War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy

But Petersburg’s daily round – tranquil, luxurious, concerned only with phantoms and reflections of life – continued as before, so that it was not easy, and needed a determined effort, to form any true idea of the peril and the difficulty in which the Russian nation was placed.

Now that he was telling it all to Natasha he experienced the rare happiness men know when women listen to them – not clever women who when they listen are either trying to assimilate what they hear for the sake of enriching their minds and, when opportunity offers, repeating it, or to apply what is told them to their own ideas and promptly bring out clever comments elaborated in their own little mental workshop; but the happiness true women give who are endowed with the capacity to select and absorb all that is best in what a man shows of himself.

Recently I heard an advertisement for a new War and Peace cable miniseries that touted the story as being the greatest novel ever written. I have also seen that printed elsewhere, and while I would not go that far, I did come away with a deep appreciation for Tolstoy’s epic. Once upon a time I had tried to read War and Peace but got lost and gave up; this time around I persevered and, much to my surprise, found it to be a relatively easy read. There is just a lot of book. As in, more than once I looked up at the page number only to despair that after four hundred pages of story, there were still more thousand left to go. But, each time, the number of pages remaining steadily decreased and, lo, War and Peace came to an end.

War and Peace is too enormous to encapsulate in this review, but I am going to try.

Fundamentally, the story of War and Peace traces the conflict between Napoleon Bonaparte and Russian Tsar Alexander I in war and in peace from 1805 until 1812. Tolstoy presents the conflict as a struggle that the Russian people came to with religious fervor, with the eventual defeat of Napoleon treated with providential reverence.

The narrative unfolds from the perspective of members of the Russian aristocracy who are drawn into the conflict. Some of the lesser characters, such as the tragic Vasily Denisov and valiant little Captain Tushin are among the most memorable, but the story is best understood as following the intersection between two triads, one male, one female. The three men are Pierre Besuhov, Andrei Bolkonsky, and Nikolai Rostov, the women Maria Bolkonsky, Natasha Rostov, and Helene Bezuhov (neé Kuragin). Pierre, the adopted heir to his wealthy, natural father, is one of the heroes of the story, experiencing multiple awakenings as he strives to be the best he can be, often without luck. His wife, Helene, is a Europeanized woman, dressing and acting in scandalous ways, while, in contrast, the other two women exemplify Russian virtues. Natasha is at times flighty, but is the embodiment of beauty and innocence, while Maria embodies religious and family virtue. Their brothers similarly take on the mantle of virtues: Nikolai the (annoying) fervent passion for Russia and the Emperor even as he matures through the story, and Andrei modern European values that evidently are only a virtue in men. War and Peace traces the story of these six characters and their friends and acquaintances.

In lieu of a recap (there is war, peace, war, peace, war again, culminating in the capture of Moscow and French retreat), I want to give a few observations I had about War and Peace

First there was a preoccupation with money. Nearly every character was Russian nobility, and the sheer repetition of “prince” in my translation became tiresome, but few characters were actually financially solvent so money is one way Tolstoy drives them together and apart. On the one hand, it is effective, ratcheting up the tension in the various liaisons, but, on the other, it also repeatedly struck me as ironic given that the book is about a particularly privileged class of Russian society that Tolstoy praises for benevolent paternalism.

Second, one of the running themes as War and Peace goes along is the importance of Moscow as the “Asiatic Capital” of the Russian nation, which Tolstoy offers as the reason that it was Napoleon’s target. Now, Moscow likely did have that much symbolic significance, but it kept striking me that Moscow was not the administrative capital of Russia, Petersburg was. The result, which I don’t know enough whether to credit to Tolstoy, is a dissonance between reality and how the characters talk with reference to the importance of the city. For the Bolkonskys, anyway, Moscow is significant because Napoleon’s line of advance passes directly through their ancestral estates.

Third, some of the most moving scenes from my perspective came during the battles. The characters talk about past battles and great heroes who actions save the state, but their actual experiences are narrated from a tight third-person perspective which turns the battles into noisy, bloody, confusing affairs that, more often than not, leave the participants scared and confused.

Fourth, for all of the sexism, classism, and bias that pervades War and Peace,there are a remarkable number of eternal truths, from the terror of battle, to the advice quoted at the start of this piece, to take the best of what your partner has to offer. There’s a lengthy tirade against historians in the second epilogue, something that is foreshadowed by intermittent asides that might be the result of serial publication, but there isn’t one overarching message in this memorialization of the Russian triumph over France and the west. Instead, the story is pregnant with these moments of profundity as each of the characters tries to do what he or she believes to be best.

In sum, not what I would call the best novel of all time, but well worth reading.

I have still been reading, but the start of the semester and all that accompanies that have caused me to fall somewhat behind on reviews. I recently finished Isaac Asimov’s Foundation and Empire and John Scalzi’s The Human Division, and am now onto Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin. I may be playing catchup for a while, but thoughts on those books are coming.

Could be me

Balashev found Davoust seated on a barrel in the shed of a peasant’s hut, writing – he was auditing accounts. An adjutant stood near him. Better quarters could have been found for him, but Marshal Davoust was one of those men who purposely make the conditions of life as uncomfortable for themselves as possible in order to have an excuse for being gloomy. For the same reason they are always hard at work and in a hurry. ‘How can I think of the bright side of existence when, as you see, I sit perched on a barrel in a dirty shed, hard at work?’ the expression of his face seemed to say. The chief satisfaction and requirement of such people is to make a great parade of their own dreary, persistent activity, whenever they encounter anyone enjoying life. Davoust allowed himself that gratification when Balashev was brought in. He buried himself more deeply than ever in his work when the Russian general entered, and after a glance through his spectacles at Balashev’s face, which was animated by the beauty of the morning and his talk with Murat, he did not rise, did not stir even, but scowled more bleakly than before and smiled malignantly.

Okay, the title is a bit of an exaggeration, but, when I read this passage aloud to my girlfriend, she exclaimed “it’s you!” I took most of Tolstoy’s characterizations in War and Peace with a grain of salt, but I’ve always had a soft spot for The Iron Marshal. This passage just feeds that fondness.

Thermopylae in literature, War and Peace

Maybe it was that I read Stephen Pressfield’s Gates of Fire on the recommendation of my eighth grade social studies teacher, well before I settled on Greek history as a primary field of study and certainly before I had any inkling that graduate school in history was a thing, but Thermopylae has fascinated me for more than half of my life. I have a soft spot for heroism and for desperate last-stands, so the command μολὼν λαβέ (come and take them!) in the right context* gives me chills. As a scholar, the battle perplexes me; I simultaneously don’t believe Herodotus’ version of Leonidas’ sacrifice being at the root of the decision to sacrifice these soldiers and find it the most plausible. Nothing else has convinced me, except that there may be too many levels of myth surrounding the events to ever actually unravel what happened. I don’t mean to get too deeply into Thermopylae, particularly while I am still working on my dissertation in which the battle never comes up, but suffice to say that it is an event that still intrigues me.

*i.e. not when it is a call to arms against gun control.

This background for my interest in Thermopylae is relevant because reference to the battle appeared in a recent non-academic read, War and Peace. What follows is also the first of an occasional series I am going to do talking about instances of classical reception.

The officer with the twin moustaches, Zdrzhinsky by name, grandiloquently described the dam at Saltanov as being a ‘Russian Thermopylae’, and declared the heroic deed of Greneral Raevsky on that dam to be worthy on antiquity…

Rostov looked at him without speaking. ‘To begin with, there must have been such a crush and confusion on the dam they were attacking that if Raevsky had really rushed forward with his sons it could have had no effect except perhaps on the ten or twelve men nearest to him,’ thought Rostov. ‘The rest could not have seen how or with whom Raevsky advanced on to the dam. And then even those who did see could have have been particularly inspired, for what did Raevsky’s tender paternal feelings matter to them when they had their own skins to the think about? And, moreover, the fate of the Fatherland did not depend on whether the Saltanov dam was taken, as we are told was the case at Thermopylae. So what was the use of such a sacrifice?’

There is a lot to unravel about this passage, including how Tolstoy talks about war, which is something I want to explore when I get around to reviewing the novel in the near future. But for now I just want to make two observations.

First it struck me that while the overly-enthusiastic Zdrzhinsky is capable of citing Thermopylae and knows that the battle was important in the final defeat of an invader, he is does not know all of the details. “Thermopylae” is just a symbol for him, pregnant with meaning but devoid of context.

Second, and related, Rostov provides some of that context and I think offers an some insight into Tolstoy’s vision of the interplay between providence and history. His vision of Thermopylae still lacks the Greek cultural context, but gives some broader historical context, namely that the sacrifice was a divine mandate to save Greece, while the battle at Saltanov was an individual moment of foolish heroism of the sort that happens all the time in war but still miss greater purpose. Ironically, I believe that some of the legend and importance of Thermopylae developed out of hindsight, i.e. that since the Greeks won they were able to point at the battle as an important moment. Like Xerxes, Napoleon is defeated, but gone is that glorious moment.

Martial Prowess

I’ve been interested in collective reputations for martial prowess for a long time. I even once wrote a misguided blog post on the topic that misrepresented Sparta and Spartans in a way that is uniquely suited to an overly-exuberant, young, American man. My opinions on that particular topic have come a long way since then, but the general interest in the concept remains. This sort of thinking has been long ingrained through years of table top gaming and reading hierarchically-minded science fiction and fantasy that frequently has an underpinning of principles that mirror scientific racism, but that is perhaps a topic for another post. What I find interesting from a historical perspective is not why the groups were militarily successful (or even if they were), but how, when and why these reputations for being a “martial race” develop.

My current fun read is an English translation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, which is set during the Napoleonic Wars. I have completed book one, which concludes with the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805. At the battle, Napoleon’s army convincingly destroyed the joint armies of Austria and Russia.

Thus far I have appreciated the timelessness of Tolstoy’s battle descriptions. I will write up longer thoughts when I finish the novel, but a passing comment in the first book stood out. At a party where a number of Russian officers discuss the Napoleon’s progress, one of them flippantly dismisses the French victories on the grounds that they were only fighting against Germans. On the one hand, this is part of the characterization of a young man full of bluster, but, on the other, it speaks to a broader stereotype of Germans as militarily inept that, even in the years that Tolstoy wrote War and Peace, Otto von Bismark (among others) swept away.

Although this instance in War and Peace is meant to downplay French successes, but the story goes on to demonstrate that not only are the Germans unable to stop Napoleon, but he also defeats the Russian army. The juxtaposition is stark on all these points. The French reputation against the German, and the way in which both of the reputations flipped—-so much so that a Google search for “French Military Victories” used to autocorrect to “did you mean French Military Defeats” and a website that tried to show that every French military victory was attributable to people who were not actually French. But therein lies the rub: these are reputations and reputations change based on a host of factors that are only loosely connected to reality.