Scene from War and Peace
Thursday, November 4, 2010

War and Peace

The picture above and one to the left are from a Russian film of War and Peace. Sergei Bondarchuk directed this version, and played Pierre. That’s Bondarchuk over there on the left. I’m not sure which battle the scene above depicts. It is probably either Austerlitz or Borodino. There’s a Hollywood movie version of War and Peace with Henry Fonda as Pierre and Audrey Hepburn as Natasha. Fonda is horribly miscast in the role of Pierre. Audrey Hepburn is probably a better choice for Natasha. I’ll be using the Pevear-Volokhonsky translation. This seems to have gone out of print, or at least it’s not easily available directly from Amazon. I’ve put up another translation that is available from Amazon. I’ve also put up a link to Viktor Shklovsky’s Theory of Prose, a piece of Russian formalist criticism that uses Tolstoy as an inspiration.

About 2% of War and Peace is in French. Pevear and Voloknonsky made a decision to leave the French intact, and to footnote the translation. I haven’t read Constance Garnett’s translations of Tolstoy, but in her translations of Dostoyevsky my recollection is that she might give a few words in French, and then the remainder in English. French was spoken in everyday conversation among the upper classes in Czarist Russia, so while it may seem strange to your average mono-lingual American to mix the mother tongue with French, it was fairly typical for 19th century Russian.

Tolstoy describes Pierre as “clumsy. Fat, unusually tall, broad, with enormous red hands, he did not, as they say, know how to enter a salon, and still less did he know how to leave one…. (22). The thin, almost emaciated, Henry Fonda fails to convey the massiveness and energy of Pierre, something which Tolstoy points out several times. Fonda, or Jimmy Stewart, or some other American actors might be able to portray Pierre’s clumsiness, and somewhat comic bumptiousness, but they are wrong physically. Actors who might match Pierre in size, Sidney Greenstreet, Lionel Barrymore, John Candy, and some others are either the wrong age, or not capable of the requisite character. My recollection is that Bondarchuk was a pretty good Pierre.

The first part of the book is devoted to Pierre and to the run-up to the war of 1805. Pierre is guilty of what we might today describe as youthful high jinks. He is involved in binge drinking, and in an episode that involves a policeman being tied to a bear’s back. Those of us who have endured the current political season have been treated to episodes of youthful indiscretion that have included simulated fellatio and the worship of Aqua-Buddha, so Pierre’s foolishness is neither unusual nor all that bad.

Pierre, and some of the other characters, have a bit of hero worship for Napoleon. Now I’m an American, and my main knowledge of Napoleon is that he sold Louisiana to Jefferson, so I don’t have too much of a stake in whether Napoleon was a genius, and a great man, or just an egomaniacal madman who slaughtered his fellow countrymen, and thousands of others. Pierre justifies the execution of the duc d’Enghien on the grounds that it “was a necessity of state,” and sees “greatness of soul in the fact that Napoleon was not afraid to take upon himself alone the responsibility for this act.” Anna Pavlovna asks a bit later how “revolution and regicide” can be considered great acts (19-20). As the novel progresses we can expect to see Pierre move away from his worship of Napoleon, and his justification of the French Revolution to a far different position.

The sections that concern Pierre could, I suppose, be considered a bildungsroman, or coming of age story, but without the explicit sex present in modern versions. In fact, as far as the principal male characters, Prince Andrei, Prince Nikolai Rostov, and Pierre, are concerned the novel traces their development and changes in moral outlook and character.

Tolstoy is generally considered to have a “god like” view of the action in the novel. He gives an enormous amount of detail in each scene. Whether he gives too much detail is something for the reader to decide. Some may wish that the novel had been cut by some ruthless editor, and some of the exhaustive detail eliminated. As well as being omniscient Tolstoy also presents scenes in such a way that they might be taken as someone describing something never seen before. When Tolstoy describes the opening of the battle of Austerlitz he says:

“The fog was so thick that, though day was breaking, one could not see ten paces ahead. Bushes looked like enormous trees, level places like cliffs and slopes. Everywhere, on all sides, one might run into an enemy invisible ten paces away” (270).

This sense of unreality is what Shklovsky termed ostranenie, defamiliarization or estrangement.

Tolstoy is at pains to portray Pierre as idealistic, and perhaps a bit impractical. In one passage Pierre flirts with moral relativism:

“Louis XVI was executed for being, as they said, dishonest and criminal,” came into Pierre’s head, “and they were right from their point of view, and equally right were those who died a martyr’s death for him and counted him among the saints. Then Robespierre was executed because he was a despot. Who’s right, and who’s wrong? No one. You’re alive—so live: tomorrow you’ll die, just as I could have died an hour ago” (318).

This idea is repeated a little later and precedes Pierre’s dealings with a Torzhok peddler woman. Pierre reflects “I have hundreds of roubles that don’t know what to do with, and she stands there in a tattered coat and looks at me timidly,” thought Pierre. “And what does she need the money for? As if the money can add one’s hair breadth to her happiness, her peace of mind? Can anything in the world make her or me less subject to evil and death. Death, which will end everything and which must come today or tomorrow—in a moment, anyhow, compared with eternity.” And he again put pressure on the stripped screw and the screw kept turning in one and the same place” (348).

Note that Pierre:

  • Does not buy anything from the peddler woman.
  • Does not offer her any kind of charity.
  • Does not reflect that a warmer coat would be a good thing.
  • Does not reflect that temporary amelioration of hunger, cold, illness, and so on is better than nothing.
  • Is unable to deal with the stripped screw. The endless rotation of the screw mirroring in this instance the ceaseless, pointless, and ineffectual ruminations of Pierre.

When Pierre visits his estates he institutes a variety of reforms, including the treatment of the serfs or peasants. Pierre is deceived as to the success of his measures, and Tolstoy has a long paragraph that describes his deception:

“Pierre did not know that the village where he was offered bread and salt was a market village with fair on St. Peter’s Day, that the chapel had been begun long ago by the wealthy peasants, who were the ones who welcomed him, and that nine-tenths of the peasants in the village were completely destitute” (380).

Prince Andrei Bolkonsky introduces similar reforms on his estates, but Andrei’s reforms are successful while Pierre’s are not. Why? Tolstoy does not give an answer to this question, but I think it has to do with a fundamental difference between Pierre and Andrei. Pierre is a idealist, an intellectual, or so he believes. His response is to formulate a “lofty” sentiment, which he then leaves to someone else to implement. Andrei, the military officer, is more direct, more hands on, and less inclined to imaginative and emotional fancies. Here you have a key distinction, to my mind between Andrei and Pierre.

The pattern is repeated again in Pierre’s involvement with the FreeMasons. Most of us probably think of Masons and Masonry as a primarily social thing with a bunch of guys giving secret handshakes, wearing funny hats, and indulging in harmless, possibly drunken, fun. In the 18th and 19th centuries Masonry was associated with revolutionary ideas in theology and in politics. Deism sees God as existing, but as impersonal, possibly even as having walked away from creation and left it to its own devices. Many of the Founding Fathers, including Washington, were Masons, and were probably influenced by Masonic ideals.

Pierre achieves a position of some importance in the Masonic lodge, but his leadership appears to be ineffective and divisive. Later Pierre will move from his enthusiasm for the Masons to an enthusiasm for gematria.*

As the story moves to Napoleon’s invasion of Russia we have a description of a hunt. The object of the hunt seems to be to clear out wolves, foxes, or hares. It starts with the pursuit of a wolf. It seems to proceed along the lines of a fox hunt, with a number of hunting dogs pursuing the object of the chase. One of the landowners, Ilagin, has traded “three families of house serfs,” for a red-spotted hunting dog (505). That a man would trade house serfs, who I would think would be more like family, much as Mammy and Pru are part of the family in Gone With the Wind, despite their slave status, than objects to be traded for dogs. I have to confess my ignorance here. I don’t think European serfdom ever involved trade in bodies, as Russian serfdom apparently did. On the other hand, I don’t think I’ve ever heard of serf auction blocks that would parallel the slave auction blocks of the ante-bellum American South. Russian serfdom, and I’m open to correction here, appears to be somewhere between European serfdom and American slavery.

I’ve mentioned ostranenie, or estrangement, Tolstoy’s method of presenting things as if they are seen for the first time. An example of this technique occurs during a visit to the theater for an opera.

“The stage consisted of flat boards in the middle, with painted pieces of cardboard on the side representing trees, and canvas stretched over boards at the back” (560). This seems unusual. You would describe a stage if there was something unusual about it, for example, if you were describing a performance in 408 BC at the Theater of Dionsysius you might describe the stage. You wouldn’t ordinarily describe a stage for your audience, and it would be presumed that upper class characters would know what a stage is, and had some experience of stages.

When Tolstoy reaches the invasion of Russia he has one chapter that is devoted to philosophical reflections on history. He dismisses idea that history is the result of the actions of great men. He prefers to see it as the result of great forces that act without regard to the puny humans that are affected by it. Tolstoy’s idea that history is the result of non-human forces is compatible with the Marxist concept of history, which is deterministic. While Tolstoy sees this force as being providential, the Marxist concept, as I understand it, removes any concept of Providence and substitutes a vague notion of impersonal forces.

Pierre’s temporary fascination with gematria, the number values of letters, embodies that same historical determinism. The future is encoded in certain texts, notably the Book of Revelations, or the Apocalypse, and can be deciphered by substituting numbers for letters. Pierre substitutes the French alphabet for Hebrew letters. I don’t know if this is a mistake on Pierre’s part, or a mistake by Tolstoy, but Revelations was written in Greek. At least the manuscripts are in Greek, though there may be, for all I know, a Hebrew original behind the surviving Greek. Both Greek and Hebrew use letters for numbers, English and French do not. So Pierre’s assignment of numbers is fairly arbitrary. He then manipulates the letters in various names to achieve the result he wants, to come up with a phrase that totals 666, the number of the beast. He then convinces himself that his name, or a variant of his name, also contains 666. Rather than assuming that he is the beast, he assigns Napoleon the beast role, and decides that he is to destroy the beast.

At this point, a little past halfway into the novel, it seems like a good time to stop and address the issue of the novel’s length and reputation, at least as regards being a slow read. It has a reputation of being a slow read, and of being incredibly long. It is long, but it is not the longest novel ever written. Atlas Shrugged, if Wikipedia is to be believed, is longer. Other novels are of comparable length, or are close to a thousand pages in length. Gone With the Wind, Once an Eagle, A Dance to the Music of Time, Remembrance of Things Past, Clarissa, some Harry Potter books, and some Tom Clancy novels are almost as long. Proust’s novel also has a reputation as a bit of a slog.** Is that reputation deserved for War and Peace?

It goes without question that neither it nor Proust’s novels are fast reads. Atlas Shrugged, at least in my recollection, and some of the others are much faster, much easier reading. Why can a Harry Potter novel of 700-800 pages be read in a day or two while Tolstoy’s book takes weeks to get through. Part of the problem is the excessive piling on of details. We’re not told that Natasha went to the opera, we’re presented with all of the details of the theater and its construction, and its scenery and the construction of the scenery. Everything, even the things with which we’re quite familiar is presented as new and strange. Other novels, even long ones in multiple volumes, such as A Dance to the Music of Time, are more plot driven. There is one series of incidents after another, and each incident leads to some significant action. Tolstoy’s characters also seem less active, they take less of a role in determining their destiny than characters in other novels do. When Natasha, after the hunting party, does her Russian dance, she as described as somehow receiving or participating in the life of her country. She is manipulated by an outside force. I think this can be a fatal flaw in a story. That determinism is what, to my taste, ruined something like Asimov’s Foundation series. Every step, every move was foreseen and described by the omniscient Harry Seldon. The characters were not actors in their own story. They were puppets moved along by outside forces.

To say that War and Peace is slow moving should not be seen as detracting from its greatness.

War and Peace is sometimes described as an epic, and one feature that it has in common with traditional epics, such as Homer, is the use of simile. In Volume III, part 3, Chapter 20, there is an extended simile that compares Moscow to an abandoned beehive. The passage is too long to quote here, and the interested reader can find it online, but it immediately struck me that Homer uses bee similes inThe Iliad. Here’s the first use of the bee simile in the Iliad:

“They swarmed like bees that sally from some hollow cave and flit in countless throng among the spring flowers, bunched in knots and clusters; even so did the mighty multitude pour from ships and tents to the assembly, and range themselves upon the wide-watered shore, while among them ran Wildfire Rumor, messenger of Zeus, urging them ever to the fore” (2: 87-93, Samuel Butler’s translation).

Here’s the second:

“I made sure the Argive heroes could not withstand us, whereas like slim-waisted wasps, or bees that have their nests in the rocks by the wayside - they leave not the holes wherein they have built undefended, but fight for their little ones against all who would take them - even so these men, though they be but two, will not be driven from the gates, but stand firm either to slay or be slain” (12: 167-71).

 Tolstoy’s simile is far more extended than Homer’s. Whether it adds more to the epic quality of the novel through its presence or not I’m not sure.

When Tolstoy describes the rebirth of Moscow he again uses an insect simile, though this time it’s ants, and not bees, and the simile is not as long as the bee simile:

“Just as it is hard to explain why and where ants hurry to from a demolished anthill, some away from the anthill carrying specks of dust, eggs, and dead bodies, and others back to the anthill—why they run into each other, chase each other, fight—so it would be hard to explain the reasons that made the Russian people, after the departure of the French, crowd into the place which was formerly called Moscow” (1108).

Tolstoy concludes the novel with not one, but two epilogues. The first epilogue takes the story up to 1819-20, the eve of the Decembrist Revolution, and the second epilogue is Tolstoy’s reflections on history.

I’ve already indicated my disagreement with Tolstoy’s philosophy of history, and see no need to discuss it further. I will say, however, that much of Tolstoy’s discussion of war, and the relation of battle plans to actual battle seems related to what today comes under the rubrics of C3I and C4I. (See this Wikipedia article for brief explanations of the terms.) Whether or not this affects Tolstoy’s views of war and battle I’ll leave to tohers who are more familiar with both war and Tolstoy than I am.

Next up, will be a number of Christmas books, or more accurately books that I received this Christmas. First up will be Tom Clancy’s Dead or Alive. I expect to follow that with Br. Lawrence’s Practice of the Presence of God.

 * giːˈmeɪtrɪə)

Also 7 gematry.

[Rabbinical Heb. gēmaṭriyā, a. Gr. γεωµετρία geometry. (The suggestion that it represents Gr. γραµµατεία is unfounded.)]

A cabbalistic method of interpreting the Hebrew Scriptures by interchanging words whose letters have the same numerical value when added.

   1686 Goad Celest. Bodies ii. i. 156, I am perswaded‥that there may be something in Cabala, Gematry, something in the mysterious Force of Numbers, in Critical Days, Climacteric Years, &c.    1730–6 Bailey (folio), Gematria, the first kind of arithmetical cabala, in use among the cabalistical Jews.    1884 J. Gow Gr. Mathem. 44 The supposed antiquity of gematria depends solely on a conjectural and improbable comment on Zechariah xii. 10. There is in fact no clear instance of gematria before Philo or Christian writers strongly under Philonic influence (e.g. Rev. xiii. 18; Ep. Barn. c. 9).    1892 Edin. Rev. July 77 Belief in the gematria or mystic value of letters in the Scriptures.(OED, 2nd ed.)

**slog, n. colloq.


[f. the vb.]

1.1 Hard, steady work; a spell of this.

   1888 Jacobi Printers' Vocab. 127 When a person is working hurriedly he is said to have a ‘slog on’.    1903 McNeill Egregious English 172 That one way amounts to sheer mechanism and slog.

2.2 A vigorous blow; a hard hit at cricket.

   1846 Swell's Night Guide 76 And she felt inclined to mug her rival, only she thought it would be no bottle, cos her rival could go in a buster at a slog.    1865 Lilly-white's Cricketers' Compan. 139 Too fond of losing his wicket for a ‘slog’.    1895 Daily News 5 Feb. 3/5 Ford sent a ball straight into point's hands. Peel tried a blind slog.    1897 H. W. Bleakley Short Innings vi. 94 Sixey made a mighty slog, but failed to strike the ball (OED, 2nd ed.)