Category Archives: Tolstoy, Leo

War and Peace: Fourth Reading from December 5, 2015 to April 11 2016

Why is War and Peace the greatest novel ever written? In my heart I know it is, but to actually explain why, even after four consecutive annual readings, feels as elusive to me as understanding what lies beyond death. For every other novel I’ve read I have sat here on my computer and have been able to summarize my thoughts and ideas, even for difficult novels such as Nostromo and The Brothers Karamazov and even Tolstoy’s other masterpiece, Anna Karenina. Yet War and Peace challenges me to throw a rope around it, drag it to the ground, and wrestle one or even two “meanings” from it. Perhaps the novel is, in some way, a literary manifestation of Tolstoy himself: brilliant, and difficult.

On this most recent reading I kept a journal for each chapter, a total of a little over 360 single paragraph summaries, ideas, and observations. I had hoped this would help me grapple with my inability to explain what it is I love so much about the novel and what it is that draws me back every year to it. I had hoped I could read through my notes and discover, “Yes, here is the reason why this novel is the masterpiece.” But not only have I been unsuccessful here, I can’t really tell you what the novel is even about.

Now don’t mark me an idiot, I know what the novel is about, but to actually summarize War and peace into a few sentences is not only impossible, but it would be unfair to the novel to even attempt it. I mean, why do you think Tolstoy (and his poor wife) spent all those years and over 1200 pages if we could boil his masterpiece down to a blurb? Had he been able to make his point in a paragraph he would have.

Some people have said the novel is about life itself, and while that is quite true, it doesn’t really explain what’s going on between the pages. Another novel, Ulysses, has also been described as being about life itself, however, you can also say it’s the story of a man, Bloom, and one day in Ireland. And while that doesn’t do Joyce’s work any justice, it does at least give you a description you can tell your friends when they ask you what it’s about. Yet we can’t do this with War and Peace. We could say it’s about Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812, but since most of the book deals with the effects of the war, not the war itself, it would be disingenuous to describe it this way.

However, we can start by saying the novel is about Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812 to give us something of a starting point.

When Tolstoy began work on the novel he had envisioned writing about the Decembrist uprising in 1825, but every time he started on the subject he had to keep going back in time to find a place to even begin the telling of that story. War and Peace is the result of Tolstoy wanting to tell the story of the men who rebelled against Nicholas I and what happened to them (they were all either killed or exiled to Siberia), but to know why they rebelled against Nicholas I he realized he had to tell us about how Alexander I defeated Napoleon and what happened to Russia in the opening years of the 19th century.

We can begin to see the problem in pinning down War and Peace when even the author couldn’t figure out how to tell the story – and even wound up writing a whole other book!

And things get even more complicated because to understand the men (and women) of the Decembrist uprising, why they rebelled and why some even stayed in exile in Siberia decades after those events, we have to know about Russia herself, how Russians felt about their country, how they felt about each other, about Europe, and about life itself. To fight the Tsar knowing you could be killed or exiled, knowing if you did live you would give up everything you and your family owned, facing possible poverty, and absolutely a loss of your social standing. To understand all that we have to know about what is in the heart of men and women, and in this search for meaning is what War and Peace attempts.

For me the most interesting, and important character in the novel is Fedor Ivanovich Dolokhov. Dolokhov is a cold, calculating, tough, independent, street-smart, brave, vindictive, and passionate man. He will milk his friend out of a fortune at cards because he was spurned by love, but is the most caring and loving son and brother a mother could ask for. He will fight with the most passionate bravery for his country, but will also get drunk and tie a policeman to a bear causing Dolokhov to be reduced to Private in the army. Dolokhov is a man of extremes and he is almost impossible to understand.

Dolokhov reminds me a lot of Pavel Fyodorovich Smerdyakov in The Brothers Karamazov. Smerdyakov is described by Father Zossima (in a prediction early on) that suicides deserves the greatest pity. How is this related? Smerdyakov is shown as being a very bad person, yet we never get the novel from his point of view, we only ever see him through another character’s eyes. In the end when he does kill himself, we are left to ask why? Was he consumed by grief, remorse, or what? We never learn, though an empathetic person can assume.

And so the same is true of Dolokhov. We never get his point of view, we only see him through another character. We could say Dolokhov is a “bad man”, and he certainly does some bad things, but is he really a bad person? We know almost nothing about the man except for how his actions impacted those around him. We never learn why he really bilks Nicholas of all that money, or what he really thought of Petya, or Pierre – we only see what he does.

This, like Smerdyakov, is Tolstoy’s test to us to see if we’ve learned anything about human beings in the novel. Just as we understand why Natasha nearly threw away her life for Anatole Kuragin and why Pierre married Hélène Kuragina, we get no explanation for what was in Dolokhov’s mind, but we have to be empathetic towards him and perhaps even forgive him the way Andrei finally forgave Anatole.

And why is this important? Why should we care at all about Dolokhov, a character who only pops up every few pages here and there in a novel over a thousand pages long? Well I believe it is because Tolstoy wants us to spend our energy on being emphatic towards our fellow man while not worshipping any man. Tolstoy spends many pages (many, many pages) telling us how we should never worship any man.

He holds up Napoleon as the horrible example of hero worship – entire nations fell under his sorcery – because we learn how men like Napoleon are not great, in fact they have hardly any influence at all. “Great” men are at the mercy of everyone and everything around them, more than simple men like Dolokhov. Napoleon’s march towards Russia (and flee from Russia) was not because Napoleon was great, but because a billion circumstances and chances led to those events taking place, not because Napoleon desired it and made it happen. Napoleon made nothing happen, he was merely the face of responsibility. He was no more or less important than a cloud, “how differently do those clouds glide across that lofty infinite sky!”.

We never say Dolokhov caused anything to happen as we do Napoleon, we only see how people reacted to Dolokhov, usually for the worse. Dolokhov controlled nothing but only took advantage of whatever situation he was in. Had Nicholas chose not to play cards Dolokhov would never had won all that money. Had Anatole listened to Dolokhov Natasha never would have threw away Andrei, and had Dolokhov not been so “cool” Petya never would have been so inspired to run into battle and get himself killed.

And so why does Napoleon get all the credit for the actions leading up to 1812 but Dolokhov gets no credit for being the center of War and Peace? Because neither statement is true, Tolstoy only uses these two men as an example to prove his points: no person should be worshiped, no person can ever know what is in another man’s heart, and all people should find empathy with everyone else exactly because we can’t know their heart.

And so just as the novel is not about Dolokhov, we understand why it is so difficult to discover what War and Peace is really about exactly because it is about Dolokhov. All people are connected via an infinite number of spider web connections, invisible threads all pulling and pushing on each other from all sides like so many vibrations in a piano string, making a music we call life and history. These threads are invisible and the reasons why someone may pluck a string at any given time may be impossible to understand (and even may anger us), but it is all part of a greater symphony, a piece of music we all write, but that no person is in charge of. This is what, I believe, Andrei actually saw on his deathbed, those ephemeral and tenuous threads just barely perceptible above his head as if a marionette had suddenly became aware it was being controlled by a conductor upon whose lap he sat.

The reason why War and Peace is a masterpiece isn’t because of the beautiful writing (though it is beautiful), the realism (though it is the ultimate example of realism), or even because of the riveting story (and it is a great tale). The reason why this is the masterpiece and why I keep returning to it year after year is because we actually experience the meaning of the universe, we actually see the infinite as if we were looking through a lens that starts off narrow but gradually opens up to infinity until the entire world beyond is visible to us until the entire frame is filled with that beautiful blue sky above:

“How was it I did not see that lofty sky before? And how happy I am to have found it at last! Yes! All is vanity, all falsehood, except that infinite sky. There is nothing, nothing, but that. But even it does not exist, there is nothing but quiet and peace. Thank God!…”

Saint Petersburg in 1840

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I’m not re-reading the second epilogue because it’s a waste of time. For me the only purpose it serves is to show that even a genius like Tolstoy can make a major blunder. Nothing in the second epilogue serves any other purpose than to review what we’ve learned much more elegantly from the novel preceding. Tolstoy must think his readers are idiots to have ever thought this was a good idea.

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Pierre’s and Natasha’s conversation mirrors a few themes of the novel. First, and most important are how interconnected everything is. They just let the conversation flow along, contrary to logic because they know what the other is really saying. It also mirrors the court conversation of the first chapter with its intrigue and banality, but here it’s put to good use, not for cold society.

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So while we have learned over the course of the novel to never worship any man or believe any man is great, little Nicholas has not learned this. He looks up to Pierre and he thinks of the men in Plutarch (the ultimate catalog of “great men”), Even his father is a god-like figure to him. So what could the future hold for this boy who is still afraid of the dark? Can any generation learn from the previous?

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I thought of the misogyny because here at the end of the novel he is fair to everyone. He shows all their sins and graces side by side because he has finally assembled, by the end, a collection of good people. None of them are stupid, but they are also imperfect like all people. Pierre is considered apart by little Nicholas (the warning of worship is here) but Tolstoy does not criticize this family.

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I started thinking about the criticism of Tolstoy and his view of women. He’s been accused of being a misogynist and I also tend to think he might have been one, but above that I think he just didn’t like stupid people. The novel is filled with his contempt for Napoleon, the generals, the government, and silly men who do stupid things, so why can’t he also criticize women who do idiotic things. All’s fair.

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“You ought not to have been here at all,” There’s a double meaning here in what Nicholas says to his nephew. One meaning is that the boy really shouldn’t be exposed to the radical ideas being spoken of (it’s dangerous), but also had Andrei lived the boy really would not have been there, and maybe there is some resentment, some reminder of that man whom he didn’t get along with in life.

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Anna Makarovna’s trick for knitting two stockings at the same time – one inside the other and them pulling them apart – represents the whole family and its generations, as well as all of society. The government is changing (for the worse in this case) born of intrigue and mistrust, and the old are passing the responsibility of the family on to the young: just as one event is tied to a million others.

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Tolstoy does not paint a rosy picture of what it will be like to be old. Andrei’s father went mad, The old count was embittered and died ashamed, Pierre’s father (lion that he was) had a stroke. And the Countess played her part and is relegated to go on living onlu because her body insists on it, and not because she has any reason to.

The glances the young people make about her are for us someday, too.

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Pierre and Natasha are no longer the delicate, French-ified society that is insulated from the rel world. Natasha breastfeeds and Pierre can put up with a baby relieving itself in his hand.

Personally I identify more with Nicholas. I’m not a fan of infants – in fact I don’t want to deal with them until they are about 5 or 6 years old.

I never picked up before that Denisov doesn’t really care for Pierre.

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The most important thing to take away from this chapter is how like a peasant woman Natasha has become. She’s become natural, she’s “let herself go” (which I think is a terrible expression), and she nurses her own children unlike any other Russian woman of her class at the time. She is, in essence, Tolstoy’s idea of a perfect wife. Maria is more realistic.

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We have seen Nicholas’ anger and now we see his moodiness. This makes Maria uneasy, especially since she’s sensitive to this sort of erratic behavior from her father, but when Nicholas hugs his daughter and kisses her you can see the love he has for his family, how he’s rebuilt the family in more solid, if humble ground. Though is is similar to the old Count, too with his seriousness and exactness.

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I don’t really agree with how Tolstoy handles Sonya, but then she’s similar to Andrei’s first wife whom, though no fault of her own, was used up and died in childbirth before her own life ever began. Andrei seemed to think the expression on his wife’s face said “What did I ever do to anybody?” and the same could be said to Sonya. But I think she still loves Nicholas and this is the best she can hope for.

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Nicholas is Tolstoy’s thesis in action. Unlike some “great man”, Nicholas does the right thing without conceit and for the benefit of others, though sternly and not in some poetic manner. He is the type of leader Tolstoy believes in, someone who works hard, works humbly, and is fruitful and shares in that bounty, though not indulgently. If the world ran like Nicholas’ Bald Hills the world would be fine.

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Of all the relationships in the novel, Maria’s and Nicholas’ is the most real. Of all the changes we see Pierre and Natasha go through, somehow we actually live the changes that Maria and Nicholas go through. Both are sensitive people, both have hid themselves away either through family or career, both are proud and sacrificing – they are the true Russian people (all people) of the novel.

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I think it’s important not to feel sorry for the Rostov’s after the death of the Count. They had all lived so well, so happily and on so much credit that this “poverty” is deserved. Living within ones means is a virtue, too and now Nicholas is learning that lesson. His pride, however, his stubbornness is just as bad and he could save himself much misery by not indulging his mother and by asking Pierre for $

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“See what you believed in! This is he! Do you now see that it was not he but I who moved you?”

“The higher the human intellect rises in the discovery of these purposes, the more obvious it becomes, that the ultimate purpose is beyond our comprehension.”

Chance and opportunity. How many bees were not successful? How many evolutionary dead-ends have there been?

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Tolstoy briefly touches on an idea I find interesting and that is how the people around a “great person” will feed that narrative thus enabling the “great person” to go further and do more “great” things. These “great” people are very much at the mercy of the tide around them because they would be useless without help.

The golden parachute Napoleon is given still happens today with robber CEO’s. Maddening.

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“If we admit that human life can be ruled by reason, the possibility of life is destroyed.”

Zweig, in his World of Yesterday described how Austrian society had been set up as a case-study of reason and logical structure and it all fell apart because it only included a small number of people who could enjoy it and angered everyone else who tore it all down, both for good and bad.

We live in similar times

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How many people would reproach Natasha for her love, be jealous of it. Maria could easily have made Natasha feel guilty by saying that she felt it was no good to act like she loved Andrei so little because she’s now so happy. How many people would give into that meanness? But this is why Maria is so good – she is not selfish and she truly loves her friend and lives for others. We should all be like Maria.

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It would be remarkable for a person to be able to recall and relive the thought process one has when they realize they are in love and are loved. That blissful cloud we walk around on where everyone is good, the world is good, all people are good, and everything we do is good, is transitory. But for Pierre he’s able to recall that feeling his whole life and is wiser for it – it informs him and helps him.

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Tolstoy absolutely nails the thoughts going on in a guy’s head when he loves a woman. The confusion, the bliss, the interpretation of her every words. Pierre’s realization of his love for Natasha is remarkably written in how real it feels. And again it mirrors the much younger version of Natasha when she giggled in her mother’s bed – now she is composed and the man is aflutter. Very fun.

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“But what about my heirs?” said Pierre. “Supposing I suddenly marry… it might happen,” he added with an involuntary smile.

“If I may take the liberty, your excellency, it would be a good thing.”

One of the best exchanges in the entire novel – and even funny as far as Tolstoy can be funny.

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As Natasha and Maria speak right before they go to bed it recalls a scene near the beginning of the novel where Natasha lays in her mother’s bed and they talk of the future and she believes things can work out “just so”. How much she has changed since then, how much she has seen and learned, and grown.

“And the same mischievous smile lingered for a long time on her face as if it had been forgotten there.”

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“As he spoke now he was considering what impression his words would make on Natasha. He did not purposely say things to please her, but whatever he was saying he regarded from her standpoint.” When you love someone, truly love and respect them, then this is quite obvious.

This meeting isn’t just for Pierre and Natasha, but it’s the mending of Russia, the heart and soul reconnecting to heal after the war.

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“…like the opening of a door grown rusty on its hinges” What a perfectly simple but also beautiful image to describe Natasha finding her joy for life again. You can see the image of a door opening to mirror a mouth turning to smile, but also the idea of stepping through a door to something better beyond from a dark room, of moving on is latent in the image.

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“… the householders seized all they could find in other houses and moved it to their own, pretending that it was their property.”

I always wish I could ask people who do this (expecting an honest answer) why they think it’s OK to loot and steal. This is common, too and is not limited to any race, region, or income. There are so many dishonest people in the world, how do they justify their actions?

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He’s learned that enjoying the differences in people while remaining true to his own beliefs makes for a happier life. One could debate and argue over whatnot, but to what end? So what if someone has a different political or religious view than you? Why not listen to what they say and then go about your day? Of course this implies what you believe is morally true (and most people already believe this).

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“And by old habit he asked himself the question: “Well, and what then? What am I going to do?” And he immediately gave himself the answer: “Well, I shall live. Ah, how splendid!”

Don’t worry, be happy. I mean, it sounds so cliche, but it’s true: don’t worry, be happy. Of course one should be moral and grateful for even suffering, but to actually do it means you have to do everything else first, like Pierre

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“and Kutuzov died”.

He was right that there was no more Russia could do to improve her situation, any extra action for Europe’s sake could only diminish Russia.

I’ll say once more that I wish Kutuzov had been a real character in the novel and not someone we only see from afar, but we see him the way we should: as someone who did the right thing, should not be worshiped, and then quietly died.

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When Kutuzov tells Chichagov that he has returned his fine China, Chichagov thinks this is a clever insult on the part of Kutuzov (“You mean to imply that I have nothing to eat out of?) – but Kutuzov really just did mean that he had the man’s China and was returning it. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

He’s awarded the Order of St. George of the First Class, not by the emperor, but by a staff member.

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“And all he said—that it was necessary to await provisions, or that the men had no boots—was so simple, while what they proposed was so complicated and clever, that it was evident that he was old and stupid and that they, though not in power, were commanders of genius.” Often we think that anyone who acts simply is dumb, but anyone who has lived long enough knows what works and won’t- they’ve seen it before

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“The stars, as if knowing that no one was looking at them, began to disport themselves in the dark sky: now flaring up, now vanishing, now trembling, they were busy whispering something gladsome and mysterious to one another.”

Is this a bit of pathetic fallacy where the heavens approve of the French and Russians getting along and not killing each other? Or is this a portent for wars to come?

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“What a lot of men he’s ruined!”

Tolstoy does a nice job of recreating the banter of the soldiers, but though this was from a different era, I have no doubt it’s been edited heavily. Funny to say I think the best to catch military “grunts” talking was the film Aliens – the banter felt genuin. Here the men are quick to forgive the French, and maybe that’s how they wanted to remember it- not as being crass