Sunday, January 22, 2012

War and Peace

It took me about one and a half months to read War and Peace. Tolstoy's magnum opus, first published in the 1860s,  has been acclaimed as one of the greatest novels ever written, though the popular perception is that it is a very difficult book to finish reading. The length of the novel is clearly a huge barrier to reading it, though unfamiliarity with the historical context adds to the difficulties.
To appreciate the book fully, it is useful to recall the historical context. The story is set in the early nineteenth century, spanning the period from 1805 to 1820. Its main characters all come from the Russian nobility, and the narrative arc follows their fortunes, set against the backdrop of the tumultuous events surrounding Napoleon's invasion of Russia.


During the preceding century, Russia had emerged from being a relatively isolated country to being one of the foremost powers of Europe. During the reigns of Peter the Great (1696-1725) and Catherine the Great (1762-1796), decisive turns had been made towards Western European culture. Catherine the great considered herself to be an Enlightenment figure, and corresponded with the French philosophes such as Voltaire and Diderot. Diderot was present at her court (and drew a salary) for some time during the 1770s. The influence of the French language was so strong that it became  the language of the nobility, some of whose members could not speak Russian.
Alexander I, grandson of Catherine the Great, became Tsar of Russia in 1801. In 1805, Russia went to war with Napoleon and lost at the  famous battle of Austerlitz. After more battles with Napoleon's armies in 1806 and 1807, the Treaty of Tilsit was signed and there was an uneasy peace for 5 years. Russia was reluctant to comply with the demands of Napoleon's Continental System, by which he attempted to impose a European trade embargo on Britain. The peace was ended by Napoleon's invasion of Russia in 1812.
The French invasion of Russia began in June 1812, with over 400,000 troops.  The Russians did not immediately give battle and kept withdrawing until they were in the vicinity of Moscow. The battle finally took place at the village of Borodino (near Moscow) in early September 1812, and tens of thousands of soldiers on both sides lost their lives. Though the French won the battle and went on to occupy Moscow, it was an incomplete and pyrrhic victory. Much of Moscow was set on fire, most likely on the orders of the city governor. This was a continuation of the scorched earth policy of the Russians. Tsar Alexander I refused to negotiate with Napoleon. 
In October 1812, Napoleon began a retreat from Moscow. The retreat, by all accounts, was horrific. Supply lines, quite inadequate to begin with, were disrupted by Russian guerrilla attacks. The bitter Russian winter claimed many lives. Fodder for horses was scarce. Weak horses either died or were slaughtered for food by the starving soldiers. This led to the abandoning of cannons and wagons, further weakening the ability of the French army to fight the Russians. In early November, Napoleon learned of a coup attempt in Paris. He promptly abandoned the army and raced ahead to Paris. In the end, only about a tenth of the original troops actually made it back to France, all others having died or been taken prisoner by the Russians. Russian casualties were no less tragic. About two hundred thousand soldiers died, with the death toll of civilians perhaps just as large. Death and destruction on a massive scale were the results of Napoelon's Russian campaign.
Given this background, one can easily imagine why this period must have loomed large in the imagination of Russian intellectuals throughout the later parts of the nineteenth century. Tolstoy's decision to choose this period as the setting of War and Peace was determined ultimately by his realization of the central importance of this phase of his country's history.
War and Peace can be regarded as several books combined into one. In its most novel-like parts, it is an absorbing story of the fluctuating fortunes of its main characters, Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, Natasha Rostova and her brother Nikolai, and Count Pierre Bezukhov. Struggling with their desires and aspirations, buffeted by the storms of dramatic historical events and  by their own missteps, they try to make the best of their lives. On the other hand, viewed as historical fiction, the book is an unparalleled description of warfare in general and of the various battles of the Napoleonic campaigns in particular. 
Parts of the book, the ones where Tolstoy tends to be repetitious, are devoted to military history, especially to debunking much of war strategy and the "great man" approach to history. These could easily be separated from the book to form a treatise on nineteenth century history writing. Tolstoy's emphasis on contingency in history and his debunking of Napoleon's greatness, or his much celebrated "military genius", are all quite persuasive.  He is also very dismissive of  the elaborate battle strategies of the generals and their adoration by (military) historians. His version of events relies more on the unexpected happenings in the thick of battle.  However, his alternative explanations of Russian victories, which include waves of spirit sweeping through the Russians or the decline in morale among the French, are vague and dissatisfying.
Ultimately though, the parts of the book that I recall with pleasure are the characters and their lives and fortunes. Tolstoy devotes considerable time and space to develop many of the characters we meet in the book, even though not all of them are central to the main story line. In particular, I was surprised by how well etched the women characters were. Apart from his heroine, Natasha, he devotes considerable time to Maria Bolkonsky, Prince Andrei's deeply religious sister, Natasha's mother, the Countess Rostova , Natasha's poor cousin Sonya,  and the old Princess Anna Mikhaylovna,  who is so keen on promoting her son Boris Drubetskoy's career. This attention to the women characters was perhaps the influence of Tolstoy's own wife Sonia, who had  a major role in the plot development, writing, and publication of War and Peace.
Tolstoy's great success lies in creating characters who are instantly recognizable, even by readers separated from early nineteenth  century Russia by two hundred years. While they belong  to the nobility, their striving is not uncommon. Natasha, the heroine, initially depicted as a spirited, if somewhat flighty young girl, ages and matures through the novel as circumstances and her own errors complicate her life. 
The intelligent and ambitious Andrei Bolkonsky, whose wife dies in childbirth, is disillusioned by war and by his own life, after being injured in the battle of Austerlitz. He is revived by meeting Natasha and falling in love with her. During his absence, Natasha is swept off her feet by  the sleazy Anatole Kuragin, and she breaks off her engagement with Andrei.  Pierre Bezukhov,  friend to Andrei and Natasha, informs her that Anatole is already married. Only much later is Natasha re-united with a dying Andrei. 
Pierre is himself a complex character. Illegitimate son and fabulously wealthy heir, he struggles with his attempts to understand the meaning and purpose of his life.  Maneuvred into a joyless marriage with Helene Kuragin, he joins the Freemasons, tries to make the lives of serfs easier, joins the army, and is taken prisoner. Ultimately, he finds wisdom in Platon Karatayev, a fellow prisoner and peasant. This is Tolstoy's tribute to the earthy wisdom of native Russians, as opposed to the sophisticated and convoluted thought of the French.
The version of War and Peace I read is a 2005  Penguin Classics translation by Anthony Briggs. The translation is remarkably easy to read. According to Briggs, the smooth flow of the writing is a characteristic of Tolstoy's Russian prose. The text is also accompanied by footnotes, appendices giving us a chapter-wise summary, brief explanations of the battles, schematic maps, and a dramatis personae. I have to confess that I have tended to look down upon such aids to the reader, but in this instance, found them extremely useful. In addition, there are two essays, one in the beginning by the historian Orlando Figes serving as an introduction and one at the end by the translator. I found Briggs' essay very interesting, since he carefully outlines and justifies his approach to translation.  I had no quibbles with his thoughts on translation, but somehow I still found his choice of a British dialect to render nineteenth century colloquial Russian into English to be jarring.
Tolstoy himself was insistent that War and Peace should not be regarded as a novel, and perhaps he was right. The debate about whether certain works of literature fit into neat categories or not is futile. I think it is easy to agree that War and Peace is a great work of literature. I have felt deeply enriched by reading it, and the fact that it can produce that feeling in a reader nearly one hundred and fifty years after it was written is a tribute to Tolstoy's genius.

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