Monday, May 17, 2010

Review of War and Peace

Война и миръ (War and Peace), 1869, by count Leo Tolstoy, read in Russian. Glossy's rating: 6.5 out of 10.

This enormous novel is almost entirely devoid of humor or stylistic elegance - two qualities I love most in literature - and yet I can't honestly say I hated it.

It's a book written for and about a unique, fascinating people that, sadly, is now gone forever. I'm talking here about the Russian aristocracy, to whose upper reaches count Leo Tolstoy himself belonged, and about European aristocracy in general. Who were these people, whose destruction or assimilation in most countries, and removal from power in all others have coincided with the disappearance of duels, of the practice of noblesse oblige and of so much beauty? What did a thousand years of careful breeding accomplish in their case?

Let's start with the duels, one of which is memorably described in the book. These wealthy, powerful, overwhelmingly smart men were routinely willing to risk their lives for honor. A few disrespectful words were enough. Note that this behavior had nothing in common with that of modern goons after a "dis". In order to call themselves gentlemen, men had to give each other equal chances, fighting one-on-one, at a predetermined time and place, long after the initial rush of emotion had a chance to subside. Fairness, at least within the circle of those who were judged to be capable of it, was inseparable from honor.

This attitude was carried into battle and beyond. Here Tolstoy describes the French emperor talking to a Russian POW after Austerlitz:

"You are the commander of Emperor Alexander's regiment of Horse Guards?" asked Napoleon.
"I commanded a squadron," replied Repnin.
"Your regiment fulfilled its duty honorably," said Napoleon.
"The praise of a great commander is a soldier's highest reward," said Repnin.
"I bestow it with pleasure," said Napoleon.  

Try to imagine a conversation like that happening in a modern war. 
The old aristocracy's privileged lifestyle only amazes until one thinks of today's rich. I doubt that wealth in modern Russia or modern America is distributed any more evenly than it was in 19th century Europe. What has definitely decreased though is the elite's sense of responsibility towards the rest of society. In the novel the Rostov family owns numerous opulent homes and has thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of peasants working on its estates, and yet no one is surprised when Nikolay Rostov, who was modeled on Tolstoy's father, volunteers for active duty as a simple hussar. He eventually rises to the rank of officer, but in those days no matter how high you rose in the army, your chances of getting shot were always good. Kutuzov, the Russian army's overall commander during the decisive stages of its war with Napoleon, and an heir to an old aristocratic family, is missing an eye by the time we meet him in the novel - it was lost in an engagement with the Turks.

Sure, on occasion privileged kids still volunteer to serve in the wars their fathers help start. However, in the world described by this novel this wasn't just many times more common than now - it was expected of them.

There is a scene here where the tsar meets with the commercial class of Moscow, who end up volunteering large amounts of money for the war effort. So this altruism wasn't limited to the gentry.

No modern Western politician can inspire these sorts of feelings, not even among the young:

Stopping in front of the Pavlograds, the Tsar said something in French to the Austrian Emperor and smiled.
Seeing that smile, Rostov involuntarily smiled himself and felt a still stronger flow of love for his sovereign. He longed to show that love in some way and knowing that this was impossible, wanted to cry. The Tsar called the colonel of the regiment and said a few words to him.
"Oh God, what would happen to me if the Emperor spoke to me?" thought Rostov. "I would die of happiness!"
The Tsar addressed the officers also: "I thank you all, gentlemen, I thank you with my whole heart." To Rostov every word sounded like a voice from heaven. How happy he would be if he could now die for his Tsar!
"You have earned the St. George's standards and will be worthy of them."
"Only to die, to die for him!" thought Rostov.

Any impulse to smile at this now should be tempered with the realization that these sorts of feelings win wars. And you can't write any of it off on brainwashing - neither TV nor government-run educational systems were yet on the horizon in 1805. In fact, Russians of Rostov's class were largely educated by private tutors imported by their families from France. Most of the written material they consumed was also in French.

France's dominance of the cultural scene of that time is astounding. Many of the Russian nobles portrayed in the novel were more comfortable speaking French than Russian. It's also made clear that Pierre and Andrey, who are the focus of much of the book, know German, and there are dozens of German characters here. In contrast, the novel has only one English character, he appears in only one scene, has no importance of any sort and doesn't even get a name.

Tolstoy includes a lot of French and a few German passages without translation, assuming that an upscale Russian audience would have had no trouble understanding them. He couldn't have done that with English. Although the British Empire was the most powerful state of that time, its cultural impact outside of its domains was scarcely detectable.

At one point Tolstoy takes time to describe the long-dead Russian upper class accent. That passage reminded me of nothing so much as old phonograph recordings of Lenin's speeches. It's sad, but modern Russians' mental image of how the aristocracy spoke comes, to a large extent, from the recordings of the guy who led the effort to exterminate it.

I'm sure that a big reason why I'm fascinated by literary descriptions of the aristocracy is that they're so far removed from anything I've known in real life. It's impossible to idealize anything one knows well, and yet most people have an inborn desire to idealize something. Unfortunately Tolstoy succumbed to one of the more negative manifestations of this impulse. He ended up turning the ordinary Russian peasant into a sort of internal noble savage, endowing him with qualities that no human has ever possessed. The picture of count Tolstoy - a rich man and a direct descendant of Russia's original royal family - in a peasant shirt, familiar to every Russian schoolboy, is one of the most ridiculous images to ever become associated with literature. At least I idealize people who are smarter than I am.

Rousseau, the leading European promoter of the noble savage idea, could be enthusiastic about savages precisely because he'd never met them. Tolstoy did know some peasants, but only as chattel on his estate, and later as his employees.

In War and Peace the internal noble savage is most prominently personified by Platon Karatayev, a peasant soldier whom count Pierre Bezuhov meets while in French captivity. I found Tolstoy's breathless descriptions of Karatayev cringe-worthy. He took every sign of that man's stupidity - his unreflective nature, his inability to repeat what he'd just said, the childish simplicity of all the stories he tells - as something profound, mysterious and other-worldly.

Pacifism was another trendy idea to which Tolstoy fell victim. Seeing him try to square it with his obvious pride over Russia's beating of the French was amusing. The two opposing sentiments, one abstract and most likely taken from books, the other intuitive and obviously experienced first-hand, remained unreconciled till the end.

It would be grossly unfair to depict Tolstoy as a 19th century hippy though. His views on women, for example, were realistic. Here's a part of his description of Anatole, the novel's biggest playboy: his behavior to women Anatole had a manner which particularly inspires in them curiosity, awe, and even love--a supercilious consciousness of his own superiority. It was as if he said to them: "I know you, I know you, but why should I bother about you? You'd be only too glad, of course." Perhaps he did not really think this when he met women- even probably he did not, for in general he thought very little--but his looks and manner gave that impression.

Here Tolstoy comments on women's inability to handle abstract ideas while describing Countess Rostova's response to her son's desire to serve his country:

She realized that if she said a word about his not going to the battle (she knew he enjoyed the thought of the impending engagement) he would say something about men, honor, and the fatherland--something senseless, masculine, and obstinate which there would be no contradicting, and her plans would be spoiled.

Here's Dolohov talking to the young Rostov:

Yes, dear boy," he continued, "I have met loving, noble, high-minded men, but I have not yet met any women--countesses or cooks--who were not venal.

And here is prince Andrey, one of the noblest souls ever to be realistically described in print, summing it all up for young Pierre:

If you only knew what those society women are, and women in general! My father is right. Selfish, vain, stupid, trivial in everything--that's what women are when you see them in their true colors!

This reminds me that War and Peace abounds with ethnic stereotypes that only a boring PC prude could pretend not to enjoy:

All Moscow repeated ...the words of Rostopchin, that French soldiers have to be incited to battle by highfalutin words, and Germans by logical arguments to show them that it is more dangerous to run away than to advance, but that Russian soldiers only need to be restrained and held back! (...)

...all of Ramballe's love stories had the disgusting quality which Frenchmen regard as the special charm and poetry of love...

 ...L'amour which the Frenchman worshiped consisted principally in the unnaturalness of his relation to the woman and in a combination of incongruities giving the chief charm to the feeling. (...) 

Pfuel was one of those hopelessly and immutably self-confident men, self-confident to the point of martyrdom as only Germans are, because only Germans are self-confident on the basis of an abstract notion--science, that is, the supposed knowledge of absolute truth. (...)

A combination of Austrian precision and Russian courage - what more could be wished for?" (...) 

Prince Andrey's father talking about Napoleon:

"Buonaparte was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He has got splendid soldiers. Besides he began by attacking Germans. And only idlers have failed to beat the Germans. Since the world began everybody has beaten the Germans. They beat no one--except one another. He made his reputation fighting them."

And this was written only a few years before France's decisive defeat by Bismarck in 1871. Tolstoy's hostility to Germans came from two easily-identifiable sources, the first of which might well have been biological. Russians love living large, not caring about the consequences of every minor thing they do, having noisy fun and being overly generous with everyone. This has always clashed with the more cautious and disciplined German national character. An American parallel would be a southerner's disdain for old Yankee fussiness and perceived joylessness.

The second reason had to do with the proliferation of Germans in Imperial Russian service. When Tsar Peter the Great embarked on his project to Westernize Russia at the end of the 17th century, he needed technical expertise, so he invited thousands of foreigners, mostly Germans, to the country. Many stayed permanently, making up a large percentage of the army's officer corps. Russian aristocracy, like the Tolstoy family, understandably felt threatened by this. Over the course of the 18th century through repeated marriages with German princesses the Russian royal family itself became mostly German. Tolstoy was too respectful of monarchy as an institution to just come out and say it, but his descriptions of Alexander I as a reserved, duty-bound, extremely formal man fit the German stereotype, which is repeatedly made fun of elsewhere in the novel.

To many modern readers the war in War and Peace is most remarkable not for anything that actually happened in it, but for the bizarre way in which much of it reoccurred more than a century later.

An ideologically-driven conquest of the European continent by a man of unremarkable origins, that man's obsession with and then abandonment of a plan to conquer England, his late invasion of Russia, easy progress up till Moscow, a fierce fight for the city leading to a turnaround in fortunes, and later his vast army's annihilation on its long journey back to Europe, ending with the Russian occupation of his capital - how could every one of those things have happened twice, and in exactly that order?

At one point in the novel Tolstoy says that every historian of the Napoleonic Wars agreed that Bonaparte started his Russian campaign too late in the summer to be successful, and that he didn't adequately prepare for the Russian winter.

What were the chances that that would happen again? Both seemed to have overestimated Britain and underestimated Russia. Here Tolstoy has Napoleon talk with a Russian ambassador:

How many churches are there in Moscow?" he asked.
And receiving the reply that there were more than two hundred churches, he remarked:
"Why such a quantity of churches?"
"The Russians are very devout," replied Balashev.
"But a large number of monasteries and churches is always a sign of the backwardness of a people," said Napoleon, turning to Caulaincourt for appreciation of this remark.
Balashev respectfully ventured to disagree with the French Emperor.
"Every country has its own character," said he.
"But nowhere in Europe is there anything like that," said Napoleon.
"I beg your Majesty's pardon," returned Balashev, "besides Russia there is Spain, where there are also many churches and monasteries."
This reply of Balashev's, which hinted at the recent defeats of the French in Spain, was much appreciated when he related it at Alexander's court, but it was not much appreciated at Napoleon's dinner, where it passed unnoticed.

It's clear to me from this and from other things I've read that a big reason why Napoleon overestimated the Brits and underestimated the Russians was his erroneous assumption that modernity must always be good and that backwardness must always be bad. In times of general moral decline backwardness easily becomes an advantage, and what was the French Revolution if not a giant step downwards for Western Civ? Of course, Hitler also loved going on about the backwardness of Russia's "Asiatic hordes".

It would have been too much to expect this 1,600-page novel to be a paragon of literary style, and it's not. Reading War and Peace is more like listening to a very smart man talk than like reading something that a very smart man has written. He repeats himself a lot. The sentences are inelegant and overlong. He sometimes goes on for pages expressing an idea that with more effort could have been condensed into a couple of lines. What keeps you from doubting the man's intelligence is his ability to get deep into the minds of dozens of very different kinds of people in order to describe their motivations realistically.

Tolstoy's extremely common-sensical takes on dozens of topics that seemingly have nothing to do with the plot are in themselves reason enough to read this book. To give a small example, here he describes a minor character singing:

Uncle sang as peasants sing, with full and naive conviction that the whole meaning of a song lies in the words and that the tune comes of itself, and that apart from the words there is no tune, which exists only to give measure to the words. As a result of this the unconsidered tune, like the song of a bird, was extraordinarily good.

When thinking about opera's ridiculousness, it's tempting to imagine that the 19th century was so soaked in artificiality that it didn't even notice it. And yet here Tolstoy shows that he clearly understood the appeal of the kind of singing that is diametrically opposed to all opera, of the kind of singing that in the world of 20th century popular music would be associated with 1960s folkies and 1970s singer-songwriters.

My least favorite part of War and Peace was its first, philosophical after-word. I found its ideas to be mostly self-evident and its style too boring for words. What is philosophy if not empty talk for smart men, their equivalent of feminine chatter? One almost never learns anything new from reading it and I certainly didn't learn anything new from that afterword.

Do I think that War and Peace deserves to be the most famous novel ever written? Not for a second. However it's not at all a bad book. It's so ambitious that at its end the author denies, not without justification, that it's even a novel. I found it to be a clear window on a fascinating place and time and I think it contains more than enough wisdom and insight to outweigh its faults.

Last edited on 12/20/18.


  1. Awesome review, and a great blog in general. I've had a copy of War and Peace on my shelf for a while, although I ended up reading through Brothers Karamazov as my first foray into Russian literature. I loved that book, by the way, and would be interested to hear your take if you have one to share.

    1. Thomas, thank you for your kind words. Unfortunately I haven't read Brothers Karamazov. If and when I do, I'll definitely post a review here.

  2. Ha, I adored Tolstoy's descriptions of the French! His contemptuous descriptions of the French ideas of love I thought were especially accurate. I've also been struck by how little England figures in Russian literature, or even continental literature as a whole.

    I have to agree with all the criticisms said in your review (Nabokov had the same critiques), although I still came out concluding that War and Peace completely deserves the pedestal it's been put upon. I think great works need to have pedestals, otherwise there's very little that will motivate enough effort for common people to read them. A lot of criticisms should be left within certain circles. I agree with almost all of Nabokov's biting condemnations of Dostoevsky for example, but I still admire and enjoy reading his novels while acknowledging their faults.

    I'm actually of the opinion that Brothers Karamazov is definitely one of Dostoevsky's weaker works overall. "Demons" is actually his most characteristic and therefore, greatest novel. The most convoluted plot, craziest characters, the darkest tone, the bitterest satire and worst deeds. Karamazov Brothers on the other hand is more of a rehash of earlier ideas and feels laboured at many points. Of course, there are still many good scenes, but as someone who's read his whole oeuvre; I'd recommend reading him chronologically if you're unfamiliar with him.

    - Yevardian