This year I read the ultimate summer read, War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. But I’m a slow reader, so I got started in April--But I finished before the end of summer. I read the translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. The translation is so good that I seldom noticed that it was a translation. The conversation flows smoothly, for the most part, although there are occasional awkward expressions, mostly in the speech of Pierre, that left me wondering if this awkwardness is something reflected in the Russian original--after all, Pierre is an awkward character. Some of the descriptive passages, however, especially the battle scenes, have such vivid force that several pages seemed to disappear and I saw only the image created in my mind.
War and Peace is not a novel--at least that is what Tolstoy himself says in the appendix. It seems to me that it is two books shuffled together. One book contains Tolstoy’s reflections on history, specifically the history of Russia’s involvement with the wars of Napoleon. Using his descriptions of the various battles and strategies--or, more commonly, lack of strategies--Tolstoy shows that men go to war, win or lose battles, lie, steal, and kill because the mass of men are willing to do it, and for no other reason. Battles are won when men are willing to fight, battles are lost when they are not. The good leader, according to Tolstoy, is not the general who motivates men to follow, so much as it is the general who senses the spirit of the men and releases them, or gives them orders to do what they already are wanting to do.
Much of Tolsoy’s musings related to history are redundant and, well, boring. Repeatedly he tells us that history is not made by great men or great ideas. He never says outright (unless I missed it, and it would be easy to miss something in these several page ramblings on the philosophy of history), he never says what exactly does make history. His implication, however, throughout the novel is that it is the mass of the people. What people do, who they are willing to follow, what they are willing to do, these make history. Perhaps this was a profound thought--particularly in the middle of the nineteenth century. But I am neither a philosopher nor a historian. Next time I read War and Peace, and I do want to read it again some day, I think I will skim the reflections on the nature of history.
The most interesting and engaging part of War and Peace is the story--the part that could be called a novel. Here Tolstoy describes the lives and relationships of several aristocratic families in Moscow and St. Petersburg from the years 1805 to 1812. These wealthy, or apparently wealthy, men and women are all princes and princesses, counts and countesses. These are not common Russians, if fact among themselves they only speak French--Russian being considered too base a language for society. Large dialogs, or parts of dialogs, are in French (with translation provided at the bottom of the page). This is somewhat distracting for the monolingual reader, but it does go a long way toward creating a sense of the social distance that existed in Russian society at the beginning of the nineteenth century.
The story weaves in and out of the lives and loves of two young men, Pierre Bezu-khov and Andre Bol-konsky. Pierre is the illegitimate son of Count Kirill Vlad-i-mir-o-vich Bezu-khov, one of the richest men in Russia. Pierre is good hearted, but absent minded and socially clueless. Having spent most of his youth in foreign schools, he returns to Russia just before his father’s death to discover that he inherits his father’s entire fortune. Pierre quickly falls prey to an ambitious and flirtatious beauty named Helena who, soon after they are married, takes a lover whom Pierre wounds, almost accidentally, in a pistol duel. Helena and Pierre are separated. Helena settles in Petersburg where she is the center of the highest circle of social life; Pierre stays in Moscow and finds solace in Free Masonry and in trying to reform his estates along the lines of his new higher ideals.
Pierre’s best friend is Andre, the oldest son of Prince Nikolai Andre-evich Bol-konsky, a wealthy and severe reclusive land owner near Moscow. Andre is newly married and chaffing at the restraint marriage is putting on on his life. He is a zealot, a young officer who is excited by the prospect of war and in his first campaign against Napoleon in 1805, dreams of nothing else but to die gloriously in battle before the Tzar. Actual battle, however, turns out to be much less glorious than he had dreamed it would be. Commanders squabble, caring much more about positioning themselves for credit if things go well and avoiding blame if they don’t, than caring about the condition of their troops or the actual battle itself; troops are reduced to plundering to find food; reserve forces are not sent when they are needed, and in a particularly vivid scene, those who save the day go unheralded, but are rather reprimanded. Toward the end of the campaign, Andre finally gets his chance to be a hero. He with a few men charge a Russian canon embankment overrun by the French, but on reaching the embankment, Andre is struck in the head, looses focus, and falls to the ground. As Andrei lay on the ground looking at the sky in a semi conscious state, he has his first spiritual awakening.
Andrei survives and arrives home just in time to see his wife die in childbirth. Crushed, Andrei pulls himself out of social life. When he returns to St. Petersburg several years later, he falls in love with the young, pure and beautiful Natasha, but during their long separation for the one-year the engagement, Natasha is seduced by Helena’s brother Anatole into planning an elopement with him. Natasha writes to break off her engagement with Andrei, and although the plot to elope is foiled and Natasha comes to hers senses and realizes how she has been deceived, Andrei has no interest in her now but rejoins the army in search of Anatole to take his revenge.
The year now is 1812. Napoleon is invading Russia, and not having found Anatole, Andrei is leading an regiment in the only major battle before the French enter Moscow. Andrei is mortally wounded.
When he awakes from yet another pain-induced faint now after surgery in a battlefield medical tent, he notices the man in the stretcher next to him weeping in child-like sobs being shown his boot, caked with mud and blood, and containing his amputated leg. The Prince Andrei realizes that this weeping man is none other than the villain Anatole. But laying on that stretcher listening to him weep, (and I quote) Andrei “remembered everything, and a rapturous pity and love for this man filled his happy heart”.
Prince Andrei could no longer restrain himself, and he wept tender, loving tears over people, over himself, and over their and his own errors. “Compassion, love for our bothers, for those who love us, love for those who hate us, love for our enemies--yes, that love which God preached on earth, which Princess Mary taught me, and which I didn’t understand…."
Two months later, Andrei dies of his wounds under the care of his loving and devout sister Mary and his repentant former fiancee Natasha, whom he has forgiven.
For Tolstoy all of the suffering that human beings inflict on themselves and on each other may not be meaningless. Rather, suffering may often be a means to sanity, to clear sight, to understanding that everything is God’s fault, is my fault, is our fault. Suffering may help us see; and then again, it may not. Some, like Napoleon, delude themselves and are convinced that whatever happens around them is the result of their personal power, their choices, their wisdom, their greatness. Others, like the German General, are deluded by a well-constructed theory, convinced that all consequences are mere matters of scientific fact, of laws that they themselves understand (much better than anyone else) and by which they interpret everything--for whatever cannot fit into their theory, in their mind, does not exist.
Pierre has a similar transformation through his suffering. Although not in the military, Pierre is taken as a POW by the French occupying Moscow. Driven from Moscow with the fleeing French troops, Pierre survives (barely) the privation of adequate food and shelter that resulted in the death of most of the POWs and, eventually, almost all of Napoleon's army. Pierre is finally liberated by a band of renegade Russian soldiers under the command of two sly officers who play their squabbling generals off one another so that in the confusion they can raid and plunder the fleeing French, who are carrying much of Moscow’s wealth.
After Pierre’s convalescence, people began to notice a change in him, a change that wins their favor. Before the war, Pierre was courted solely for his wealth and despised for his absent-minded social and financial cluelessness. After his sufferings, Pierre is no less absent minded or clueless, but now he is at peace, no longer looking for answers in things far away, but in things nearby: in God, the God whom his nanny had taught him long ago “is here, right here, everywhere.” Furthermore, Pierre had come to recognize that each person could think, feel and look at things his or her own way, and that it was impossible to change someone’s opinion by mere words. Eventually, after the suicide of Helena, Pierre marries Natasha, whom he had loved all along, but out of respect for her purity had expressed only in brotherly concern for her well being. Now Pierre experienced a kind of happy insanity that consisted in, (and I quote), “in the fact that he did not wait, as before, for personal reasons, which he called people's merits, in order to love them, but love overflowed his heart, and, loving people without reason, he discovered the unquestionable reasons for which it was worth loving them."
1124 pages is a small price to pay just to get to this sentence. Loving people based on their merits is merely a blind for "personal reasons": how the other affects me. However, in loving for no reason at all, one comes to discover the "unquestionable reasons for which it was worth loving them." What happy insanity. It is the insanity of Christianity, divine insanity.
Obviously a novel of this length cannot be adequately summarized, much less analyzed in a single [blog]. Nevertheless I offer this small impression with the hope that someone who is [reading] will be inspired, perhaps next summer, to pick up War and Peace. It is a worthwhile rollercoster ride through the loves, failures, and mostly sufferings of several believable characters, lives and lessons that speak as clearly today as they did 150 years ago.