War And Peace – Volume III
This Volume leaps ahead a few years, with war once again threatening Russia, war again induced by Napoleon. Tolstoy begins with an overview of the lead-up to this war, and he starts an on-and-off philosophical aside on the nature of historical events. This is the beginning of a non-too-subtle attack by Tolstoy on the growing influence in Western Europe of science and an accompanying materialism, particularly in Germany.
To Tolstoy (but there’s more than a little merit in his view, I think), individuals in a society strive toward individual goals, but in the process they implement national, even universal goals. What Tolstoy is getting at here is the impotence of national leaders in moving nations toward the future. To him, these leaders sit astride a chain of events initiated by a collective of the masses, these “leaders” yelling and exhorting, urging the wave on, as if it had been his or her leadership that had led to this branching moment of history. He later applies this to the military leaders in the Battle of Borodino, but I’m getting ahead of myself. From a broader perspective, Tolstoy, as the one giving a retrospective voice to these Russian impulses, is presenting this era of Russian history from a rather macroscopic, Oriental view of reality. Now on to the story.
With Napoleon crossing the Russian border, Tsar Alexander realizes the little man’s earlier flattery and seeming support were simply a ruse for leaving the option open to someday conquer Russia’s vastness. Slowly, Tolstoy returns to his characters, Pierre, Prince Andrei, Rostov, and their families.
Andrei has been wandering Europe, slowly wending his way back to his military commitments, and Pierre continues his search for personal meaning, a search that seems to grow more futile by the page. Rostov has fallen in love with Sonya, a distant cousin and pal of Rostov’s sister, Natasha. He yearns to dig in, plant roots in the Russian outback, as befits a rural Count. Instead, he’s also drawn again into his military commitments.
Natasha has fallen for yet another pretty male face, Hélène’s brother, Anatole. In good conscience, she can’t now honor her commitment to Prince Andrei, so she breaks off their engagement and falls into a deep funk that leads to physical illness. Pierre visits the family during this time and blurts out a profession of love for Natasha, a love that’s soon to mutually simmer—one Pierre didn’t know he had in himself.
Tolstoy moves us ever so slowly toward the war’s initial battle at Smolensk. Now, Pierre is drifting toward the soon-to-be battlefields (with some vague idea of killing Napoleon), as is Prince Andrei. With the battle joined, Tolstoy gives us the soldier’s eye view of falling shells, smoke, and general destruction. At first, the locals listen to the French bombardment, then watch, is if detached. But as war walks closer, the streets empty and the locals begin to flee.
The French rout continues. Some, including Hélène, see the French as liberators, but this opinion quickly dissolves in war’s fog.
In Part Two, Napoleon’s army next moves on Moscow, and Tolstoy goes to great pains to depict decisions made from this moment on by French and Russian leaders as being random, almost instinctual movements in a war that has moved far beyond anyone’s ability to manipulate successfully. With Napoleon moving the French army toward Moscow, the Rostovs begin to consider the prospect of abandoning the city. Here’s where Tolstoy goes socio-political.
Russia’s far-flung nation encompassed huge land areas, much of which was conducive to farming. With so much acreage, the land became organized in much the same way as the U.S. in the South and East prior to the Civil War. That is, the nation’s gentry owned and managed the farms, the labor and much of the lower-level management done by Russia’s peasants, the serfs.
During Tsar Alexander’s reign, many of the gentry became socially conscious (including Tolstoy), and Alexander issued an edict to free the serfs. However, the social divide remained.
At this point, Tolstoy leads us to Napoleon’s move on Moscow.
First, the royal family evacuates the city, then the rest of the titled families, then some of the bourgeois, or middle class. Tolstoy emphasizes the necessity of carts and horses in managing this evacuation, the lower classes unable to make the move without abandoning all they have. Of course, the elite families can’t put everything of value on carts, and this leaves much wealth to fall into the hands of French soldiers. Tolstoy depicts the effects of their plundering in Volume IV.
The author now allows Pierre to wander into Moscow. His true purpose in doing so? Not to kill Napoleon, certainly. According to Tolstoy’s philosophical agenda, Pierre was simply drawn to the city, much as a moth is drawn to a flame, i.e., he had no consciously valid reason for going there – his instincts simply led him to Moscow as the next step in his spiritual odyssey.
Part Three depicts Tolstoy’s version of the Battle of Borodino, in which the Russians manage to fight off overwhelming odds. Once again, Tolstoy sees the sense of the battle as beyond the hands of Kutuzov and Napoleon – almost as if God had descended in the form of angels to orchestrate the battle – and as if Kutuzov and Napoleon are little more than wooden men on a chessboard.
The author, in handling the history of the battle’s posthumous effects, begins with an evaluation of the decisions of these two Field Marshals concerning a follow-up battle (which never happens). Instead, the Russian Army flees north and east, leaving Moscow to Napoleon and his “everyman” army. Tolstoy also depicts the ravages of Borodino, thousands on men lying dead and unburied across the terrain.
Prince Andrei is wounded in this battle, and lies for a long while near death. Hélène continues her move away from husband Pierre by orchestrating a Catholic-rationalized divorce. And Tolstoy allows his characters to dialogue on the nature of war and society. “War is the most difficult subjection of man’s freedom to the laws of God,” muses Pierre. In other words, War is the way in which God straightens out the social errors and simplifies the convolutions of mankind. Tolstoy’s ethos here is simplicity of living, attuned to Nature and the Divine.
Another interesting aside here is in Tolstoy’s depiction of Moscow – and by implication, Russia herself – as feminine. The city passively embraces the French army as they enter its gates – and Tolstoy insists Napoleon feels this sensibility through the activities of his soldiers as they begin to loot and fall apart as a fighting force. In counterpoint, Napoleon insists – through Tolstoy – that he’ll show these backward Russians the true meaning of civilization, through his and France’s example.
But it’s through Pierre that we can view this transformation of Moscow to an occupied zone, and of the city’s effects on both Russian and French characters. As the French deteriorate as a fighting force, the remaining Russians – while not overtly resisting the French – remain obstinately Russian. I think Tolstoy wishes us here to see that the true Russian nature is always upheld by the peasants and other lower classes – while the elite classes become, as depicted earlier, impotent French wannabes.
Volume III ends with the readers watching this social drama between Russian and Frenchman take place within Moscow’s confines.
By the way, that's the translators on the right, above – a young Tolstoy on the left.
This Volume begins as the first ended, with Rostov recuperating from near-fatal battle wounds. With his return home, we continue to gain a deeper sense of the Rostov family, its social habits and financial predicament. For the most part, the Rostovs are happy, gregarious, and down to earth. However, father Count Nokolai Andréich, is slowly succumbing to age, and the Rostov fortunes seem to be declining with him.
Pierre, who seems to wander at random though this early part of Tolstoy’s manuscript, has suddenly come into a fortune as the family heir. His makeup seems that of a man in need of complete freedom from entanglements and responsibility, but his newfound fortune forces on him the burdens of wealth. Too, he’s taken to appearing regularly at the Rostov home, partaking, it would seem, of family ties without any sense of deep participation or commitment. During this time, Pierre comes to believe that wife Hélène is having an affair – pointedly with the dashing and dangerous Dolokhov -maybe with a series of similar men. He confronts her, and of course she denies everything. Pierre then proceeds to challenge Dolokhov to a duel and, surprisingly, he wounds the capable duelist and soldier. Rostov allows himself to be drawn into the duel ritual as a second and, because dueling is officially banned, he’s barely able to rescue his military reputation.
Perhaps the saving grace for the Rostov family at this point is Natasha. Her precocious nature and natural beauty make of her a family commodity. That is, she’s seen as a sort of bait at which financially well-endowed Russian men might nibble. One might marry Natasha, father Nikolai thinks, bringing that one’s fortune to bear on the Rostov financial predicament.
But Natasha’s flighty. She lives emotionally in the moment, loving first a man from the previous Volume, Boris, then Dolokhov, and following Andrei’s re-emergence (he was thought to have been killed at Austerlitz), she comes to adore the Prince. As Tolstoy writes in this Volume’s Part One, XII, “Natasha fell in love from the moment she entered the ballroom. She was not in love with anyone in particular, but with everyone.”
In Part Two, Pierre worries about his newly acquired wealth and responsibilities, and his alienation from Hélène. This leads him to the Freemasons. He’s initiated into the cult, and he begins his attempts to use its precepts to fashion a responsible life void of Russian society’s intrinsic conflicts.
Note: some earlier translations omit much, if not all, of Pierre’s involvement with the Masons. Here, Tolstoy delves into Masonic values, rituals, and beliefs as part of Pierre’s process of reconciling his life with Russian society, and many apparently see this aspect of War and Peace as an unnecessary digression. After reading these intermittent segments, I disagree with this view. While Pierre immerses himself in this cult – from the highest of motivations – and eventually founders on it, the Freemason tenets become an initial steppingstone to Pierre’s personal reconciliation with life in a Russia, a life he continues to see as primitive and unsophisticated. Without these passages, he would be a more shadowy, nearly irrelevant part of Tolstoy’s saga. With these segments intact, however, Pierre’s identity crisis becomes a sort of glue tying the rest of the Russian drama together.
Again, Pierre encounters Prince Andrei. As he tries to explain his Masonic involvement to the confounded Andrei, he senses that the Prince already embodies the values Pierre seeks from his Masonic involvement.
Meanwhile, Rostov has returned to his regiment. He begins to realize his ties to his soldier friends run much deeper than he’d expected. Tolstoy seems to want this realization to typify a growing adult loyalty and maturity in the young Count.
Part Three finds Prince Andrei neck deep in family affairs at Bald Hills, the family home. But he’s slowly drawn into Tsar Alexander’s national reforms, as devised by Mikhail Speransky, Alexander’s closest advisor. Perhaps this is the weakest character turn thus far in War and Peace, as Tolstoy uses Andrei simply to introduce this era of reforms.
Historically, this social re-working came to be fought assiduously by conservative government, Masonic, and Church officials. In the end, Alexander had to use Speransky as a scapegoat for roiling social waters caused by these reform attempts.
At the same time, Pierre has become head of the St. Petersburg Masons, but quickly becomes disenchanted with the hypocrisy separating its tenets and its personal practices. Remember, Pierre’s interest in the Masons is to develop himself—in his eyes, a vengeful person with dissipative tendencies—into a virtuous man.
Andrei, whose wife has died, has, despite his family and national responsibilities, become a lonely man. He begins to visit the Rostov family, and is drawn to love winsome Natasha. Predictably, Natasha immediately falls in love with Andrei. But there’s a big age difference (as with Tolstoy—his wife Sofia was sixteen years younger). Despite their immediate draw to one another, Andrei soon has doubts. He seeks his father’s counsel, and the father apparently sees Natasha as below Andrei’s station. He orders Andrei to wait a year before marriage.
Thus Tolstoy means us to see Andrei, like Pierre, as seeking meaning in a world that’s quickly changing and a country plodding toward reforms driven by the French Revolution. Andrei initially thinks he’d found such personal substance in Natasha, only to realize how fleeting romantic love can be. In a somewhat final conversation with Natasha, he offers to free her from their marital commitment during this year—all she need do is request it.
Part Four returns us to the life of Nikolai Rostov, whose interest slowly moves again toward his army commitments and away from family involvement. Tolstoy here wishes us to glimpse Russian country life through the Rostov family’s eyes, and to understand, I think, how disjointed Natasha’s social aspirations are within this family.
Part Five finds Pierre dismayed by Natasha’s betrothal to Andrei. He renews his personal search for meaning by reading all the morally significant books he can get his hands on. But he also returns to his dissipative drinking and to superficial society life. Somewhere in his reading, however, he becomes acquainted with stories of how soldiers cope with danger and fear, and he grows interested in the military subculture’s way of life.
Then Tolstoy begins to contrast Natasha with Andrei’s sister Marya, who is less attractive and much more sober a personality than Natasha. Here, Tolstoy pushes Natasha into a process of self-discovery similar to that for Pierre, but largely by way of interactions with other women, rather than through Pierre’s intellectual rigors.
As this Volume ends, Pierre begins to spend more time with the Rostovs, growing still more disenchanted with his life. The impending marriage of Andrei and Natasha seems the source of his malaise at this point.
Before chronicling this Volume, an historical note is in order.
The Russian mindset has never quite fit that of Europe, nor has it dovetailed to any significant degree with the cultural development of Asia and the Middle East. Even though its national and cultural evolution as a nation-state did follow that of Europe, it took on a unique nature of its own. Russians can thank Peter the Great for adhering to the European model to the degree that it did, but Europe persisted in thinking of Russia as a primitive, backward state, as did many Russians. So Russia of the early nineteenth century, despite its increasing political power and geographical size, continued to exist as a European wannabe.
As with most wannabes, Russia took on European trappings, particularly those of France – especially its language. At the time Tolstoy wrote War And Peace, French had effectively become Russia’s second language. This isn’t meant as a slight, though – French was considered throughout European as the language of state and diplomacy.
So it seems appropriate that Volume I opens with a scene in St. Petersburg at a royal fete hosted by Anna Pavlovna Scherer, a maid to Russia’s Queen Mother. Here, the aristocratic attendees marble their talk with French and compare themselves to other European riche. Europe is still a-boil with the French Revolution and its subsequent appropriation by Napoleon Bonaparte. If it helps, think of this soiree as a jet-set cocktail party at which the conversation keeps turning to Iraq. That Tolstoy chose to leaven the “beautiful people’s” chattiness with French was an accurate historical touch. But it also gave Russian royalty an air of the effete. There’s an undertone throughout this chit-chat of fear and apprehension – of Napoleon and his designs on the rest of Europe. And the still-inordinately stratified nature of Russian society comes through loud and clear.
Enter Prince Andrei Bolkonsky and Pyotr Bezukhov. I’m getting ahead of myself a bit here, but it helps to position Prince Andrei as the prototypically healthy and robust Russian aristocrat, and Pyotr (he’s known throughout as Pierre) as the effete Francophile Russian.
Says Tolstoy of the two acquaintances, who aren’t particularly friendly: “Pierre considered Prince Andrei the model of all those qualities which Pierre did not possess and which could be most nearly expressed by the notion of strength of will.”
And this Volume introduces Dolokhov, a dashing gambler, duelist, and soldier, who figures in later drama. He causes a stir at the fete – a stir of the machismo sort one might think went out with Dark Ages warrior gallantry, but a stereotype tolerated in Russian high society at the time.
Also introduced here – in Moscow – is the Princess Natasha, a beautiful debutante of fifteen or sixteen, who is infatuated with every charming, handsome man she meets. And with Natasha, we dig into the Rostov family, including her brother, Nikolai, who is preparing to enter the inevitable war against France and Napoleon.
Tolstoy contrasts Moscow with St. Petersburg here in a rather indirect way – through the doings and conversations of the Rostov family. The feeling one gains of the Rostovs – and of Moscow – is of a family and city more grounded in upper middle class concerns and values than those of St. Petersburg.
Part Two brings us to the German/Austrian border and the fortress of Braunau (coincidentally, Hitler’s birthplace). Napoleon’s forces are about to engage those of Russian Field Marshal Kutuzov and a large Austrian army. Here, the rascal Dolokhov argues with a general about the color of his uniform, this scene counterpointed by Kutuzov’s subsequent portrayal as an old, refined gentleman, perhaps out of touch with the forces under his command, and soon to be proven a rather inept commander.
As the battle is joined, Tolstoy’s depiction quickly moves from overview (French cannoneers shelling a bridge over which the Russian and Austrian soldier must cross as they retreat before overwhelming French forces) largely though the eyes of Nikolai Rostov and Prince Andrei. This may be the first significant literary foray into deconstruction, as Tolstoy portrays, not a victory or a noble loss, but the personal agony of individual soldiers, wounded, frightened, and in retreat. An exclamation of Rostov’s typifies this: “Nobody needs me!” thought Rostov. “There’s nobody to help me or pity me. And once I was at home, strong, cheerful, loved.” Despite everyone else’s suffering on the battlefield, Rostov seems an immature boy among men. Too, he’s enamored of and adoring from afar – as a boy might – Tsar Alexander. Tolstoy returns intermittently to this depiction as the pages turn.
In Part Three, the story shifts to Moscow and a brewing battle of another sort. Pierre begins an on-and-off pursuit of Hélène, a beautiful Russian lady of refined French breeding who may well have been inspired by Laclos’ trouble-making Madame de Merteuil in his Les Liaisons Dangersuses.
Tolstoy turns again to his romantic opera of the nation’s high society. Talk among both men and women in this passage displays confusion regarding the French Revolution, especially Napoleon’s role in France. In Tolstoy’s Russia, many had trouble coming to grips with a commoner ruling a nation. Thus, their conversations expressed a general Russian confusion between Napoleon the ruler and Napoleon the general, i.e., how could a mere general, without the traditional royal succession, properly run a country?
As this Volume ends, Napoleon defeats Russian and Austrian forces at Austerlitz (to the southwest of Braunau) and, considering Russia a minor threat, he allows the Russian armies to return home with few repercussions. In the process of this battle, however, Prince Andrei is seriously wounded, is captured and presented to Napoleon as a brave young Russian officer, then released. In his interaction with Napoleon, Andrei finds the French emperor vain, pompous, more so than his Russian counterparts. And Andrei is wise enough to see a bit of this vanity reflected in his own personality, something that rises in him as a typically Russian guilt and self-doubt. Here again, Tolstoy depicts Andrei as personifying the Russian psyche.
As promised, this week will kick off a somewhat detailed look at War And Peace, by Leo Tolstoy, this version a translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.
To make sense of such a long and complex work, I suppose I should begin with something of a roadmap.
First, the book is organized in four volumes and an epilogue, each composed of several parts. As was common at the time, the book was published in a literary magazine over a period of some three years, probably accounting for these subdivisions.
Besides being a classic tale of Russian life during the years of Russia’s conflicts with Napoleon, the book broke new ground in terms of structure. During the years 1866 to 1869, the span of Tolstoy’s writing here, the novel was still a relatively new literary form, and novelistic structure wasn’t as established as we find it today.
Early readers of the work struggled with the numerous characters (we’ll get to that in a moment) and the odd composition.
Tolstoy wrote many of the book’s sections as if a literary form of journalism, depicting the era’s battles, the Russian and French histories of the time. In other places, the work was strictly fictionalized – although much of the fiction was based on Tolstoy’s personal history and the lives of others like him.
In other places, Tolstoy philosophizes about the emerging role of science in European life. In others he depicts his view of the somewhat secret nature of the Masons and its role in that era’s society. Throughout, he succeeds in depicting the French influence on Russian society, and the intermittent nature of the era’s warfare and its effects on that time’s combatants and citizenry. In doing so, he demonstrates a surprisingly deep understanding of human nature in all its expressions.
So War and Peace emerges as much more than a novel – it’s an in-depth examination and analysis of life in early and middle nineteenth century Europe. And this is done within a compelling segment of history, as seen though both the author’s eyes and those of his characters.
About his characters: Besides historical luminaries, such as Tsar Alexander and Napoleon Bonaparte, and Russian military heroes of the time, such as Pyotr Bagration and Mikhail Kutuzov (these famously re-appearing during the German-Soviet conflict of WWII as campaign names), Tolstoy invents three prominent family groups to house his characters:
• The Bezukhovs – primarily Peter, Tolstoy’s device for examining the Masonic cult.
• The Bolkonskys – Prince Nikolai, the patriarch, his son Prince Andrei, who woos Natasha Rostov, and Andrei’s sister, Princess Marya.
• The Rostovs – primarily the family’s elder son, Count Nikolai, his flighty sister, Countess Natasha, and an orphaned cousin, Sofya.
The writing itself: Tolstoy is often given to rambling sentences and narratives, with occasional, extremely terse depictions, the last primarily regarding his characters. His voice varies from volume to volume, probably because of the protracted time of writing and the serialized publication. He did re-write sections numerous times, probably another reason for the variance in voice.
And perhaps more disconcerting for modern audiences than for those of his era, Tolstoy wrote extended passages in three languages – Russian, French, and German, although the German was more intermittent and less lengthy.
The translators did the reader the “service” of translating the Russian into English and leaving the French and German passages intact (their translations appear in footnotes). Also, many of the passing conversational references in the book have to do with social artifacts long lost to modern readers. The translators were kind enough to footnote these and list and explain them by page and section in an appendix. A reader taking the time to take advantage of these translations and footnotes can only find his/herself immersed in the culture of that place and time. I take off my hat and bow respectfully to the translators for these efforts.
Hopefully, this intro will help blog readers better understand the monumental nature of this work, as well as brace them for its narrative and character nuances.
So with the stage thus prepped, we’ll tackle Volume One next week.
I'm currently hip deep in the new translation of War and Peace I've written about previously. As I've been reading, it occurred that it'd be fun to assay the book in segments, say, every couple of hundred pages. So over the next month or so, I'll report back weekly my reflections on this famous piece of fiction.
Doing so won't get us bogged in minutiae, though. War and Peace is a literary universe in itself, and there's enough history, human drama, politics, and gunsmoke to keep us all on the edges of our seats.
It would be great if we could read this one together. Are you game?
This is a magnificent book. To hear one say such a thing might conjure a case of hives and memories of Mel Allen’s “How about that!” following one of Mickey Mantle’s tape-measure home runs, or Harry Caray’s “It could be..it might be…it is!” following anything interesting the seventies St. Louis baseball Cardinals might have done.
Or not. We have a habit of being repulsed by overextended hyperbole, and rightly so. Still, Power’s book on Mark Twain’s life is a magnificent piece of literature.
By Powers’ accounting, Twain was more than a writer. He was a miner, an adventurer, a riverboat sailor, a newspaperman, a publisher, an inventor, a businessman, a venture capitalist, and a world traveler – with a well-tuned ear for politics and social ethics. A prodigious writer off the literary scene, he wrote thousands of personal letters. Many of his efforts failed, but this is probably the case with any dynamic person. Buckminster Fuller, one of the twentieth century’s most prodigious thinkers and inventors, claimed that failure was the pathway to human success, and Samuel Langhorne Clemens certainly filled that bill.
But about the book:
Powers, a Pulitzer Prize winner for his literary criticism relating to television, was born in Hannibal, Missouri, as was Clemens/Twain. The connection is clearly a dear one for Powers, and his interest in and admiration of Twain comes through here in the highest fidelity.
Twain was born to hardscrabble circumstances at a time in which the ever-present “two Americas” were characterized by a Europe-leaning eastern establishment based in New England, and an independent-minded rest of the country that fled west in an ambiguous search for freedom – and its American manifestation, wealth. Powers has done much in this book to navigate the development of the nation parallel to Twain’s coming of age, and as such, it contains a wealth of insights into the U.S.’s psyche.
As with most modern writing, it’s hard to separate the writer from the subject written about, and the lens through which Powers views Twain here is at times erudite to a fault, at other times as rambunctious as Twain himself. Powers clearly had fun with this writing, constantly with tongue in cheek, with witty asides, clever bon mots, and wry editorializing. Twain becomes under Powers’ microscope – particularly during his later adult years – a person walking the precipice between genius and emotional chaos, a person who might peel your lips back with fiery criticism, then apologize and become a patron of your dearest aspirations. As was Twain, Powers is a master of the English language, even realizing the humor in constantly-recurring, ridiculous words, such as absquatulation – a word that describes Twain to a T.
Powers is also sensitive here to the frailty of human life. Rather than deconstruct Twain’s personality in his failing years, he simply says: “It being strictly a history of a man, it must stop here; the story could not go much further without becoming the history of an old man. Which is to say, a history that depends for much of its nourishment to readers on the extract of pathos.”
But during those failing years, Twain managed to write one of his most enduringly American stories, “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg,” (a piece of short fiction I first read during my stay at the U.S. Naval Academy). In my mind, this piece, along with Huckleberry Finn, The Prince And The Pauper, and Innocents Abroad, firmly established an American literature that previously had been struggling to invent itself under the weight of European literary heritage. Twain accomplished that, along with becoming the personal synthesis of the “two Americas,” rising from ragamuffin status on the U.S. frontier’s sharp edge to grudging acceptance by the eastern establishment simply for being what he was: the quintessential American.
My thanks to Ron Powers for this 600-plus pages of text, and to my old Navy pal, Tom Petillo for bringing this magnificent book to my attention.