The first time I read WAR AND PEACE I was probably about twelve, and was feeling a bit like Russian nobility myself, being granted a reprieve from a job I had picking beans for some reason, whether it was a rainy week or just no beans available. So, while I had experience as a serf, I also had the opportunity to read a classic, no small thing. How many people had a real, unedited edition complete with French and English footnotes in their childhood home? I read Maude’s translation when young, and this is also the one I ordered online from Amazon, mainly because Maude was a personal friend of Tolstoy and this makes me think this translation would have been more true to the author’s intent. There is a debate about what the best translation is, of course.
Since this book is pretty old, I’m not worried about “spoilers”.
The book functions as a novel, a historical treatise, and as historical fiction. At its most basic, the novel part revolves around Pierre and Natasha, two people caught up in the mayhem surrounding the Napoleonic Wars of 1812. They take some wrong turns relationship-wise, but wind up with each other. She settles down once she performs her primary function–producing a passle of young Russkies. She mainly protects Pierre from himself and his odd idea that he should have ideas, and not just enjoy all the money his father, Count Chockenberry, had left him to punish his legitimate children.
There are other characters in this fourteen hundred page book, of course, but they mainly exist as foils Tolstoy uses to develop his themes and as plot devices. The novel part is about Natasha and Pierre, end of story.
The historical fiction aspect of WAR AND PEACE is much more interesting than the novel, the primary merit of which is the foreboding sense that things will end very badly for the Russian nobility in 1917. The lucky ones will wind up working in fine French restaurants. As historical fiction, though, WAR AND PEACE works well, and the primary relationship developed is between Kutuzov, the Russian top general, and Napoleon, the French upstart Emperor.
Napoleon resents Alexander, the Czar of Russia, this seems clear. Napoleon represents the New World Order of his day, backed by Illuminattist and Masonic ideas, which Tolstoy freely references in his book. Tolstoy was an old Old School conspiracy theorist, and it would be advisable for those who poo-poo such ideas to acquire an old edition of WAR AND PEACE and study it.
The book seems like it must be historical fiction, although Tolstoy had the advantage of having several relatives who were well placed in Russian Society at this time, who gave him the inside dope. However, we cannot know what Napoleon and Kutuzov were thinking as they played their military chess match with each other, although Tolstoy tries to fill in the blanks left by history.
Tolstoy does make Kutuzov an unforgettable figure, a fat guy who drank too much and liked Polish hookers. Kutuzov knew what he knew, though, and what he understood was, at least in 1812, if a couple hundred thousand guys were fighting each other with sabers, muskets, and cannon, movements couldn’t be exactly orchestrated and the key thing was to inspire the troops. Tolstoy placed a high premium on the intangible “wanting it more”. Russian troops ran in Austria, but fought hardest outside of Moscow. Even though the French took Moscow, Kutuzov managed to inflict a mortal wound on the French behemoth, and Napoleon could not recover so deeply within Russian soil.
Maybe there was some point to the French Invasion of Russia in 1812 besides sacking Moscow and trying to flee with the loot, but WAR AND PEACE manages to avoid getting into that. Napoleon is painted in fairly unfavorable tones. Those who viewed him as a savior (Pierre) change their minds over the course, and Pierre even attempts a rather half-assed assassination attempt towards the end.
After Moscow, Kutuzov only pursues Napoleon to try to spur him on, and refuses to attack, which eventually causes him to be relieved of his command. The reason for his reluctance are twofold, according to Tolstoy: 1. Kutuzov wished to decrease Russian casualties. This contrasts with Napoleon’s heartlessness. 2. It was logistically difficult to engage, and pointless since Napoleon’s army was being destroyed every step of the way by vigilantes, militia, and other partisans.
However, Russian attacks which did occur were highly successful, so I believe Tolstoy contradicts himself on this point. Also, to my way of thinking, the French did invade, and having lost, should probably have been taught a lesson on the way out, just to keep them from wanting to return.
One wonders if a team armed with high powered metal detectors retraced Napoleons’ exit and entry routes, what wealth of war paraphernalia they might uncover?
As a historical treatise, the book is effective, but for God’s sake, I barely finished that second epilogue when I was twelve, and for the life of me I can’t finish now. I believe it is a recap, in case anybody gets ideas about putting the wrong interpretation on his book, Count Tolstoy steps in to make sure the record stays straight. However, the book is tough sledding. You have to keep a lot of characters straight, some of whom have three or four different unpronounceable, untranslatable, and unspellable names. How can there be some many princes and princesses, especially when the heir to the throne is called a Tsarevitch? Weird, man. So after fourteen hundred pages, the novel part ends with a bunch of Russian nobles having a tussle in the home of their host, Pierre. Count Nicholas, Natasha’s brain dead brother, says he would kill Pierre, his brother-in-law, friend, bank, and benefactor, if some proven incompetent sociopath in the war department ordered it. Natasha glosses the whole thing over with some Jerry Springer style final thoughts worthy of the end of CANDIDE, and then we start getting inflicted with epilogues.
I ran my course. I read, I re-read WAR AND PEACE several times, so why you gotta do me like that, Count Tolstoy? Those last fifty pages are killers. I read them when I was a kid, with glazed eyes. I was determined to be able to say I had read WAR AND PEACE, every goddamned word.
Read WAR AND PEACE, but take Tolstoy with a serious grain of salt. His other work is erratic, in my view. In THE KREUTZER SONATA, he encourages people to renounce sex and thereby end the human race. He had about eighteen children, by the way. Also, he has the same mixed feeling about his serfs as slaveholders had in the Old South, which Russian Society at that time greatly resembled.