MY TOP SHELF – 38 – War and Peace

 

[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’.  The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]

38

WAR AND PEACE

Lev Tolstoy

 

London, Macmillan & Co Ltd, Oxford University Press, 1943; subsequently recovered in half morocco in red with gold title and humps on spine, and cloth boards.

You die and find it all out or you cease asking

With a phrase unusually pregnant with meaning even for Shakespeare, a character in Measure for Measure is described as ‘desperately mortal’.  The characters of War and Peace come down to us in the same way – but, more: somehow they come to us as desperately human.  This novel of about 1,300 pages has two leading characters, but most of the action comes from three Russian families.  Although we are occasionally let in on the French side, and Napoleon himself has a substantial role, this is a Russian novel where the author refers to the Russians as ‘we’.

The three families of Russians are aristocrats.  We meet one peasant at the end, but no merchants or professionals.  When it comes to leading or expounding a point of view, we hear only from the men.  We are therefore looking only at a tiny part of the Russian nation, perhaps not one in a thousand.  Tolstoy was a Russian count and most of this novel is about Russian counts (or countesses) or better.  To adopt an observation of another author, the second title of this book may have been: ‘All aristocrats are spoiled; some are more spoiled than others’.  But for all that we see a pageant of all humanity unfurling before our eyes in a way that may only ever have been matched in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire of Edward Gibbon.

Count Pierre Bezuhov is the central figure in the novel.  He moves among the three families and across the lines of the two armies.  In many ways he is like a one-man Greek chorus.  He was the illegitimate child of an old rake who was legitimated at the very end so that he could inherit a very wealthy estate.  That is how the novel begins.  Pierre was not raised in or for the purple.  He is gauche, but acute of mind; he cares little about the social niceties that everyone else cares very greatly about; and you might say the same about money.  He has a very simple faith, but for most of the novel he lives under the impression that he can by the power of his mind arrive at the answers to life’s questions.  His quest for such an answer is at the base of the novel.

Pierre, like Prince Andrey, talks a lot to himself.  These speeches are their soliloquies.  In the BBC production, they are voice-overs.  They are as integral to the novel as the soliloquies are to Hamlet.

Let us refer to some of the problems of the novel.  Tolstoy the writer had a lot of form for going on at length about what would then have been called ‘philosophical’ issues.  In this novel he goes on a lot about the determining factors of military movements.  Most of this seems to be undertaken with a view to belittling Napoleon.  The fashion one hundred years ago for engaging in this kind of ‘philosophising’ was much more in favour then than it would be now.  Most of this kind of talk will be likely to bore people now, and readers are advised to skip through it.  Flaubert complained to Turgenev about the essays of Tolstoy: ‘He repeats himself!  He philosophises!’  That hectoring tone has crept into the novel.

There is perhaps something of a similar problem with Natasha.  She tends to be altogether too gushing for modern tastes (as might Anya be in The Cherry Orchard).  But we do need to remember that she does start off as a closeted fifteen year old child who is expected, at least in some respects, to play the part of an adult.  The novel also has some of the attributes of 19th century novels, like two bad guys who are really just caricatures of bounders or cads, and a liking for coincidence.

For all that, the novel in spite of its length is extremely readable.  It does not have anything like the boring excursions that you come across in Les Misérables, or Moby Dick, or that some even find in Don Quixote.  With a modicum of application, the ordinary reader should not have much difficulty in completing reading this book in, say, a fortnight.  When they have done so, they will know that they have read what many people in the world regard as the greatest novel ever written.

Let us remember that we are dealing with a world that is completely beyond our comprehension.  The Tsar had absolute power.  The Russian people had no history of trying to contain that power.  The doctrine of the divine right of kings was well and truly alive and well.  It follows that they were still living with serfs, or white slaves.  Serfs could be worth less than dogs.  In the course of a hunt, Nikolay Rostov enquired after a black and tan bitch owned by another hunter.  The hunter said he had acquired the bitch a year before for three families of house serfs.

So, the world of Russia then – during the wars against Napoleon – is utterly unlike any world that we have known.  The Russian aristocracy was trying to ape European civilisation, and particularly that of France, by speaking French, but in many ways their customs will seem as comprehensible to us as the customs of the blackfellas that were practised in this country one or two thousand years before the white people arrived here.  To make the comparison more local, Russia in 1812 had much more in common with Persia than with France or Germany.

The book has set pieces dealing with both war and peace: the two major battles of Austerlitz and Borodino are covered in great detail; there are two famous ballroom scenes; a scene at the opera; an extended account of a wolf hunt; and, for action between war and peace, a duel.

At times, the commentary has an El Greco lightning-strike scale of illumination.  While Moscow was waiting for the French, the population descended to animal lawlessness with scenes like those in Paris at the height of the terror.  In one of them, Tolstoy reflects unmistakably on the Passion.  The Governor of Moscow, Count Rastoptchin, hands one suspected traitor over the mob.  ‘You shall deal with him as you think fit!  I hand him over to you!’  The resulting massacre is bestial, and resembles in part the September Massacres in Paris twenty or so years before.  As the Governor goes home in his carriage, an asylum spills out its lunatics:

Tottering on his long, thin legs, in his fluttering dressing-gown, this madman ran at headlong speed, with his eyes fixed on Rastoptchin, shouting something to him in a husky voice, and making signs to him to stop.  The gloomy and triumphant face of the madman was thin and yellow, with irregular clumps of beard growing on it.  The black agate-like pupils of his eyes moved restlessly, showing the saffron-yellow whites above.  ‘Stay!  Stop, I tell you!’ he shouted shrilly, and again breathlessly fell to shouting something with emphatic gestures and intonations. 

He reached the carriage and ran alongside it.

‘Three times they slew me; three times I rose again from the dead.  They stoned me, they crucified me  …  I shall rise again  …  I shall rise again  … I shall rise again.  My body they tore to pieces.  The Kingdom of Heaven will be overthrown  …  Three times I will overthrow it, and three times I will set it up again’, he screamed, his voice growing shriller and shriller.  Count Rastoptchin suddenly turned white, as he had turned white when the crowd fell upon [the victim of the mob].  He turned away.  ‘Go, go on, faster!’ he cried in a trembling voice to his coachman.

We read novels for the insight we get from writing like that, not to read tracts about theology or politics.

War?  No sane person writes a book about war that is pro-war.  Sane books about war are anti-war.  Homer began the tradition with the Iliad and War and Peace is its apogee.  The novel is an attack on everything that Napoleon stood for – his doctrinaire aggression and his doctrine that one man – a hero – can create history.  Here is the most polite thing that Tolstoy ever said about Napoleon:

A man of no convictions, no habits, no traditions, no name, not even a Frenchman, by the strangest freaks of chance, as it seems, rises above the seething parties of France, and without attaching himself to any one of them, advances to a prominent position.

Bulky, slow, modest, determined, devout, one-eyed old Kutuzov is the real hero of the novel.  Kutuzov has God, but he is down to earth.  He is not into theory or even strategy.  On the eve of Austerlitz, Kutuzov addresses his staff:

‘Gentlemen, the dispositions of tomorrow, for today indeed (for it’s going on for one o’clock), can’t be altered now’, he said.  ‘You have heard it, and we will all do our duty.  And before a battle nothing is of so much importance …’ (he paused) ‘as a good night’s rest.’

We may be confident that Kutuzov had the view of the impossibility of military science that Tolstoy attributed to Prince Andrey.  ‘How can there be a science of war in which, as in every practical matter, nothing can be definite, and everything depends on countless conditions, the influence of which becomes manifest all in a moment, and no one can know when that moment is coming.’

This plain view of soldiering is like the view that Pierre came to hold over our understanding of what matters most.  It is attained not ‘by reason, but by life’.  That view in turn is very much like the view of the great American jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes when he said that ‘the life of the law has not been logic but experience’.  General Kutuzov was no theorist.

Above all, Kutuzov looked after his men.  This wise old soldier knew that the geography and climate could see Napoleon off (just as they would see Hitler off).  Why spill Russian blood for the sake of it to supplement the work of God?  A commander of the German school wanted Kutuzov to take a stand at Moscow.  This is how the good old man dealt with the bullshit.

‘The holy and ancient capital of Russia!’ he cried, suddenly, in a wrathful voice, repeating Bennigsen’s words, and thereby underlining the false note in them, ‘Allow me to tell your Excellency that that question has no meaning to a Russian.’  (He lurched his unwieldy figure forward.)  ‘Such a question cannot be put; there is no sense in such a question.  The question I have asked these gentlemen to meet to discuss is the question of the war. The question is: the safety of Russia lies in her army.  Is it better to risk the loss of the army and of Moscow by giving battle, or to abandon Moscow without a battle?  That is the question on which I desire to learn your opinion.’  He lurched back into his low chair again.

The role of Kutusov should be studied by all those commanders who believe that they have the brains and the toys that take them beyond the reach of the eternal verities.  Kutusov was a supremely good, lovable hero.  Accordingly, to show the gratitude of Mother Russia, he was in victory stripped of his command by an inbred fop who could not have fought his way out of a wet paper bag.  This is irony.  It may not be irony of the tragic kind, but Tolstoy revels in it, as well he may, and he lays it on with a trowel.

Prince Andrey was hardened by the battle of Austerlitz where he was badly wounded.  On the eve of the battle of Borodino, Prince Andrey has a remarkable conversation with Count Pierre.  Sporting coaches might wish to commit parts of it to memory.

‘But you know they say’, he said, ‘that war is like a game of chess.’

‘Yes’, said Prince Andrey, ‘only with this little difference, that in chess you may think over each move as long as you please, that you are not limited as to time, and with the spirited difference that a knight is always stronger than a pawn and two pawns are always stronger than one, while in war a battalion is sometimes stronger than a division, and sometimes weaker than a company.  No one can ever be certain of the relative strength of armies.  Believe me’, he said, ‘if anything did depend on the arrangements made by the staff, I would be there, and helping to make them, but instead of that I have the honour of serving here in the regiment with these gentlemen here, and I consider that the day really depends upon us tomorrow and not on them…  Success never has depended, and never will depend on position, on arms, nor even numbers; and, least of all, on position’.

‘On what then?’

‘On the feeling that is in me and him’, he indicated Timohin [his Major] ‘and every soldier.’

Prince Andrey glanced at Timohin, who was staring in alarm and bewilderment at his Colonel….‘The battle is won by the side that has firmly resolved to win …’

What counts is the feeling that is in me and in him.

Two other comments on the war.  When standing outside Moscow – this ‘Asiatic city’ – Napoleon observed that ‘a city occupied by the enemy is like a girl who has lost her honour.’  As the French soldiers dispersed in the city, they went from being an active menacing army to being marauders.  If Mr Bush and Mr Blair had taken notice of these two simple truths before sending their armies into Baghdad, they may have saved their armies a lot of lives, and themselves a lot of embarrassment.  Nor did Napoleon pause to explain why he was surprised that he was not welcomed in Moscow – it is, after all, rare for a girl to welcome the man who has just raped her.

Prince Andrey sure knew how to unsettle his friend Count Pierre.  When, near the end, Pierre asked one of his old retainers if he still wanted freedom, the answer was in substance: ‘What on earth for?’  But the answer of course would have been different if the question had been put by old Prince Vassily Bolkonsky.  Tolstoy, too, was an abiding liberal.  He could afford to be having been born a Count into a family of 800 serfs.

Well, what then of Pierre and his quest for the one logical answer to all of life’s mysteries?  Pierre had formed a view that he should kill Napoleon.  He did not reach that position in the way that Dietrich Bonhoeffer did when he resolved to try to kill Adolf Hitler.  Pierre had devised some bizarre formula in a naïve belief that there must be a given logical or even mathematical answer.  He eventually came to rest with the simple view that God is everywhere and that we must take life as it comes.

In accordance with the text, Pierre learns his lesson not from logic but from life.  Ostensibly it comes to him in talking with a peasant, Platon Karataev, but the truth is that it comes to him during his imprisonment.  Over a period of time, he actually gets to live with the unwashed.  It would be like someone brought up in the landed aristocracy in England and kept on the estate or at an elite boarding school and then being dumped in the ranks in the navy.  You may as well land him on Mars.

In the course of his journey, Pierre delivered himself of an observation which for many is their favourite part in the book.  ‘You die and it’s all over.  You die and find it all out or you cease asking.’  Pierre thought that this proposition was illogical, but it appears to us to be spellbindingly logical, one of the very few propositions about the afterlife that is sane, sensible and apparently logical.  If you combine with it the insight of the ancient Greeks that you do not live to see your own death, you have the basis of a tolerant view of the meaning of life, or at least one that suggests that we should be tolerant of the views of others.  Bravo, therefore, Pierre!

Kutuzov was the hero of the Russians’ defeat of Napoleon.  Zhukov, greatly admired by Eisenhower, was the hero of the Russians’ defeat of Hitler.  At the end of that war, which the Russians refer to the Great Patriotic War, Zhukov was stripped of his position as commander-in-chief.  The man responsible was called Stalin.  He had more power than any of the Tsars had and Stalin killed more peasants than any Tsar did.  Millions more.

If you go to Moscow now, you will see why they refer to the Great Patriotic War.  On the way in from the airport, there is a monument to ‘where we stopped the fascists.’  It is not far from the Kremlin.  If you visit the Kremlin you may get a guide who will say, without mentioning any names – ‘That is the gate he came in on’ and ‘That is the gate he went out of.’

I want to end this note on this wonderful book by looking at one of its more famous incidents, one so faithfully shown in the BBC series.  It is in Book 12 Chapter 3.  Napoleon’s army is occupying Moscow.  It is executing Russian trouble-makers.  A group is marched to a field.  Pierre hears officers talking of whether the prisoners would be shot separately or two at a time.  Pierre listens and watches in horror as the prisoner are shot in pairs.  ‘On the faces of all the Russians, and of the French soldiers without exception, he read the same dismay, horror and conflict that were in his own heart….The fifth man was the factory lad in the loose cloak.  The moment they laid hands on him, he sprang aside in terror and clutched at Pierre.  (Pierre shuddered and shook himself free).  The lad was unable to walk….When he understood that screaming was useless, he took his stand at the post….and like a wounded animal looked around him with glittering eyes.’  He was not dead when he went into the pit.  A French sharpshooter lingered over it.  ‘This one, a young soldier, his face deadly pale, his shako pushed back, and his musket resting on the ground, still stood near the pit at the spot from which he had fired.  He swayed a like a drunken man, taking steps forward and back to save himself from falling’  An old NCO dragged the soldier off.  The crowd dispersed. ‘That will teach them to start fires,’ said one of the Frenchmen.’

I said that I would come back to the way that the German occupying army shot the French historian Marc Bloch during World War II.  According to the very complete biography of Bloch by Carole Fink, on the night of 16 June 1944, at about 8 o’clock, 28 prisoners of Montluc at Lyon were assembled from various cells and hand-cuffed two-by-two in an open truck that was escorted by German officers and subofficers with aimed tommy guns.  They went to the Place Bellecour which was then the Gestapo HQ.  They were there insulted by a drunken German officer who bragged that London would be destroyed by the V-1.  They then drove along the Saone to a meadow surrounded by trees at a place called La Rousille.  They were then unloaded in batches of two-by-two and shot at close range by uniformed soldiers with machine guns.  A survivor said that Bloch at the last moment comforted a frightened young man by telling him that the bullets would not hurt.  Bloch was reported to be the first victim to fall.  As he did, he cried ‘Vive la France!’

According to Carole Fink, there were two main differences in the executions imagined by Tolstoy and those recorded in history.  The Germans circulated and delivered the final fatal shots to the head, but they did not bury the evidence – they just destroyed the evidence of identity, and hurried off.  Tolstoy had said: ‘They all plainly and certainly knew that they were criminals who must hide the traces of their guilt as quickly as possible.’  Tolstoy could say that of his murderers because he was their creator.  We do not know what was in the minds of the German murderers because we are not God.

As it seems to me, we have in Tolstoy a writer with a genius for artistic imagination and an insight into the human condition that we do not expect to see outside of God.

2 thoughts on “MY TOP SHELF – 38 – War and Peace

  1. There’s a coincidence. Yesterday in Gippsland I bought copy of W&P. Figured it was past time I read one of the classics.

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