Thursday, March 28, 2013

Volume IV: War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

Volume IV (1035 - 1256) of War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (FP: 1896) and translated by Anthony Briggs (Penguin, 2005; 1392) begins with a life in Petersburg after the abandonment of Moscow. It also shows how the Russians struggled to uplift themselves from the clutches of French culture and its recherche lifestyle. It should be noted that this is a period where the speaking of French is seen as the ultimate achievement of Russian gentry. However, this invasion blossomed in their hearts a sense of belonging and a sense of patriotism that traverse all aspects of life, including language.

Life in Petersburg initially seemed to be unaffected and untouched by the invasion of Moscow; the aristocrats still held their parties, loose talks still flew around, and all thoughts of war and death were suppressed. However, as the news of Moscow's abandonment gradually filtered to the people, a general despondency overcame the people.

In Moscow, Pierre who had been arrested and accused of arson, for helping a woman who was being robbed by a French soldier, and has refused, initially, to declare who he was escaped execution by providence; but he couldn't escape witnessing the death of several others. Pierre was taken as a prisoner and was later rescued by the guerrilla unit of Denisov and Dolokhov, a mission that led to the death of Piotyr Rostov, the youngest Rostov who, following the footsteps of his brother, Nikolay, had enlisted himself and set out to defend the fatherland and had at that moment enthusiastically galloped into death when he allowed his youthful exuberance to override Denisov's military advice.

But Dolokhov's role in Petya's death, and his whole behaviour in the affairs of men, is vile, to say the least.  He's not much different from Heathcliff in Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights. He is evil in a coy way. His treatment of Nikolay Rostov, gambling him out of several thousands of roubles and enforcing payment, after Sonya (in love with Nikolay) had rejected his proposal and after Rostov himself had taken him home and nursed him out of his duelling wounds. Dolokhov played to the fancy and exuberance of young and totally befuddled Petya, taking him on dangerous spy mission and finally taking him to the frontier where there was likely to be heavy artillery, leading to his death.

Pierre (Count Bezukhov) having being released from the French would fall sick but upon recovery will be told all the events that had taken place in his absence, including the death of Helene, his (ex)wife, the death of his close friend Prince Andrey, and the defeat of the French, who were at that moment retreating and escaping from Russian guerrilla assault. His release, his recovery, his near death experiences and his (near) witnessing of deaths of those close to him, such as Platon Karatayev, and the miserableness of life triggered the enlightenment Pierre had been searching for. He suddenly discovered that man was made for happiness and happiness lies in man and that there is no situation where a man can be happy and perfectly free neither is there a situation where he should be unhappy and not free (page 1179); he discovered that the infinite, the eternal, the great are in everything around him and he need not search faraway as he had been doing; that even in those places where he sought for happiness the 'workaday trivialities' he detested could still be found; he found his answer to his question in the eternal presence of God. After Pierre's discovery - this enlightenment - that happiness is not in the faraway places, dealing with people and his workers became easy. 

Nikolay Rostov will save Princess Marya and this would be the beginning of a salvation that would take his family from financial ruin. This meeting, though purely by happenstance, will lead Nikolay to think of Sonya and his relationship with her. A series of events would lead Sonya to break up their engagement. For Nikolay unlike Countess Rostov, it was not a matter of Marya's wealth. But it will take a long time, the Countess's insistence, the Count's (Count Rostov) death, and a huge dose of humility and discipline for the two to meet again after Nikolay, upon the death of his father, slid into poverty when he inherited his father's debt which far outweighed the properties he bequeathed.

In Volume, Tolstoy continued to provide further explanation for is multiple-causes hypothesis. He strongly wrote against the belief that events triggered by unique single causes. He states that several coincidences working together cause an event and no single person can decide an action or fate. As an example, he explained that the Russian manoeuvre and its results were not caused by Kutuzov alone.

He also explored, elaborately, the inaccuracies and illogicality in the thesis historians posits for the war in the practice of their profession in general. He addresses them and sought to provide alternative interpretation of events, giving different but broader reasons for certain historical incidences. For instance, he says that historians having described Napoleon as great attribute every decision, action or inaction of his as good, great or genius including his desertion of his troops (a major military faux pas), which historians describe as being the work of a master tactician.

Tolstoy's essay is argumentative, complex, and compelling. For instance he writes, and this permeates throughout the novel especially when he is using analogies to explain his point or when using such detailed descriptions as a preamble to the emotions and behaviour of his characters,
When a man sees an animal dying he is seized with horror. What he himself consists of, his own substance, is being visibly destroyed, ceasing to exist before his very eyes. But when the dying creature is a man, and a man deeply loved, there is more to it than the horror experienced at the extinction of life: it feels like a laceration, a spiritual wound, which, like a physical wound, may heal up or may prove fatal, but it always hurts and shrinks away from any abrasive external contact. [1196]
This is not a consequence of translation (which sometimes even water-down the beauty of the prose). It is Tolstoy's writing style, keen observation, and intellect that is at work here.

In debunking historians preferred analytical methodology of single-cause single-person heroism, Tolstoy compares Napoleon to Kutuzov; he listed the great things Kutuzov did, including no less saving of Russia, but was still referred to as a 'scheming courtier' afraid of Napoleon because he would not allow the Russian army to totally annihilate the French army and arrest of Napoleon. Kutuzov, having observed events and relying on his abundant experience considered the spending more men to achieve an end they were achieving with minimal loss pointless and unnecessary. The Russian army had at the time lost about half of its strength just chasing a retreating and defeated French army and Kutuzov saw no reason why a spent and exhausted army should be further burdened with a war which they are not sure to win, should it ensued, and which would increase the losses on the Russian side. Yet, Napoleon, the man who left his troops in the lurch, the man who went off to kill people in Africa when it was not necessary, is rather given the accolades of great man and genius.

Thus, an uncelebrated, frequently chastised Kutuzov left the army when he realised that his powers had waned; especially the Tsar said he was displeased by the slow progress of events (meaning not annihilating the French and arresting Napoleon) and was therefore coming to the war front himself; because Kutuzov was unwilling to cut-off the French, thus allowing them to escape. Kutuzov saw the aim of the war on the French as the salvation of Russia and nothing beyond that; when the Tsar (Alexander I), upon arrival at the war front, talked about the saving of Europe, after Russia has already been saved (thus taking the war abroad), Kutuzov realised that his end has come and there was nothing left for him to do. He therefore resigned into civilian life.

The effects of the war were felt in the Volume IV. It showed man's willingness to fight back from devastation. However, there was nowhere where the effects of the war were felt more than on the lives of Natasha and Marya; Natasha losing an ex-fiancé, a brother and later a father; and Marya losing a brother and a father. Even Countess Rostov, who didn't care much when Prince Andrey died, perhaps because of the pecuniary benefit that might come the family's way should Marya marries Nikolay, was totally devastated when her son, Petya died. But even these individuals grew out of their sorrows and sombreness, with time.

Epilogue (1257 - 1358)
The Epilogue is in two parts: first it tells of the lives of some of the novel's major characters after a lapse of seven years: Nikolay married Marya; Pierre married Natasha; both had children and there was some sort of stabilisation and back to normalcy of family life and the nation's life.

However, the chunk of the epilogue brings together, somewhat repetitively, most of the arguments Tolstoy had been making in his essays, expanded on others to include new threads. In his essays, he discussed the concept of power, what makes people (the masses) behave in a certain way - what are the causes of events? Tolstoy says that there are several commands but those that meet the right circumstances and are likely to coincide with an event are interpreted as the cause of that event whereas the numerous orders and commands not obeyed or carried-out are forgotten. This is a truncated sort of data where only observations meeting a certain criteria (those that meet events) are observed and therefore could lead to bias in judgement, if the observer (historian) does not bear this in mind.

He also discussed free will as against the laws of necessity and the relationship between them and how they affect judgement. On the existence of free will, he writes
If every man enjoyed free will - in other words, if every man could do what he wanted - the whole history would be a tissue of sporadic accidents. [1342]
He stated that certain factors determine what we ascribe to an action - free will or necessity. And this includes the relationship between the man committing the act and the external world; his relationship to time; and the relationship between him and the causes which led to the act. For instance, he says that if a man commits murder and has gone on to live calmly and innocently in society for over twenty years, his action would more likely be described as a necessity. Alternatively, if he was arrested immediately, he would have been judged to have committed the crime from his own free will. Thus, expanding the inter-temporal space (& in the examination of historical events) shows that man is ruled more by necessity (or laws) than by his free will. He says that free will is the unexplained part of actions (perhaps like the errors which capture other unexplained factors in any regression model). Tolstoy argues that there is an inverse relationship between free will and law of necessity
[I]f we consider the situation of a man with maximum known association with the external world, a maximum time-lapse between his action and any judgement of it and maximum access to the causes behind his action, we get an impression of maximum necessity and minimum free will. Whereas if we consider a man with minimal dependence on external circumstances, whose action has been committed at the nearest possible moment to the present, and for reasons beyond our ken, then we get an impression of minimal necessity and maximum freedom of action. [1351]
In all these, Tolstoy was arguing for an appropriate methodology (or so it seems) for the study of history, historical events, and historical personages. He was looking for a scientific approach that is robust and precise and not subject to the writer's whims and hubris, his epistemic limitation and opacity.

War and Peace is a tome of Russian life at that period in time, Russian culture, history and the newfangled ideas (in mathematics, mechanics (physics)) that were coming up then. It shows how a country began to look inward to itself rather than external. A cultural revolution? Perhaps. Tolstoy showed the life of a country and the lives of the people in the country and how the war changed both lives. His essays were compelling but repetitive. His analogies, symbols, metaphors, were deep and excellent. His introduction to every chapter is beautiful. War and Peace is lived not read; it is experienced, and the reader will come out differently, with new thoughts and challenging questions.

Its weakness could perhaps be attributed to the writer's passionate, and eagerness to expose the faults fraught with textbook histories provided by historians and their methodological approach to historical analyses, which led to repetitions. But each repeated idea came with a new analogy to further expound what had previously been said. 

Though the characters were numerous (some say over hundred), and there were several real historical figures, it was never confusing for some families kept appearing; they carried the novel. Others like Boris Drubetskoy and her mother Anna suddenly tapered off, without a mention almost throughout the fourth volume; their role having ended. Regardless, of the number of characters, Tolstoy showed that he understood them. Sometimes one's facial expression, his demeanour, is enough to leave a huge impression on the reader; an example being that young French soldier who was forced to execute those accused of arson in Moscow and the other who was given the duty of killing Platon Karatayev, when his weakness prevented him from further travel.

If you will read only one Russian novel, read War and Peace.
Volume I, II, & III


  1. No, if you ever read just one Russian novel, read 'Crime and Punishment'.

    1. This is (my recommendation) from someone whose reading of Russian novels, does not go beyond one book. LOL. Now you make me want to read Crime and Punishment. Thanks for this.


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