Thursday, September 25, 2008

War and Peace in Pieces

War and Peace, Volume 1 by Leo Tolstoy (Published 1869 - republished by Penguin Books Ltd., 1957) translated by Rosemary Edmonds, 712 pages

I have been toying with re-reading Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace which I have not read since my post-university days. I remember being curled up on the couch reading during very cold, snowy weather - or am I imagining this memory?

My reading cupboard was bare and I wanted a challenge, a big challenge. I was joking to a friend that I will be reading this on Valentines day next year (likely this is not a joke). But let me parse it book by book, part by part so that I may comprehend the whole. The cast is so vast that I keep a small chart of who's who in my copy of the book.

Aside from the obvious cliche of a lit geek picking up the mother of all novels to read (deemed by some to be "the best novel ever written" etc ...) this has been a very satisfying reading experience. Again, I dare not criticize the master but I do have a few observations. You must force yourself to slow down and accept the rhythm of the book which is much slower than we are accustomed to as modern readers. But I am looking forward to enjoying the two volumes over the fall and winter.

The cataclysmic effects of the Napoleonic Wars (the name given to the military campaigns in Europe between 1803 and 1815 prompted by Napoleon's designs on the rest of Europe) looms in 1805 and the aristocracy of Russia blithely dances on when the book begins. Several aristocratic families will be impacted and torn apart by the wars and we are introduced to them here in Part 1, Book 1.

I am reminded of how misanthropic Tolstoy seemed to be in his writings at times. How melancholy the Russian psyche appears ... conforming to all stereotypes about fiery, impassioned natures and bitter perspectives about life. Pierre broods, "He had the unlucky capacity many men, especially Russians, have of seeing and believing in the possibility of goodness and truth, but of seeing the evil and falsehood of life too clearly to be able to take any serious part in life. Every sphere of activity was ... linked with evil and deception."

Nikolai Rostov and Prince Andrei Bolkonsky head off to war to fight Napoleon ... the passages about the war are somewhat turgid unless, I suspect, you are totally immersed in the ins and outs of the Napoleonic Wars and the role of the Russian army. I know he had two illustrious ancestors with the same last surname who participated in the wars.

I can't attest to the historical accuracy of the scenes depicted of the Wars in the period of 1805 - 1809 although many if these fictional scenes are compelling: the brilliant image of Prince Andrei's almost hallucinogenic first glimpse of Napoleon on horseback while he lies wounded on the battlefield, presumably dying, at the end of Book One; soldiers being stripped naked and beaten for their minor transgressions; commanders stealing provisions to save their men from starvation; and, the wounded and dying, pleading for assistance, and being abandoned on the battlefield as the troops withdraw from Napoleon's forces are others.

Tolstoy does not spare us from the war obviously, but infinitely more interesting to me is the "peace" experienced by five aristocratic Russian families. Tolstoy touches on many elements of Russian society: religion, the class system, relations between men and women, history, Russian culture, familial obligation, wealth.

In St. Petersburg, Pierre Bezuhov, a newly minted Freemason and the "illegitimate" son and heir of his father Count Bezuhov's vast fortune, is disillusioned in love (both in romantic love and in his purported love of the common man). Helene Kuragin, his wife, cheats on him and he suspects, probably rightly, that all of high society knows of his sorrows and secretly laughs at him behind his back.

Trying to apply Masonic precepts to the liberation of the vast number of serfs under his command on Bezuhov's estates results in little progress and elicits scorn by his "inferiors" and contemporaries. Pierre is sometimes seen as Tolstoy's alter-ego.

Pierre Bezuhov, like Konstantin Levin in Anna Karenina, struggles with his faith and with the desire to do good for his family and his serfs. Yet one senses the despair of the aristocrats Pierre and Levin - that their good deeds will all be for naught as the serfs are too deeply entrenched in their degradation and poverty to progress. Pierre, like Levin, is socially awkward, cerebral, easily offended and quick to offend ... mystified and perhaps slightly terrified by women. Misanthropic, angry and constantly struggling to find peace within himself.

His closest friend, Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, is heading out to fight against the French forces leaving behind his pretty, if neurotic, wife Lise with his difficult and demanding father and devout sister Princess Maria in the countryside, at Bald Hills, the Bolkonskys' country estate, much to his wife's displeasure. Prince Andrei returns home to watch his wife Lise perish during childbirth. Andrei, disillusioned by his role in the Napoleonic Wars after Emperor Alexander I negotiates and "befriends" Russia's former enemy Napoleon, suffers a long period of bitterness and cynicism relieved only by the prospect of the sixteen yeard old Natasha Rostov's love and a prospective marriage.

Princess Maria Bolkonsky, his sister, devout, plain and virtually starved of love, channels all of her considerable spirituality and passion into raising her nephew Nikolai and caring for her "God's folk", pilgrims committed to a life of spiritual enrichment and physical abasement before God.

In Moscow, we meet the Rostov family who will figure prominently in the book. When the book opens twelve year old Natasha Rostov is in love with Boris Drubetskoy, a handsome if impoverished aristocrat and a near relation. Her brother Nikolai Rostov, an ambitious soldier, is in love with Sonya Rostov, also an orphaned cousin. We will learn more about elder sister Vera Rostov and younger brother Petya Rostov later in Volume 2.

Tolstoy underscores the frivolous, inconsequential life that many of his kinsmen lived (best expressed perhaps in the bitter diatribes against the aristocracy by the character Levin in Anna Karenina). They attend balls, conspire to court wealthy relations and marry off their daughters, indulge in frivolous, drunken, dangerous activities, challenge each other to duels, and expire sometimes very foolishly.

Nikolai Rostov thrives under military life despite his injuries at the Battle of Austerlitz returning only when begged by his rapidly impoverished family to return and take hold of the financially crumbling family fortune which he has hastened with a foolish gambling debt. Nikolai is more frivolous than Andrei, both with family and with the affections of his cousin Sonya who desires, but does not insist on, his honoring a childhood promise to marry.

Natasha Rostov, who is as delightful and impulsive as she is often portrayed in cinema, falls in love repeatedly ... with her impoverished cousin Boris, Nikolai's military friend Denisov (he of the annoying lisp), with Prince Andrei, and then yet another whom she will eventually marry. Every two hundred pages she has a new suitor!

Boris Drubetskoy, frivolous, irresponsible and poor, seeks a wealthy wife although drawn to the vivacious Natasha. He gets one.

Prince Vasili Kuragin (father of Helene) conspires firstly to deprive Pierre Bezuhov of his rightful inheritance and then to (successfully) marry off his daughter Helene to him with very unhappy consequences. While son Anatole Kuragin, vain, handsome and calculating, searches for a wealthy wife ...

Tolstoy seems to understand both the feminine and the masculine psyche so well within the constricted social hierarchy of the Russian aristocracy ... the passion that women hold for romantic love, family, social activity, gossip, children, friendship, fashion, society. The allure of war and valor for men, the importance of comradeship between men, and proving oneself before other men.

And as with Anna Karenina, I am always amazed by Tolstoy's understanding of the female psyche whether he writes of the young Natasha's delight at her first ball, her first love and her disastrous near elopement; Sonya's passion for her cousin Nikolai; Princess Maria's shame and dissatisfaction at being paraded before a potential suitor; or, Mademoiselle Bourienne's quick and fruitless infatuation with the disarming Anatole Kuragin which quickly sabotages Princess Maria's hope of a marriage.

In a far more inferior book published last year, The Emperors' Children, the characters debate whether they are a "Natasha" or a "Pierre". I could not remember the significance of that reference when I read the book. Now I see it likely refers to Natasha's enthusiasm and love of life versus Pierre's self-doubt, cynicism and misanthropy ... which are you? I haven't decided yet.

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