succeeds in eloping with him, but is prevented just in time.
15. Andrew is wounded in the Battle of Borodino, is evacuated to Moscow, and then joins the Rostovs who are fleeing to the the provinces before the city is occupied by Napoleon and his army.
16. Andrew dies of his wound. His death scene is marvellous, with a description of how Andrew loses all feeling, but simply speaks and moves in the way expected of him, without any emotions.
17. Young Petya Rostov is killed in a battle, unecessary according to Tolstoy, since the French are fleeing Russia anyway.

Secondly, the entire book pushes two of Tolstoy's closely held beliefs about History in general and the roles of Napoleon and Kutuzov in particular. About History. Tolstoy completely rubbishes the idea that individual heroes/leaders/writers or their ideas are responsible. He does not even agree that social causes such as Feudalism or better education or natural causes such as drought, etc. are responsible for historical events. He seems to substitute all this some kind of mysterious 'destiny' - whatever happens, happens because it had to be so, and not because someone or some idea or some event made those things happen. Personally I cannot accept this. Just consider the following question - if Napoleon had not been born, would there have been some other equivalent leader, and would the events have happened in almost the same way? Also consider for example the 'butterfly effect'.

The other point Tolstoy constantly pushes is that Napoleon is no genius, no great General, just a lucky (presumably very lucky) fool, who got his way until he came up against Kutuzov. According to Tolstoy, Kutuzov has been roundly abused by all historians, and even by most of his contemporaries for losing the battle of Austerlitz, for losing the battle of Borodino, for abandoning Moscow, and a few months later for failing to pursue the fleeing French army and destroying it and capturing Napoleon. Tolstoy makes out that all these events (except maybe Austerlitz, where the probem was the Austrian army, not the Russian one) were actually planned and executed in exactly the way they happened by Kutuzov, who forsaw that any other plan might lead to immense losses for the Russian army and the Russian people. This is not believable. Tolstoy's writing is unfortunately, for some reason not clear to me, tendentious and prejudiced.

Finally, overall I like the book, and am happy I spent about two months reading it. I like the way Tolstoy ignores conventions and writes now about individual people (mainly the Bolkonski, Rostov and Bezhukov families - like a soap opera), now talks about historical figures (like Napoleon and Tsar Alexander I and many of the generals and diplomats), and now just discusses history and the historical significance of the events. He sometimes takes an overall view of history; sometimes a broad view of some historical event, usually a battle, or the burning of Moscow; sometimes gives a ground-level desription of the event; and sometimes a description a individual feelings and hurts and passions. There is immense detail about Russian upper class life, and from the point of view of literature, there is no complaint at all to make - i.e. if the book is seen as a novel.

But as a history, it fails, because Tolstoy is not fair enough to other views of history, and seems to have almost a religious urge to make his readers see his point of view of history as destiny. Another major complaint I personally have against the book is his concentration on the upper class feudal view. He appears to have absolutely no clue about (or at least he doesn't write about) the lives of the peasants, the serfs, the small tradesmen, the govt. officials, the foot soldiers, in fact the vast majority of the population. This despite the fact that he believes that unless all these people act in a certain way, history will not happen, not by the acts of individuals. War and Peace is certainly not a Howard Zinn-like 'A People's History of the Napoleonic campaign", and doesn't set out to be one. But ignoring 99% of the people involved hardly makes the book representational of those times.

Final word: I would like to read the book again, but not for many years, and the next time I hope I get a more comfortable print (maybe Kindle?)

A few quotes:

Page 289, Book V Chap. VI "What was needed for sucess in the service was not effort or work or courage or perserverance, but only the knowledge of how to get on with those who can grant rewards"

Page 425, Book VII Chap. X "...does it ever happen to you feel as if there were nothing more the come - nothing; that everything good is past? And to feel not exactly dull, but sad?" - Natasha Rostov, 16 years old.

Pgae 852 Book XIV Chap. XII "...Pierre had learned...that man is created for happiness, that happiness is within him, in the satisfaction of simple human needs, and that all unhappiness arises not from privation but superfluity."

Page 861 Book XIV Chap. XVIII "There is no greatness where simplicity truth and goodness are absent."

Page 888 Book XV Chap. XII "He felt like a man who, after straining his eyes to see into the far distance, finds what he sought at his very feet."

Page 908 Epilogue I Chapter I "If we admit that human life can be ruled by reason, the possibility of life is destroyed."

Page 932 Epilogue I Chapter XII "The most expensive luxury [is] the kind of life that can be changed any moment"

Page 968 Epilogue II Chapter IX "The farther I go back in memory,...the more doubtful becomes my belief in the freedom of my actions."