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NAX43312 - TOLSTOY, L.: War and Peace, Vol. 1 (Unabridged)
The reign of Alexander I (1801–1825) began in a spirit of liberalism. Constitutional government and the abolition of serfdom were much discussed; though it was made clear that the autocracy was to be preserved.
By 1805, the moment at which Tolstoy’s novel begins, the French were overrunning Europe and Alexander was leading his armies against Napoleon. Russia’s defeat at Friedland, however, led to the striking of a bargain with Napoleon in 1807 reminiscent of Stalin’s with Hitler in 1939. And in 1812 Napoleon invaded Russia. His armies marched to Moscow and back, Alexander entered Paris in triumph, Napoleon abdicated, and a generation of young Russian officers returned to the fatherland determined to give their own serfs the freedoms enjoyed by the French peasantry. Numerous not very secret societies made plans for revolution of one sort or another. Then in 1825 Alexander’s death, the abdication of Constantine, and the subsequent accession to the throne of Nicholas I, provided the opportunity for which these revolutionary groups had been waiting. On 14 December 1825 the disastrous uprising took place; it was instantly and violently suppressed. Five young idealists were hanged, 121 sent to the mines in Siberia, and the repressive reign of Nicholas began as it meant to go on. It would last for thirty years.
Three years after the failed uprising of the Decembrists, as those young revolutionaries came to be known, Leo Nikolaevich Tolstoy was born at Yasnaya Polyana, his parents’ country estate in the province of Tula, some 200 miles from Moscow. They were wealthy landowners, members of the nobility. His mother died when he was two years old and his father, Count Nikolay Tolstoy, seven years later. The young Tolstoy studied oriental languages and law at Kazan University, though he left without graduating. At twenty-three he joined the army, to fight in the Caucasus and later at Sevastopol. In the army he began to write. Childhood was published in 1852, Boyhood in 1854, Sevastopol Sketches in 1855. He continued to write, but remained in the army until the following year. After the fall of Sevastopol this talented young officer returned to enjoy the literary and social life of Petersburg. In 1856 he left the army, travelled in Europe for a while, then settled down on his estate, now equally concerned with education and social reform; in 1861 he was involved in negotiating land settlements after the emancipation of the serfs.
In 1862 he married Sophia Behrs and in 1863, peacefully settled in what he himself describes as the ideal conditions of Yasnaya Polyana, he started to write War and Peace. For five years he wrote, re-wrote, crossed out and wrote again, while his wife copied and re-copied the manuscript with its numerous alterations and additions. During those years the book was published in instalments, the first of them under the title 1805, to a readership growing progressively more puzzled. If they had expected—as they might well have done after reading the first chapters—an absorbing family chronicle, they were not disappointed. But it was so much more. Only when the work was published in its entirety, in 1869, was it possible to abandon preconceptions concerning genre and appreciate the integrity of Tolstoy’s masterpiece. Possible, but not easy. The thing defied definition. Written half a century after the historical events it illuminated, the first words of what is arguably the greatest novel in the Russian language attack the atrocities of Napoleon the Antichrist—in French—the language habitually used by the Russian nobility in 1805. The last words tell us that we must ignore the evidence of our senses and acknowledge a dependence we don’t feel. From first to last such oppositions, like a side-wind against a sail, power the book.
Tolstoy appears to have perceived life as a struggle between opposite extremes. Intellect against instinct. Will against feeling. ‘Rules for subordinating the feeling of love to the will’, he wrote in his diary, with touching optimism. ‘First rule. Keep away from women.’ He was nineteen. Three years later he was still struggling. ‘In the morning write my story, read, play the piano or write about music; in the evening—rules or the gypsies.’ His faith in rules was to remain undamaged, a lifelong obsession.
Another entry in his diary, en route for Sevastopol in 1854, reveals his growing awareness of the unbridgeable distance between the accounts of military historians and the reality of his experience. ‘The Cossacks want to plunder but not to fight; Hussars and Uhlans suppose military worth to consist of drunkenness and debauchery, and the infantry—of robbery and making money.’ If ‘generals like Gorchakov, who have lost their sense of feeling and energy’ were not in control, who was?
No one, seems to have been the answer. Tolstoy was beginning to see the terrifying dependence of things. Each human thought, each action at the apex of a triangle whose sides diverged infinitely to accommodate an ever-increasing number of causes, whose base was unreachable; each great leader, planning and commanding away at the top, the furthest possible point from that elusive base, least free because dependent on the greatest number of causes.
What then was moving those great masses of humanity from west to east and from east to west in the early 19th century? Tolstoy manages to restrain himself from telling us for two whole books. He lies low at first and shows us what was not moving them. The leaders. The officers. The men. Then the temptation becomes too great. He breaks cover, with increasing frequency, in the last two books, and finally comes out into the open. The first four chapters of Book Three, Part I, much of the first epilogue and all of the second are devoted to hammering home his historical theory.
An event has an infinite and therefore an unknowable number of causes. Their sum constitutes the power which moves the masses. Understanding the laws governing this power should be the aim of the historian. Such an understanding would show us that our free-will is an illusion. Man has two lives; the personal and the ‘swarm’ life. In the former he manages to preserve this illusion of free-will. In the latter he prefers to see heroes, leaders, ‘great men’, as being responsible for the movement of the swarm. They are in fact ‘labels giving names to events, and like labels they have but the smallest connection with the event itself’.
To Tolstoy, surely a founder-member of Shaw’s ‘moral gymnasium’, his theory must have presented terrible problems. Free-will denied him his human sensuality. That was its job. Lack of it let him off the hook. It may well have seemed the more restful alternative. But not for long. His belief in personal regeneration was too strong. Tolstoy’s answer was yet another opposition. A parallel hierarchy of feeling, experience, instinct, with the Kutuzovs of this world at its apex and the Russian ‘people’ as the supplier of the unaccountable arbitrary causes. To those unknowable facts which deprived him of free-will he opposed Holy Russia. Rousseau had merely confirmed what Russian intellectuals had long suspected; there really was a ‘noble savage’ and they had got him.
Truth will only yield to a reason in possession of all the facts. These are unobtainable. Very well, it must be made to yield to something else. Tolstoy had moved the goal-posts; the vital insights are those based not on facts but on the passive, enduring wisdom of the masses.
His theory of history, then, reflected his own deeply divided self. His natural genius lay in his ability to reveal the uniqueness, the multiplicity of things; his longing was for wholeness, unity. ‘The fox knows many things’, Archillocus says in his fable, ‘the hedgehog knows one big thing.’ Isaiah Berlin saw the emotional cause of Tolstoy’s view as ‘a passionate desire for a monistic vision of life on the part of a fox bitterly intent upon seeing in the manner of a hedgehog.’
Whatever its divided nature, its ambivalences, its inconsistencies, the theory underpins the fiction and the fiction obliges us to consider the theory. We have the work of genius based on it. Useless to discuss the book we might have had without it. To leave it out of our calculations is to distort the book we have, to limit our perception of it. An approach reminiscent of the theatre-goer who asked ‘But apart from that, Mrs Lincoln, did you enjoy the play?’ War and Peace is inconceivable—and was not conceived—‘apart from that’.
Tolstoy’s instinctive counterpoint to his own reasoning, his undeclared theory of a higher truth, accessible only to ‘the people’, and to those who have not lost their sense of it, is in evidence throughout the book. It is the powerful opposition to his own bleak view of the helpless swarm, driven across a continent and back, killing and plundering, by a force which is merely the sum of their own arbitrary actions.
Tolstoy himself, in an uncharacteristic moment of modesty, seems to have underestimated his genius. Should he set his theory out in a properly rational epilogue, or leave the poetry of his fiction to carry the message? Rules or the gypsies? He havers. Four chapters of rules, twelve chapters of fiction and finally, in the second epilogue, twelve solid chapters of rules. One can only sympathise with the man. It is hard enough to stop reading the book. To stop writing it was to accept defeat. On one front at least. To accept the unknowability of all the causes towards which, in his search for unity, his reasoning had led him. Pity. Just for a moment there we thought he might be going to discover them for us. All of them.
Before Tolstoy reveals his theories he convinces us by stealth; he shows us them in action. In a series of short chapters containing one dominant idea, a method he adopts throughout the book, we meet four families in the Russia of 1805. We get to know them slowly but they stay with us for life. Pierre Bezukhov, at a reception in Petersburg, at the deathbed of his father; the Rostovs in Moscow; Count Bolkonsky and his daughter on their country estate, Mlle Bourienne, her companion, and Andrei, her brother; the Kuragins in Petersburg.
A multitude of characters, each with their own private concerns, all adding to that infinite, unknowable number of causes which, in Tolstoy’s view, drive history.
Kutuzov is at his headquarters in Braunau in Austria, where Andrei is his adjutant. Cadet Nikolai Rostov is sharing quarters with Vaska Denisov, his squadron commander. Kutuzov retreats across the Enns and Denisov’s squadron returns under fire to burn the bridge. Tolstoy maintains the balance between war and peace and we live through historical events as they are experienced by his fictional characters.
Prince Vasili marries Hélène to a resistant but defenceless Pierre. His attempt on the Bolkonsky fortune for Anatole is less successful. If Petersburg represents the intellect in Russia, Moscow must surely hold the heart of it; the Rostovs rejoice to receive a letter from Nikolai. Nikolai meets Andrei. Napoleon triumphs at Austerlitz, where Nikolai and the Emperor Alexander find themselves equally vulnerable.
Nikolai returns with Denisov to a Moscow shocked by defeat but proud of its heroes. Kutuzov has fallen from favour; Count Rostov organises a dinner in honour of Bagration. Pierre, gloomily aware of his wife’s infidelity, is challenged to a duel by Dolokhov and separates from Hélène. Tragedy involves both Andrei and his wife. Denisov and Dolokhov fall in love and Nikolai gambles.
Pierre joins the Freemasons. He travels to his estate in Kiev, determined to free his serfs, and accompanies Andrei to Bald Hills; there the old prince directs recruitment and Marya tends Andrei’s son. Hélène returns to Petersburg, where she patronises the ambitious Boris Drubetskoi.
Nikolai rejoins his regiment. Denisov commandeers transport to feed his men; facing trial and wounded he retreats to hospital. Both Nikolai and Boris are present as peace is concluded at Tilsit.
Andrei, visiting Count Rostov at Otradnoe, his country estate, meets Natasha. He returns to Petersburg with renewed energy and throws himself into affairs of state. Natasha, in Petersburg, attends her first ball, at which she dances with Andrei. He proposes and is accepted. However, the old prince insists that their marriage be postponed for a year. Andrei leaves, but asks Marya’s help in persuading their father to relent.
Tolstoy defines army life as a blissful state of irreproachable idleness. Count Rostov’s affairs are in disarray and Nikolai agrees, reluctantly, to take leave. His intervention scarcely improves matters. There follows a beautiful account of the Russian soul expressed in Russian country traditions. In painful contrast, the Countess decides that Nikolai must marry a wealthy heiress. He refuses. The arrival of mummers provides a distraction, brings Nikolai closer to Sonya but into conflict with his mother.
Pierre, disenchanted with Freemasonry, returns to Moscow. There a senile Prince Bolkonsky torments his daughter and Boris hesitates between two wealthy women. Count Rostov and Natasha call on the old prince, who offends Natasha. Hélène introduces Natasha to her brother Anatole, who pursues her, seemingly replacing the absent Andrei. She breaks her engagement and agrees to elope, but the elopement is forestalled, and a despairing Natasha attempts to poison herself. In comforting her Pierre reveals his love.
Notes by Mary Hobson
Count Cyril Bezukhov
Count Ilia Rostov
Prince Nikolai Bolkonski, a retired
Prince Vasili Kuragin
Other Main Characters
Princess Anna Mikhailovna Drubetskaya
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