Lev Tolstoy – War and Peace; epilogue & appendix

So now, at last, we are finished with War and Peace.  The two-part epilogue consists of a few chapters with the characters Natasha, Pierre, Nikolai, and Marya, eight years after the war with Napoleon, aging and changing; and lots of Tolstoy-essays about the nature of war, history, freedom and power.  The Appendix, published originally partway through the final text’s publication in a respected journal, consists of Tolstoy himself explaining some of his intention and outright stating that he blames a sense of predestination on the events of history—which I view as something of a cop-out and resist.

As these last sections are for the most part underwhelming and unnecessary and lack passages that jump out to a close reader and as the novel itself is so bloody long, I think I’ll take a page out of Harry Bagot‘s book and opt for general appraisal of the novel rather than summary.

Last week, as she watched me near the end of this book, my girlfriend asked me if it was very difficult.  I thought for a moment and answered that it wasn’t; that it’s grouped in with other extremely long white whales of literature for other reasons:

  • Its length
  • Its scope and therefore the time-span it covers and large number of characters
  • The fact that a lot of people consider it to be one of the greatest novels ever written.

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Lev Tolstoy – War and Peace; volume IV

Caught in the chaos of a deserted and burning Moscow, Pierre is accused of arson and put on trial, in a scene echoed in one of Stanley Kubrick’s finest films, Paths of Glory:

These questions, leaving aside the essence of life’s business and excluding any possibility of discovering that essence, like all questions asked at trials, were aimed only at furnishing that channel down which the judges wished the answers of the accused to flow, leading him to the desired goal, that is, incrimination.  As soon as he began to say something that did not conform to the purpose of incrimination, the channel was removed, and the water could flow wherever it liked.  Besides that, Pierre experienced the same thing that an accused man experiences in any court: perplexity as to why all the questions were being asked of him.  He had only the feeling that this trick of furnishing him with a channel was being used only out of indulgence or courtesy, as it were.  He knew that he was in the power of these people, that it was only power that had brought him there, that only power gave them the right to demand answers to their questions, and that the only purpose of this gathering was to incriminate him.  And therefore, since there was power and the wish to incriminate, there was no need for the trickery of questions and a trial.  It was obvious that all answers would lead to finding him guilty.    (960-961)

Pierre’s predicament during his trial is that the purpose of the French trial is not to discover the truth of what happened, but rather to prove his guilt.  The comparison that Tolstoy makes is to directing water flowing down through channels; if it doesn’t go the way the prosecutors and judges want it to, it’s allowed to spill over and is ignored. Continue reading

Lev Tolstoy – War and Peace; volume III

Two passages for the third volume, the first of which contains something very close to the work’s title (I have to believe that in the original Russian, it was the title word-for-word).  It’s from a conversation between Andrei and Kutuzov before the decisive battle of Borodino:

[C]hanging the subject, Kutuzov began speaking about the Turkish war and the peace that had been concluded.  “Yes, I’ve been reproached a great deal,” sad Kutuzov, “both for the war and for the peace … but everything came at the right time.  Tout vient à point à celui qui sait attendre [Fr.: ‘Everything comes at the right time to him who knows how to wait.’].”    (744)

Kutuzov mentions being blamed for both war and peace; that is, both his success and his failures as a military commander.  This reflects two things: the fickleness of high society and Tolstoy’s revisionist goals with much of his prose, especially the essay chapters since the start of the third volume.

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Lev Tolstoy – War and Peace; volume II

Quite a long section; this one was mostly concerned with Peace, specifically the lifestyle of the aristocrats in the novel.

“Well, here you want to emancipate the peasants,” [Andrei] went on.  “That’s very good; but not for you (I suppose you’ve never whipped anyone to death or sent them to Siberia), and still less for the peasants.  If they’re beaten, whipped, and sent to Siberia, I don’t think that makes it any worse for them.  In Siberia he’ll go on with his brutish life, and the welts on his body will heal, and he’ll be as happy as he was before.  But it’s needed for those people who are morally ruined, live to repent it, suppress this repentance, and turn coarse, because they have the possibility of punishing justly and unjustly.  Those are the ones I pity and for whose sake I would wish for the emancipation of the peasants.  Maybe you haven’t seen it, but I’ve seen good people brought up in this tradition of unlimited power, as they can’t become more irritated over the years, become cruel, coarse, know it, can’t help themselves, and become more and more unhappy.    (386-367)

This monologue is spoken by Prince Andrei to Count Pierre as the former’s condescending criticism of the latter’s charitable actions towards the many peasants on his estates.  Pierre has undergone the changes due to his recent admittance into the Freemasons and the value they place on serving mankind.  Though he eventually sours towards his fellow Masons’ inaction and hypocrisy, at this point he is devout in his idealism, and Andrei is cynically critical.  Andrei’s speech is somewhat misleading at first, with his declaration that the emancipation would be good, but “not for [Pierre].”  This may come across as fairly obvious: Pierre isn’t helping his peasants to help himself—unless you want to give credit to a (basically) selfish desire to be selfless—he’s helping them to help them.  But Andrei downplays the importance of the end result of helping someone in order to make their lives better; Andrei only sees the value in redeeming the upper classes from the abuses of the lower classes to which they’ve become used. Continue reading

Lev Tolstoy – War and Peace; volume I, part 3

The French, who had stopped firing on this field strewn with dead and wounded because there was nothing left alive on it, seeing an adjutant [Nikolai Rostov] riding across it, aimed a cannon and fired several shots.  The sensation of these whistling, fearsome sounds and the surrounding dead merged for Rostov into a single impression of terror and pity for himself.  He recalled his mother’s last letter.  “What would she feel,” he wondered, “if she saw me here now, on this field, with cannon aimed at me?”    (286)

This passage comes as Rostov is galloping along the Russian line at the start of the attack.  That he is even there during the combat is due entirely to a coincidence of multiple events at once: the (coincidentally Georgian) commander of the right flank is prince Bagrationi (pronounced “bah-grah-tee-own” and with a final “i” to respect the Georgian language’s convention of pronouncing names as ending with “ee” in the third person; Georgians tack on the final syllable but Tolstoy does not) and in (warning: brief editorializing imminent) typical Georgian passive-aggression wishes to avoid combat that will surely result in loss, so in order to avoid later charges of insubordination, sends a messenger to ask permission to charge, fully aware that such a trip would take the better part of the day if the messenger even survives, allowing his men to survive mostly unharmed and retreat safely when the battle has already been lost.  Bagration chooses Rostov to find the commander-in-chief or sovereign to ask for orders and return, and it is on this trip that Rostov moves through the fighting forces and, in the above passage, finds himself fired upon by French troops. Continue reading

Lev Tolstoy – War and Peace; volume I, parts 1 & 2

Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy’s War and Peace being as infamously long and complicated as it is, a format change seems prudent.  Rather than a general overview, these posts will be devoted to close readings of particularly intriguing passages and maybe, as the book turns to essays on the nature of war in the second half, discussion of how Tolstoy’s musings relate to the themes expressed in the actions of characters.

The rest of the infantry hurriedly crossed the bridge, squeezing into a funnel at the entrance.  Finally all the carts passed over, the crush eased up, and the last battalion entered the bridge.  Only the Hussars of Denisov’s squadron remained on the other side of the bridge facing the enemy.  The enemy, visible in the distance from the opposite hill, were not yet visible from the bridge below, because from the bottom where the river flowed, the horizon was bounded by the opposite heights less than half a mile away.  Ahead was a deserted space over which clusters of our Cossack patrols moved here and there.  Suddenly on the road going up the opposite heights appeared troops in blue coats and artillery.  It was the French.  A Cossack patrol moved down the hill at a trot.  All the officers and men of Denisov’s squadron, though they tried to talk about unrelated things and look elsewhere, constantly thought only about what was there on the hill, and kept peering at the spots that appeared on the horizon, which they recognized as enemy troops.  After midday the weather cleared again, the sun shone brightly, going down over the Danube and the dark hills around it.  It was still, and once in a while from that hill floated the sounds of bugles and the shouts of the enemy.  Between the squadron and the enemy there was now nothing but some small patrols.  They were separated by an empty space of about six hundred yards.  The enemy stopped shooting, and that strict, menacing, inaccessible and elusive line that separates two enemy armies became all the more clearly felt.

“One step beyond that line, reminiscent of the line separating the living from the dead, and it’s the unknown, suffering, and death.  And what is there? who is there? there’ beyond this field, and the tree, and the roof lit by the sun?  No one knows, and you would like to know; and you’re afraid to cross that line, and would like to cross it; and you know that sooner or later you will have to cross it and find out what is there on the other side of death.  And you’re strong, healthy, cheerful, and excited, and surrounded by people just as strong and excitedly animated.”  So, if he does not think it, every man feels who finds himself within sight of an enemy, and this feeling gives a particular brilliance and joyful sharpness of impression to everything that happens in those moments.    (143) Continue reading

Fyodor Dostoevsky – The Idiot, part 4

I’ll start off by quoting David Foster Wallace’s quick summary of some of the major characters in The Idiot, listed along with other major Dostoevsky characters in his review of the first four volumes of Joseph Frank’s five-volume literary biography on the writer, Dostoevsky: A Writer in his Time:

[T]he beautiful and damned Nastasya of The Idiot (…who was, like Faulkener’s Caddie, “doomed and knew it,” and who’s heroism consists in her haughty defiance of a doom she also courts.  FMD seems like the first fiction writer to understand how deeply some people love their own suffering, and how they use it and depend on it.  Nietzsche would take Dostoevsky’s insight and make it a cornerstone of his own devastating attack on Christianity, and this is ironic : in our own culture of “enlightened atheism” we are very much Nietzsche’s children, his ideological heirs, and without Dostoevsky there would have been no Nietzsche, and yet Dostoevsky is among the most profoundly religious of all writers.) …     (CtL 264)

…the fawning Lebyedev (sic) and spiderish Ippolit of the same novel…    (CtL 264)

…the cynically innocent Aglaia (sic)…    (CtL 265)

…the idealized and all-too-human Myshkin…, the doomed human Christ… (CtL 265) Continue reading