Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’ — One Big-Assed Tale

January 9, 2011


(Illustration found here).

Currently, I’m wonderfully-creeping through Leo Tolstoy’s epic Napoleonic-era masterwork, War and Peace — and that’s Count Lyev Nikolayevich Tolstoy to all of us way-west of the Volga — Russians tend to have such extreme-sounding, poetic names (to my ears anyway), maybe due to great-use of the ‘v’  letter, along with all those vowels apparently dropped about at random — Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin is a case in point, though bit bizarre to the hearing) — and although the book is considered one of the greatest novels ever written (maybe the best — Time magazine has Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina as the #1 novel, War and Peace, third, sandwiching Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert at #2) some of the Tolstoy’s narrative-technique descriptions of conversational life and drawing-room chatter at all kinds of upper-crust Russian social events carry a definite un-literary, wink-wink, gossip impression that could best be reported as from a Wonkette.
Although this is my second read of War and Peace — the first while a college junior/senior in the early 1970s — the flow of the story right now feels new and fresh, even getting a sense, not only of the large-canvas view, but also tiny nuances of emotional chit-chat from near-200 years ago.
And maybe reading at a more-advanced age allows some new insight missed near-40 years ago.
In reality, War and Peace is soap opera on a grand scale, even with such luminaries as Napoleon and Tsar Alexander I waddling about, great battle scenes mingled with deep conversational strains of philosophical freemasonry, the core of the story is character-driven episodes of drama, i.e.,  Days of Our Lives delivered by someone with a David Lean vision — so far, a much-enjoyable read.

As I’ve been slowly cruising this past month through the Russian aristocratic landscape of 1805, Tolstoy and his big book popped up in the nowadays, albeit in a clueless, strange, and ultimately sad, microcosm-of-modern-life-kind-of-way.
Last Monday evening, the Republican National Committee held a debate for five candidates vying for its chairmanship — seeking a winner out of a bunch of total losers with a capital L; a panel of pure morons:…Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, asked the participants to name their favorite book. “The Reagan Diaries,” said Reince Priebus, the Wisconsin GOP head and, apparently, the leading RNC chair candidate. Ann Wagner, the former U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg, said George W. Bush’s new memoir, Decision Points, was her favorite.
Are you shitting me, Ann, or are you a complete air brain? — WTF
So along comes one of our most-favorite indescribable characters in modern politics — Michael Steele.
Via Raw Story:

During a debate with all the candidates vying for the RNC chairmanship, Steele told the audience that his favorite book was Tolstoy’s 1869 epic “War and Peace,” one of the most celebrated books ever published.
But, then he followed up his answer with a peculiar quote: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
A wave on uneasy laughter swept across the room.
That’s because his quote is the most famous line from Dickens’ classic 1859 novel “A Tale of Two Cities.”

Read a nit-wit list of Steele’s nit-wit gaffes via Politico.
There’s going to be a way-shitload of ‘uneasy laughter‘ in the coming GOP-influenced months. (Not including the influence off Saturday’s near-unimaginable massacre in Tucson — backlash of more nasty-mouth hatred, or what?)

Also last Monday, the New York Times had a piece on Russia’s current attempt to understand, and place in national perspective, Tolstoy’s standing in the country’s history — the 100th anniversary of his death was Nov. 20, 2010.
Although the Soviets held Tolstoy in high esteem, modern Russians have become apathetic.
According to Vladimir I. Tolstoy, Tolstoy’s great-great-grandson, who oversees the museum at Yasnaya Polyana, the author’s estate, the late-great writer is not politically prestigious enough.

Aside from a reception held by the minister of culture, the anniversary transpired with “a conscious ignoring of Tolstoy,” he said.
“Any power tries to adapt great people to its needs,” he added. “The current authorities don’t adapt him, or they are not clever enough. Maybe they are so self-confident they don’t think they need to.”

Tolstoy spent his final years ranting against authority through passive resistance — a concept later used by Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.

War and Peace reportedly has 580 major characters — although the novel concentrates on five high society families and how they handle life as dictated by Napoleon’s invasion of Russia.
As I said, this is my second reading, which originally came from being so overwhelmed by an incredible BBC production of the book in 1973 (presented via PBS) that I just had to read the damn thing — the movie was also my first look at young Anthony Hopkins, who played most-likely the main character (amongst so many), Count Graf Pyotr “Pierre” Kirillovich Bezukhov .
Hollywood produced a War and Peace version in 1956, Henry Fonda playing the “Pierre” role — I thought it was a bit boring and dated — and the Soviets themselves put together an eight-hour production in 1967, though, I haven’t seen it.

(Illustration found here).

Pierre is a big, awkard guy.
We first meet him in his early 20s, peering over spectacles, something of an oddball and shy, and in the beginning, extreme-reluctant to offend anyone, and having just returned to Russia after being educated abroad, has a near-nerd’s newbie view of life in Petersburg — and further complicating an apparent budding-smorgasbord of emotional disorders, Pierre is the lowly, illegitimate son of an elderly, nasty-faced, though, mega-wealthy count.
Prince Vassily, a so-called, near-self-anointed friend of Pierre and his family, would later gossip that he’d always figured Pierre was an idiot: “Crackbrained, I always said so.”

The heroine, or main female character in War and Peace (and once again, against a background of a shitload of women, young and old, who have enough flesh on their storyline bones to nearly qualify as leading lady) is “Natasha” — Countess Natalya Ilyinichna Rostova.
One of the great free-spirited females of fiction, Natasha, most-like in several ways to Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet of Pride and Prejudice fame, moves through the novel falling-in-and-out-of-love, marriage, death scenes, all kinds of shit — when first introduced, she’s 12 and a most-marvellous dancer, with just a touch of saucy tease.
One forgets these gals married at age 16 or 17.
Being so enamored of Natasha’s character, a couple of years after finishing the book, as certain circumstances arose, I adopted a cat to enhance my new apartment (I then a newspaper police reporter and wearing a much-younger man’s clothes) and named her ‘Natasha,’ but using the full name: Countess Natalya Ilyinichna Rostova (I could also pronounce words much-more correctly in those days).

(Illustration of not-the-characters from War and Peace found here).

Right now, I’m about a bit under a third of the way through War and Peace — just a year or so beyond Russia’s famous defeat at Austerlitz (and Napoleon’s greatest victory) in December 1805.
Tolstoy, who served as a second lieutenant of an artillery regiment during the Crimean War, paints battle scenes not in moves, or even action, but in confusion — indeed the fog of war.
No one seems to know what’s going on, from the highest generals to the low-soldiers on the infantry line, and the story is told through the character’s eyes, mostly clueless.
Even more staggering, most of Russian high society spoke French, or threw in French words to sound more cool — one of the novel’s chief characters at Austerlitz, Prince Andrey Bolkonski, was in a nasty spot, he thought of Napoleon as his hero.

And Natasha’s brother, Nikolai Rostova, is wounded, and as he encounters his perilous position on the battlefield wonders in dream-like thoughts why strangers want to kill him — he who is so loved:

“Who are they? What are they running for? Can it be to me? Can they be running to me? And what for? To kill me? Me, whom everyone’s so fond of?”
He recalled his mother’s love, the love of his family and his friends, and the enemy’s intention of killing him seemed impossible.
“But they may even kill me.”

Rostova survives, but further reading indicates he’s a little prick, self-centered and smug.
Most of the characters are self-centered and smug — this is aristocracy at its purest form, all considered a ‘Prince This‘, or a ‘Princess That,’ or some other title allowing for such feelings.
Alas, so far there’s no thread of a story about the serfs or other low class working stiffs — just an occasional mention of a footman, or carriage driver, or chief cook, or something another.
Even as the Russians are routed at Austerlitz, Pierre lands a big prize — his daddy, the old count dies, but before he does, bypasses other kinfolk waiting to inherit, and gives all of his immense fortune to Pierre, who goes from sad sack to mega popular among Russian high society.
Such is life.

In the aftermath, and up to my current place in War and Peace (an online rendition of various parts of the book):

On the first arrival of the news of the battle of Austerlitz, Moscow had been bewildered.
At that time, the Russians were so used to victories that on receiving news of the defeat some would simply not believe it, while others sought some extraordinary explanation of so strange an event.
In the English Club, where all who were distinguished, important, and well informed forgathered when the news began to arrive in December, nothing was said about the war and the last battle, as though all were in a conspiracy of silence.

Reasons were found for the incredible, unheard-of, and impossible event of a Russian defeat, everything became clear, and in all corners of Moscow the same things began to be said.
These reasons were the treachery of the Austrians, a defective commissariat, the treachery of the Pole Przebyszewski and of the Frenchman Langeron, Kutuzov’s incapacity, and (it was whispered) the youth and inexperience of the sovereign, who had trusted worthless and insignificant people.
But the army, the Russian army, everyone declared, was extraordinary and had achieved miracles of valor.

And Tolstoy doesn’t appreciate the military:

The Bible legend tells us that the absence of labor — idleness — was a condition of the first man’s blessedness before the Fall.
Fallen man has retained a love of idleness, but the curse weighs on the race not only because we have to seek our bread in the sweat of our brows, but because our moral nature is such that we cannot be both idle and at ease.
An inner voice tells us we are in the wrong if we are idle.
If man could find a state in which he felt that though idle he was fulfilling his duty, he would have found one of the conditions of man’s primitive blessedness.
And such a state of obligatory and irreproachable idleness is the lot of a whole class — the military.
The chief attraction of military service has consisted and will consist in this compulsory and irreproachable idleness.

One should ponder that nowadays.
Maybe I’ll post again as I move through a faraway, though, seemingly close-up environment where folks might have figured they were on the cusp of the apocalypse, but instead of climate change, financial meltdown and a host of other horrors, the bad news back then was only a guy named Bonaparte.

C’est ainsi qu’il en est,” or roughly translated, ‘and so it goes.’

(Aside: The version I’m reading: War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy; translated by Constance Garnett; Modern Library, 2004).

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