Wednesday, 20 February 2013

War and Peace - Part 1

 War and Peace (Tolstoy) - 100 pages from the end

I am about a hundred and fifty pages from the end of this epic book with only one day left to meet my target of finishing the thing in January. I’m slightly nervous about the impossibly long reading session I will have to do tomorrow, but before completing it, I have some thoughts.

Having read Anna Karenina, I thought that W&P would be a similar tale of aristocratic lives amidst the backdrop of changing political fortunes. This is partly true in the peace time portions of the novel, but not of the war parts, which are the majority of the book. War becomes not only the central theme, but almost itself a key character in the book. For large swathes, all traditional characterisation is abandoned and Tolstoy just gives sweeping description of the French or Russian army’s movements. As evidence of this, Bagration, whose name is mentioned quite a lot as a commander in the Russian army, is killed off almost in a parenthesis - ‘Bagration had died’. This book is not about its characters or their lives. I think that was my fundamental misapprehension. The changing political context is not a device for demonstrating and developing the book's characters. No. The characters are used only to teach the reader about the key concepts of this work: War and Peace.

Tolstoy also spends a lot of time discussing his theories of war. At some points it feels like he has forgotten he is writing a novel and starts quibbling with, I presume, actual historians. At one point a map appears with technical description of battle tactics. At another, equations appear as Tolstoy solves for x, x being the fighting spirit of the army. I didn’t enjoy much of this, and it seems to take up a disproportionate amount of the book. I would say though, that some of the battle-talk, although boring for me to read-through, gave me something quite fundamental - a better understanding of the situation. And I do appreciate some of the points he raises; his fatalistic philosophy of military science is interesting and probably true.

The most shocking moment for me (so far) is when Price Andrei dies. It is very sudden. Tragically, at his death, he still seems like an incomplete man. Throughout the novel, we have witnessed his personal growth, the slow evolution of his psyche, and the reader senses greatness in him. We also yearn for him to live happily with Natasha, his love. But he dies with a lot of this potential unfulfilled, and without reaching contentment. I can think of a couple of reasons for this. Tolstoy saw his primary purpose as telling the truth, and death is what war does - it wastes potential. Also, the highest evolution of the self, for Tolstoy, seems to be harmony with God. It is indicated strongly the Andrei reaches this stage before he dies. Perhaps then the point is that fulfillment of potential can’t happen in this life. Presumably, if so, Tolstoy changes his mind because Levin, from Anna K manages to have both.


PS - I read the version translated by Volokhonsky and Pevear as I think it is most faithful to the original text. It retains the French  and provides a translation in the footnotes. I found this slightly hard work during the opening part of the book which is French heavy (I had to keep looking down and then up) but overall I think it was a good trade off.

See also: Part 2Part 3

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