Monday, November 29, 2010

Project: War and Peace - Post 2

by Conroy

I've finished Volume 1 of War and Peace, and as promised in my first post on this reading project, I'd like to discuss my impressions, reactions, and the general features of the novel that interest me. I'm taking a liberal approach to what I will discuss, avoiding a set structure for each post. I don't know what lies ahead in Volumes 2 through 4 and the Epilogue, and I may very well want to focus on different elements (characters, plot points, themes, etc.) after each volume as I feel appropriate.

War and Peace is massive in scope, both peace and war are covered in Volume 1 (the first 294 pages of more than 1,200), and Tolstoy is a master writer, fully in command of his creation. As such there is a plethora of interesting features to discuss and I am going to feel at liberty to write at length for each of these posts.


Plot Sketch
Volume 1 is divided into three Parts, which cover the period from mid-1805 until early 1806. Part 1 focuses on numerous characters from the Russian aristocracy, including several inter-related families. The action takes place in St. Petersburg and Moscow. Part 2 focuses on the early actions of Napoleon's campaign against the Third Coalition, especially the Battle of Schongrabern. Part 3 focuses on the machinations within the Kuragin and Bolkonsky families and the major Russian defeat (and French victory) at the Battle of Austerlitz.

Themes and Motifs

Tolstoy presents a couple of major themes in Volume 1. First, the limits of leadership and control. In both war and peace events unfold often not because of, but in-spite of the best laid plans of various characters. For instance, the will of the of the wealthy and dying Count Kyril Bezukhov names his illegitimate son Pierre as the major heir despite the machinations of Prince Vasily Kuragin and other members of the Count's legitimate family. Similarly, Princess Marya Bolkonsky (or Bolkonskaya following the Russian naming convention) decides not to marry Anatole, the caddish son of Prince Vasily, despite the agreement between the Prince Vasily and Marya's father Prince Bolkonsky. In war, the Battle of Schongraben unfolds not because of the detailed plans of the Russian commander Prince Bagration but because of the innumerable actions of several lower ranking Russian soldiers (not to mention the French). During the Battle of Austerlitz, the grand plans of the Russian Tsar and Austrian Emperor are completely undone by a complete misunderstanding of the disposition of the French Army and aggressive actions of Napoleon. As Tolstoy writes in describing Austerlitz, the events of history are the result of countless decisions and actions by countless individuals. Outcomes are like the hands of a clock showing the time, simple on the outside but concealing the complex movement of gears behind the clock face. Further, the movement of armies preceding a battle are like a train rolling down hill, once started, inertia makes the predetermined movements impossible to stop. Individuals, no matter how great, can only exercise limited influence over events and even less control.

The Battle of Austerlitz
A related theme addresses the view of leadership and heroes. Characters mythologized are undercut and shown as all too flawed. The young and idealistic Nicolas Rostov grows to worship Tsar Alexander I, who he views as the embodiment of leadership. He dreams of demonstrating his worth to the tsar and of even dying for him in battle. However, during Austerlitz, while on a mission from Marshal Mikhail Kutuzov, and as the Russian forces are collapsing in the face of the French onslaught, Rostov sees the tsar off in a gully near a field surrounded by only a few adjutants. The tsar is off his horse and clearly stunned and shaken by the course of the battle, he seems overwhelmed by the reality of the moment. Rostov leaves to continue his mission quite shocked by seeing the tsar in such a state. Prince Andrei Bolkonsky is an adjutant to Marshal Kutuzov and dreams of glory leading the Russian forces similar to Napoleon's meteoric rise at Toulon. His admiration of Napoleon pervades his approach to the war where he seeks action at each turn. During the Battle of Austerlitz he leads an ill-advised Russian counter-attack in the face of superior French forces. He is wounded and taken to a French field hospital. Later that night, after the battle, his hospital is visited by Napoleon who speaks admiringly to some of the captured Russian officers. It is during this visit that Andrei sees Napoleon not as a magisterial general but as all too human, petty in victory and overjoyed by the day's triumph.

Several motifs permeate the novel. Wealth, money, and inheritance are preoccupations of many of the characters. Wills, marriage dowries, clothing bills, occupations and salaries are constantly discussed. Money is a major motivating factor for the actions of the Bezukhov, Rostov, and Kuragin families, and their many hangers-on. Another motif is the complex inter-connectedness of many of the main characters. Families are connected through rank, marriage, and occupation. Many characters are brought together through war, the already mentioned financial considerations, and past relationships encumbered with associated responsibilities and favors.

Historical Fiction
War and Peace can accurately be described as historical fiction. Tolstoy's story is set in the past (he wrote the novel in the 1860s) and covers the period from 1805 through 1812. He introduces many actual historical figures such as Marshal Kutuzov, Prince Bagration, Napoleon, various Austrian military figures, and both Tsar Alexander and Emperor Francis I. These figures are active in the novel, they interact with the fictional characters and their words and actions are integral of the events that unfold. I don't know how common historical novels were in Tolstoy's day, but I was surprised at how freely historical figures were integrated into the novel, and how ensconced Tolstoy shows his fictional characters in actual historical events. Given how freely Tolstoy mixes truth with invention, it's clear that he is very comfortable placing his work alongside history.

Style and Characterization
I am impressed with how modern Tolstoy's writing seems. As noted in my earlier post, the English reader must be aware of the limitations and pitfalls that can come with translations. That caveat aside, Tolstoy's characters think and act like breathing people. I tend to judge a novelist's ability by his or her characters. Writers that can create characters that are human, speak and think like people, are motivated by impulses and desires that we recognize, and act in ways that "make sense" are gifted and worth reading. Tolstoy is certainly one of these. His characters are interesting because they are deeply human - even many of the historical characters. We can like and admire some, and dislike others, but we have to respect them all as seemingly authentic, imbued with the contradictions, limitations, and complexity of "real" people.  I am particularly intrigued by the searching and intelligent Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, the thoughtful, centered, but young Prince Boris Drubestskoy, the complex Count Pierre Bezukhov, and the maneuvering Prince Vasily Kuragin.

The style of War and Peace is also very modern. The passages and action are described vividly and with immediacy. The battle scenes are cinematic, and it would be easy to see many of the scenes on film. I find this fascinating given the film did not exist when Tolstoy wrote the novel and could not have influenced the way the Tolstoy wrote or what he chose to describe. The writing is helped greatly, especially for such a long a dense work, by clarity, strong characters (see above), and interesting events. I don't know where the novel will take us in Volumes 2 through the Epilogue, but Tolstoy's style will make it easy to get through.

An interesting aspect of the work is Tolstoy's tendency to take sides. He describes the Russian soldiers as "our" troops. The French as "the enemy", and the Austrians and Germans as conniving, petty, incompetent, etc. I expected a more unbiased perspective. I also expected an accurate description of the outcomes of battles, such as the famous Battle of Austerlitz. Tolstoy is accurate in his historiography, but his analysis is deeply pro-Russian. The fact the Napoleon thoroughly out-maneuvered the combined Austro-Russian forces at Austerlitz is noted, but he absolves the Russians, especially Marshal Kutuzov, of the bulk of the responsibility for the defeat and fails to give Napoleon his due in the outcome.

Thoughts on Subsequent Volumes
I will soon find out where Tolstoy takes us from Volume 2 forward, but it is clear the he sees the battles against Napoleon in 1805 as a learning experience for the Russian army. Lessons that will bear fruit in later campaigns. It is harder to discern where the "peace" side of the story may evolve, but certainly Count Pierre Bezukhov, his wealth and position, and the retinue that is growing around him, will be a central focus.

I'll be back with a post on Volume 2 soon.

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