Count Leon Tolstoy (1828-1910) is, of course, widely acclaimed, by a legion of the world’s most respected authors, as among the greatest novelists of all time, and he is known primarily for two books, War and Peace, (1869), and Anna Karenina (1877), plus essays and short stories (The Cossacks being the best known), which gave the world an intimate view of the breadth, scope, and passion of Russia in the 19th Century – as did Dostoyevsky, Turgenev, Chekov, and Pushkin (Tolstoy’s cousin) and, later, Pasternak (who revealed the Russian Revolution and the ravages of Communism in his triumph, Dr. Zhivago). The sublime prose of War and Peace’s (a forgotten memory from my collegiate readings) is as fluid and unselfconscious as a flowing brook. The reader spills into the text and sails along effortlessly. That this can be achieved in a translation is mind boggling. As a critic said, “If the world could write, it would write itself like Tolstoy.” War and Peace tells us what happened, why and how, during Napoleon’s conquest of Russia and the ingenious manner in which he was driven from Russia in abject defeat; it also tells us the horrors, folly and futility of it, all in brilliant prose.
The theme is as epic and timeless as its title suggests. War and Peace (W&P) is a monument to the inscrutable cruelty and infinite folly of war, as juxtaposed to the author’s passionate entreaty for pacificism. The pretext of war (killing others), he sardonically notes “is always ‘the public good’.” His postulate, for avoiding war, is simple: If soldiers and citizens refuse to fight, there will be no more wars. (See Vol. III, Part One, Ch. 1.) Tolstoy tells us the truth about everything, exactly as he envisions it. He obeyed his own muse. “My hero is truth,” he said. His profundities abound: “There can be no heroes, only people…The most significant actions are insignificant ones…The beauty lies not in the figures and events that are seen but in the way that they are seen…Our power over others creates a dependence upon them…My tongue is my enemy…In the end, only love of all mankind matters.” His second lead character, Prince Andrei concludes, “I saw my enemy and loved him all the same.”
His characters had real life models, such as the author (Count Pierre), and they are full, rich, complex and/or superficial, where appropriate, but thoroughly believable. Turgenev venerated Tolstoy but called his characters “mediocrities”, but, even to the extent that is so, they ring true to life, as did Flaubert’s much maligned Mme. Bovery, who was universally viewed as shallow, but Flaubert said, “She is me.” Flaubert, too, wrote truth, albeit about the mundane, the frivolous, the sensual, and the idiotic. People are shallow, or not, but they are always parfaits of pluses and minuses. Tolstoy’s dialogue is almost too full; that is, so complete that it can tire even an avid reader, but the plot of W&P is epic, chronicling Russia but only from 1805-1812, a period of Russian opulence that saw Russia’s major cities (all with wooden buildings) reduced to ashes. It details Napoleon’s invasion of Russia with an army of 800,000 (only 15% Frenchmen and the rest from conquered areas of Europe), which easily overwhelmed Russian forces half the size. Tolstoy takes us deep into the battlefield to observe the confusion, trepidation, and panic of soldiers in battle, and the inhumane medical “treatment”, the piles of fetid corpses, the teeming masses awash in the bowels of war. Through Pierre, the author’s alter ego, we trace Tolstoy’s tortured fears of death, his struggle to have faith in God, his mental salvation: his conversion to Christianity, his Christ-like altruism, his opposition to private property rights and his preference for a Pollyannic welfare-state — not appreciating his successor-Pasternak’s sage conclusion in Zhivago: “When everything belongs to everyone, no one takes care of anything.” Pierre’s counterpoint, the equally kind Prince Andrei, never finds the answers to his questions (like Mitya in The Brothers Karamazov); Andrei queries, “Why am I so sorry to part with life,” and answers his own question, “Because I still don’t understand it.” Tolstoy nonetheless joins many other great writers in concluding that the essence of happiness flows from our “compassion, our love for our brothers, for those who love us and hate us, love for all.”
By way of epilogue, the irony of this war, of course, is that, in the end, Napoleon lost; he lost most of his army and all of his empire. As Tolstoy said, “Wars are not won by position, equipment, or shrewd generals, but by will, by him who is most firmly resolved to win it” – recalling the stunning feats of modern-day sports icons like Roger Federer or Rafa Nadal, who routinely defeat larger and seemingly more gifted opponents. Russia became “the Little Engine that could”. Napoleon was seduced by the more cunning Russian generals, enticing him to over-extend his lines, to expose his massive army to endless guerrilla warfare. The Russians abandoned their cities, retreating to the provinces, where life was largely untouched. As the irate French soldiers looted, pillaged and burned the cities, the Russians forces watched the city-flames from afar and burned their outlying crops (rejecting the good money that Napoleon offered them) thus leaving nothing edible for the French forces. Meanwhile, the Russians seethed internally but waited for the right time to impose their counter-punches, and counter-punch they did – scattered into guerrilla or “partisan” bands that were swelled by the addition of landowners and peasants; one peasant woman alone was said to have killed 100 French soldiers. Napoleon complained bitterly that the Russians “were not fighting by the rules of war, as if there were rules of war.”
After Napoleon reached Moscow, the end of his 2,000-mile march across the tundra of Russia, his forces longed to return home; their job was “finished”. Napoleon was outraged by the absence of anyone to concede defeat, to sign an armistice, to make concessions, and, most important, to provide emoluments for his withdrawal. Napoleon’s repeated offers of peace in letters to Kutuzov, the Russian Commander, were met by the same rejoinder, “There can be no question of peace.” Napoleon had no choice but to withdraw to save his army’s morale, and, as he did, his army was literally dismembered, limb-by-limb, by the Russian guerrilla-warriors, who stayed on the high ground and literally picked off the French as easily as shooting fish in a barrel. This became the most colossal “Pyrrhic Victory” of all time (recalling King Epirus “victory” over the Romans at Asculum in 279BC, wherein Epirus’ losses were far more staggering than his gains from his victory). Napoleon had lost half his army “conquering” Russia and most of the remaining half while fleeing; and many of the rest, who weren’t slaughtered, froze to death.
Napoleon narrowly escaped capture and death. It was likely the most humiliating defeat in military history. (Hitler, not heeding Napoleon’s lessons, suffered a somewhat similar fate as his troops could not overwhelm Russian forces but remained just long enough to freeze in the Russian winter, the blow that ended Hitler’s aggression before the Allies invaded Europe.) For his “victory” over Russia, Napoleon paid the ultimate price: The French empire, his dominion over France and even his freedom, as he was later exiled to tiny isle of Elba, to live his remaining days in ignominy – a fitting end to this conqueror-killer.
Is there anything in W&P that we don’t like? Yes, its size. Twelve hundred pages of fine print, likely 2,000 pages of normal print, is a tad much. As one critic lamented, “Tolstoy doesn’t write books; he writes elephants.” Much the same can be said of other Russian greats (Dostoyevsky, Pushkin, Pasternak). Novelist-Henry James called W&P “a large, loose baggy monster.” It is that, but, in that, it mirrors life and the ebb and flow of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. Much of W&P deals with Russia’s aristocracy, of which Tolstoy was a part, and the novel sometimes digs too deep into the families’ lives, their peccadilloes, and the banal and tedious chit-chat of sometimes insipid characters, revealing a shallowness that can attend those who have no work ethic or sense of purpose, and, hence, make no contribution to justify their existence. This vapid social life of aristocrats (“the rich and famous” in today’s vernacular) is a curiosity to most of us, but it unduly burdens the plot and fatigues the reader. Twelve hundred pages of fine print strains patience, but, to be fair, Tolstoy has a gift for keeping the reader’s attention, regardless. His endless insights, so seamlessly injected, are so beautifully articulated.
Is it the best prose that the undersigned has ever read? No, clearly not – as this reader still prefers, Dickens, Cervantes, Pasternak, Turgenev, Dreiser, Poe, O’Henry, early Michener, and, now, Roberts (Shantaram), among others — but W&P still warrants its reputation as one of the great novels of all time and as a thought provoking vilification of the fatuousness of war, and, of course, it remains a “Must Read” for all adventurous readers.
It would be an oversight not to comment on the life of this literary giant. Tolstoy’s mother and father died when he was two and nine, respectively, but he was raised with the trappings of a child-Count. Regardless, while he studied law and various languages, he never finished “university” (being described as “unable and unwilling to learn”); he caroused wildly, cohabiting with all manner of serfs and peasants (as did Pierre in W&P), and even lost his family estate in a card game in 1854, living a form of Fellini’s infamous La Dolce Vita – but, as did his Pierre, “above all he read” all his life and, ultimately, rebuilt his family’s fortunes. Interestingly, a passionate pacifist and devotee of the Sermon on the Mount, Tolstoy wrote popular essays propounding the Christian ethic, if not most of its dogma, and his theses were adopted by Gandhi and Martin Luther King. His dairies reveal an obsessive determination to fathom the puzzle of “the simple and solemn mystery of death” and to find a rational and moral justification for life — a pervasive guilt, perhaps, for his sybaritic youth and for leading such a privileged life. After recklessly dissipating his youth, he became introverted and sporadically anti-social, again like Pierre in W&P. He grew to oppose private property (ignoring the wisdom, if he ever read it, of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776) which became the basis for America’s capitalistic Constitution) and even the institution of marriage; he grew to value chastity and sexual abstinence (as the raging hormones of his wanton youth receded). His wife resisted his gifts of their estate, and their later years together were most unhappy.
More saint than sinner, against his will, he attracted legions of disciples, who flocked to him and hung on his words, more than any man of letters since the great Voltaire (1694-1778). Despite this popularity, he died alone, in 1910 at age 82, while traveling, and was buried in a peasant’s grave, and, fittingly, thousands of peasants wept at his graveside. Even today, it remains difficult not to weep and rejoice over his books. No history book could ever live and breathe the slice of history that War and Peace so magnificently shares with us.