Thursday, 14 February 2013

'War and Peace' by Leo Tolstoy (Review)

After flying through a whole pile of short translated fiction recently, I was left with a lot of reviews to write - meaning that I needed a book which would give me time to catch up with my blogging duties.  Hmm, a big novel that I've been meaning to reread for some time...  I think I might just have the right book for the job ;)

Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace (translated by Rosemary Edmonds) is, by any definition, a big book.   It is a great novel about a great war, at the time one of the biggest and most destructive ever.  The novel starts in 1805, and the first book (125 pages) introduces the reader to our dramatis personae.  The second book then takes us through their experiences at and during the Battle of Austerlitz - and that's just the start.  We then follow our characters through the the years of an uneasy cold war until Napoleon attacks Russia in 1812, which is when the story really begins.  Finally, Tolstoy adds an epilogue of seven years to tell us how our friends fared after the defeat of the French - plus some philosophical musings to finish it all off.

As I said, it is a big book ;)

War and Peace is an epic, and its scope allows us to follow Tolstoy's creations across a decade as they grow up, grow old and (in some cases) change.  We see Natasha Rostov as a sprightly girl, then as a beautiful young debutante.  Later she matures, learning from mistakes and hardened by the necessities of the war, finally achieving motherhood in the epilogue.  Another of the major characters, Pierre Bezuhov, appears on the stage as a plump, naive buffoon, but the war gives him the opportunity for him to show his true colours; by the end of the novel, he is a familiar, middle-aged friend.

Although the characters change in many ways, just as in real life, they only change within the constraints of their personalities.  Those who turn out to be disappointing people have the germ of this disappointment in them from the very start.  The writer merely allows time to bring out what is initially partially hidden.  Boris' snobbery, Sonya's sanctimoniousness, Petya's impetuosity - they are all there at the start of the novel for any reader to see.

But what is War and Peace actually about?  The answer is that it is a book about everything (which is, perhaps, why it is so long...).  Tolstoy, through his characters, ponders the big question of the meaning of life, and he uses his 1400+ pages to explore various answers.  Pierre and Prince Andrei wonder if it is about work or personal development; Maria tries education and the care of others; Boris works for his own gain, while Dolohov merely has fun wherever he can find it; Petya longs for glory, but his sister, Natasha, is aching for love.  Somehow though, nobody seems to be able to find the right answer.

Pierre is especially troubled by existential matters (when not overcome by marriage problems) and spends years looking for a reason to live.  At one point, he muses:
"Sometimes he remembered having heard how soldiers under fire in the trenches, and having nothing to do, try hard to find some occupation the more easily to bear the danger.  And it seemed to Pierre that all men were like those soldiers, seeking refuge from life: some in ambition, some in cards, some in framing laws, some in women, some in playthings, some in horses, some in politics, some in sport, some in wine, and some in government service. 'Nothing is without consequence, and nothing is important: it's all the same in the end.  The thing to do is to save myself from it all as best I can,' thought Pierre.  'Not to see it, that terrible it.'
p.636 (Penguin Classics, 1982)
You will have to read the book to find out how (or whether) Pierre is ever able to find what he is looking for...

Much of what I have said so far applies more to the 'peace' side of the book, but large parts of the novel are (of course) devoted to the war.  Tolstoy paints a masterful picture of the conflict, ranging from the delusions of the commanders looking down from the heights of their posts to the experiences of the peasant soldiers on the ground.  While there is no doubt that we are on the Russian side (constant mentions of 'our line' and 'our troops' ensure we never forget who we want to win), there is no hint of jingoism or revisionist reporting - the writer is as critical of his own side as he is of the enemy.  He describes how the majority of senior officers are only interested in their own affairs, seeking to discredit rivals and ensure their own advancement.

Despite the multitude of Generals, Tolstoy believes that things happen the way they do for a reason - and that military commanders have very little to do with how wars unfold.  Despite the appeal of the 'Great Man' theory, the impossibility of free will and control means that the soldiers fighting hand-to-hand (or running away...) have more influence on the course of a battle than any command Napoleon might give.  In the chaos of war, letting things run their course is the only way to go...

...and this is exactly the way another of Tolstoy's major characters (a real-life one) handles affairs.  General (later Prince) Kutuzov, the man who saved the Russian army from annihilation after Austerlitz, is recalled in his country's hour of need - but he is not exactly the epitome of a knight in shining armour.  He is an old man, in need of sleep and a good meal, and he is unwilling to rush things in the way his advisers would like him to.

However, it is this reliance on 'patience and time' that eventually brings success.  The General allows events to happen as they should and prevents people from doing stupid things for no reason - which is perhaps the best thing a commander can do.  In part then, War and Peace is just as much a demand for the reappraisal of the actions of the much-maligned Kutuzov as it is a novel.

One more thing that War and Peace is known for though is the second half of the epilogue, forty-odd pages of metaphysical ramblings that sum up the ideas Tolstoy has just spent 1400 pages setting out.  In that sense, it is akin to putting up a ten-foot barbed-wire fence on the home straight of a marathon race, expecting the reader to increase their mental efforts just when they were hoping for a nice, easy jog to the finishing line.

It is important though because this is where Tolstoy tells you what it is all about ('it' being everything, of course).  I won't claim to have understood it all, but the main focus is on the idea of free will versus necessity, and you begin to get a sneaking suspicion that Tolstoy's answer to all of his questions happens to be God.  Which is great if you are a Christian.  If you are not, it is a bit like reading a murder novel and then finding out that the killer is never revealed...

I will let Tolstoy finish this off for himself though, as after all that writing, he probably does it better than I could.  The very last sentence of the novel reads:
"In the present case it is similarly necessary to renounce a freedom that does not exist and to recognise a dependence of which we are not personally conscious." p.1444
My last sentence?  War and Peace is actually a very readable and enjoyable novel - don't let my review put you off ;)