Thursday, February 17, 2011
Someone recently asked me what one book I would take along for an extended stay in solitary confinement . Without hesitating, I answered, “War and Peace.” Not only is it long (my Penguin paperback edition is over 1400 pages) it gets better with every reading. The first time I read War and Peace was in pursuit of education. The next two or three times were purely for pleasure because Leo Tolstoy’s novel of Russia during the Napoleonic wars is a book to get lost in. It succeeds on every level: as fiction, history, character study, and social commentary. I could spend years in solitary re-reading War and Peace and never be lonely or bored.
Leo Tolstoy was, for much of his adult life, fascinated by the essence of human character. He wanted to understand the meaning of life, the nature of leadership, and why people behaved as they did. He was influenced by the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer’s notion of a “collective consciousness”, or zeitgeist, which both moved and was moved by the tides and currents of human events. War and Peace, the story of Russia as she prepared for and then resisted Napoleon Bonaparte’s aggression in the early 1800s, was Tolstoy’s way of exploring these themes.
Tolstoy recognized that human beings have a dual nature: on one side we are driven by basic survival needs and on the other by the craving for society. Societies function when there is an accepted set of behaviors grounded in ethics. In other words, we must tame our survival instincts in order to live with others, and by doing this we increase our chances of survival. Within each of us as individuals and collectively in family and social groups there exists a constant effort to balance self interest against societal needs. On a deeper level, we struggle with ethical questions and often act against our better nature, our self-interest, and our survival instincts. In War and Peace, these struggles for balance come vividly to life within each of the main characters, and we recognize in them certain truths about ourselves.
In the 1700s, during the reign of Empress Catherine the Great, Russia was the center of European civilization and culture. French became the language of the aristocracy. While not of royal heritage herself, Catherine was a shrewd politician who curried favor with the powerful people behind the bloodless coup that deposed her husband, Peter III. Even more important, Catherine possessed the leadership to sustain the monarchy during this period of instability. Her influence in politics, statesmanship, and culture defined Russia for decades afterward. By the time her grandson, Alexander I, took the throne, his contemporary, Napoleon Bonaparte, was well on his way toward conquering all of Europe. France, once the object of adoration by sophisticated Russians, suddenly became threatening; and in salons in Moscow and Saint Petersburg aristocrats debated the motives of the diminutive emperor.
War and Peace opens in the salon of Anna Pavlovna Scherer, a wealthy society matron, who is warning one of her esteemed guests that Napoleon is no friend to Russia. The guest, Prince Vasili Kuragin, is an opportunist whose main objective is to secure wealthy spouses for his children. He has no affection for his hostess nor any of her guests and is not concerned about Napoleon’s plans, as long as he can marry off his profligate children and continue to live like a nobleman. Within the first pages of this novel, Tolstoy tutors the reader in the social order of the aristocracy: debates must be carried out in a restrained and decorous manner, social position must be respected, and one must know the rules of conversation. By the end of the evening, a penniless princess, Anna Drubetskaya -using her mastery of these social skills - has succeeded in manipulating Prince Vasili into helping her son, Boris, become an army officer. She succeeds by reminding him of the debt he owes her family and by making it clear that she will not take no for an answer.
Two of the three main characters of the novel, Prince André Bolkonsky and Pierre Bezuhof, make their debut in Anna Pavlovna’s salon. Prince André is unhappy with his domestic life and cannot wait to go to war. His pregnant wife, Lise, is a beautiful but empty socialite whom he has come to abhor. His good friend, Pierre, the bastard son of a wealthy count, is the only person in the room that he can tolerate. Pierre had been educated abroad and, because of his illegitimacy, did not have the proper upbringing for Russian society; he is therefore socially awkward and unintentionally rude. Anna Pavlovna is obligated to include him in her salon because Pierre is the favorite child of the ailing Count Bezuhof and will likely inherit a good piece of the family fortune. Tolstoy very quickly establishes Pierre as a person of good character and kindness in the way he smiles at everyone, with openness and big-hearted innocence. While his hostess and her guests put up with him because they must, the reader can’t help but take an almost instant liking to the naïve and clumsy young man.
The third main character, Natasha Rostov, is a young girl of high spirits whose family lives way beyond their means because they know no other way. The Rostovs are an old noble family living on an estate just south of Moscow. Count Ilya Rostov, one of the most delightful characters in the book, is generous to a fault and indulges his wife and children, especially Natasha, in their every whim. When the penniless Princess Drubetskaya shows up at the Rostovs’ estate for a visit, she tearfully explains to her good friend Countess Rostov that she plans to appeal to Count Bezuhof on his death bed not to forget Boris in his will, otherwise her beloved son will not be able to afford his costly army officer’s outfit. The Countess, knowing full well the futility of Princess Drubetskaya’s quest, and having been moved by the Princess’s tears, asks her husband for the money to outfit Boris. Count Rostov, unable to refuse his wife, instructs his accountant to get the cash. Rather than admit to the count that the estate is nearly bankrupt due to mismanagement, the accountant does as he is told and the debts continue to pile up.
Tolstoy understood the complex and co-dependent relationship that the Russian gentry had with France. Because the educated classes were so enamored of everything French, they had a hard time accepting that France, in the person of Napoleon Bonaparte, would turn on them. The Russian peasants and Cossacks suffered no such delusions but it took the leadership of General Mikhail Kutuzov to mine the passions of these “true” Russians in order to defeat the determined French emperor. Kutuzov was not only a great leader, he was a brilliant military strategist. Unfortunately for Russia, Tsar Alexander I did not care for Kutuzov and blamed him for his own bad judgment. By the time Kutuzov took charge of the army, Napoleon had advanced his troops quite far into Russia.
Russia is a vast country, with long and bitterly cold winters, and conditions on the ground were brutal. In order to keep the French troops from deserting in the face of this hardship, Napoleon permitted them to help themselves to the spoils of each village they conquered. The troops of both armies were underdressed and underfed; their only chance for survival was to keep fighting. Kutuzov’s predecessor, Michael Andreas Barclay de Tolly, attempted to slow Napoleon by engaging in a “scorched earth” strategy as he ordered his troops to retreat. When Kutuzov took command, he exploited Russia’s size and hostile weather in order to break the back of the French invaders; he surrendered Moscow, angering many, but there was method to his madness. The farther the French got from home, the looser their discipline became and when Kutuzov had them where he wanted them, he brought the war to a decisive end. For all his tactical brilliance, Kutuzov did not receive the praise he was due until after his death.
War and Peace, the story, does not pass judgment on the waging of war; rather Tolstoy’s novel explains how combat is often inevitable when diplomacy fails. Regardless of its objective, war is always an ugly business: people die, infrastructure collapses into ruin, and opportunists seize advantage. Tolstoy understood that for some, war was a way of life. Most Russian noblemen served in the army as part of a tradition started by Tsar Peter the Great (1682-1725) and there was a certain glamour associated with achieving the rank of officer. Young men with nothing better to do than gamble away their families’ fortunes enlisted to fight Napoleon not out of patriotism but out of boredom. Prince André, having completed his military service, re-enlisted to escape his tiresome marriage.
While the personal lives of the main characters are the backbone of the story, it is the descriptions of the soldiers battling each other and the elements that set War and Peace apart from other works of fiction. Tolstoy’s writing is so vivid that I felt the pain of frostbite as it claimed the fingers and toes of hungry soldiers, I wept for villagers whose homes and farms were ruined in acts of gratuitous violence, and I experienced the futility and loneliness of the mortally wounded soldiers who surrendered their lives to the aggression of a small man with an oversized ego.
In the words of George Santayana, “those who cannot remember the past are destined to repeat it.” Leo Tolstoy understood this truth and hoped that by writing a story about people like ourselves we might consider the cost of human suffering before declaring war on another country. Everyone, especially those who “love a man in a uniform”, should read War and Peace, because even a “slam dunk” spills the blood of innocent people and ruins the lives of others.
War and Peace, like A Tale of Two Cities, is about duality as the title suggests. In the same way that without death we wouldn’t celebrate life, without war we wouldn’t cherish peace. When peace finally descends on Russia, sons and fathers return to their families, marriages and births take place, and a new day dawns. The three friends – André, Pierre, and Natasha – each find peace within as a result of the struggles of the war years. André discovers his capacity for love, Pierre gains wisdom and happiness, and Natasha redeems her impulsive and hurtful behavior. Does peace require the catharsis of war? That is the question.
Copyright 2011, Teresa Friedlander, all rights reserved