Battle of Moscow (Borodino) 7th Sept 1812 by Louis-François Lejeune
Christmas is nearing and every year I find myself irritable and exhausted and walking over to my bookshelves for literary solace. Dancing over rows of black paperwork classics, my fingers slow over my favoured volumes, all epics. Worlds of past existence inhabit my weighty tomes of one thousand pages plus. Vanity Fair, Middlemarch, The Chartreuse of Parma. I finally pull out Tolstoy’s War and Peace.
What is it about these monumental works that make me read them over and over again? War and Peace especially.
My dog-eared ‘War and Peace’
Running my eyes over a pared-down list of characters (five hundred and eighty in total to be found War and Peace!) I find myself reciting the beautiful Russian names, employing the Russian roll of the ‘r’s for the Rostovs. Bolkonsky, Bezukhov and the cruel Kuragin. And there is my favourite: Princess Anna Mihalovna Drubetskoy and her son Boris Drubetskoy.
All of this because my Russian grandmother introduced me to Tolstoy as a child. The names meant something to her. She was not only receptive to their musicality and their importance in Imperial Russia, but like most Russians, she revered Leo Tolstoy himself. Like the French however with Proust, she, together with her fellow countrymen, had not read War and Peace in its entirety. Nor had her brothers, my Russian Great-Uncles, who selected the military scenes: The Battle of Austerlitz, The Treaties of Tilsit and the duels. Their wives and my grandmother meanwhile, chose to skip anything military, preferring to dwell on the delightful domestic and romantic details.
Nowadays, it would be foolhardy to separate ‘the War’ from ‘the Peace’, for both combined, fuel the main theme of the book, namely humanity in all its guises, and the chaos caused by war and notably the Napoleonic invasion of Russia.
Tolstoy’s descriptions of the battlefield are up with the finest writers. Rather than glorifying war, Tolstoy describes the mess of it, the unpredictability and guesswork required in a time where technological support was many centuries away. Generals can only imagine troop movements, hussars charge blindly on their horses into impenetrable fogs to their death. And life behind the lines, the alliances, the meetings between the generals, the Russians and Austrians, the misinformation, the endless waiting for treaties to be agreed and signed. More than anyone, Tolstoy encapsulates the grinding machine of decision-making and military administration.
For Pierre Bezukhov, Tolstoy’s central character, the war is his wake-up call, something to be experienced and never forgotten. For the military characters, it is an endless cause of frustration, despair but also the only means to hold back Napoleon, the ‘anti-Christ’.
It is hard nowadays after reading history books of Napoleon, to imagine how feared and reviled Napoleon really was by Russians of the time. Tolstoy evokes brilliantly all that apprehension felt by the those attending the salons of St Petersburg in the opening scenes.
Tolstoy’s description of domesticity is equally alive with detail. The Rostov family home, described at length, is replete with laughter, tears, dance, card games and conviviality. It is a household the reader feels safe in, even though, the head of the household, Count Ilya Rostov, is teetering on bankruptcy owing to his son’s, Nikolai Rostov’s, one foolhardy gambling spree.
Tolstoy’s loveable characters are perfectly flawed. Natasha Rostov, (NIkolai’s sister) is both disarmingly charming and annoyingly inconsistent in love. But we forgive her, for, Prince Andrei’s hesitancy is maddening! Her inconstant nature notwithstanding, we are still shocked when she plans to elope with lustful Alphonse Kuragin.
Tolstoy has the knack of springing things on us. His characters, even the most lucid ones, can display incredible ill judgement and some, like Natasha, don’t know what they are doing from one minute to the next. But that is youth and Tolstoy expresses that perpetual state of hopefulness and excitement admirably.
Pierre Bezukhov probably displays the biggest learning curve in the book, commencing as a hard-drinking student and fervent supporter of Napoleon to someone who embraces freemasonry and charity and then gets disillusioned.
He is probably the most sympathetic character, who doesn’t shy from battling his demons. When Napoleon’s troops near Moscow, Pierre pays for a militia force and goes to the battle of Borodino on his own. The scenes he witnesses on the deadliest day of the Napoleonic war, are vivid and heartrendingly sad. By confronting war, Bezukhov lets his hero-worship of Napoleon die.
In my younger days, War and Peace was a means of escape, but increasingly I find it to be a truthful work.
A fervent pacifist, Tolstoy thought long and hard about the society he lived in. Equally he sought solutions to man’s ills not only in social reform but in spiritual solace.
Pierre Bezuhov, Prince Andrei and even action-led Nikolai Rostov, though very different from each other, are all characters drawn to the sky above their heads at critical moments in their life.
‘If there is a God and a future life, then there is truth and goodness, and man’s highest happiness consists in striving to attain them. We must live, we must love, we must believe that we have life not only today on this scrap of earth but that we have lived and shall live forever, there, in the Whole,’ says Pierre Bezukhov to the more cynical Prince Andrei.
I often find myself staring up at the sky these days pondering over Bezukhov’s passionate outpouring to his friend.