I’ve tackled War and Peace a few times, but beat a hasty retreat. Initially the problem was the characters involved. I’m not the brightest. Easily confused. So having the patronymic and other names tacked on like stags antlers got a bit confusing. On the opening page, for example, we have Anna Pavlovna Scherer and she’s some kind of hanger on to Empress Marya Fedorovo, the Dowager Empress, and the former is at home having a soiree with the Abbe Morro as honoured guest, receiving a visit from Prince Vasilily Kurkagov, and he has a daughter Helene/Heloise, who is a great society beauty and sons Anatole, who we are told is a bit of a lady’s man and spending oodles of dad’s cash, with no concern of what tomorrow might bring, and the more sensible son, Hippolyte, so boring and ugly he’s sent away to become a diplomat, because there’s always a war somewhere in Europe, especially with Napoleon Bonaparte rushing about tearing up the map and the old certain uncertainties, but Hippolyte practices his diplomatic skills flirting with the former society beauty Princess Elisabeth/Lise Karlovna Bolkonskia,née Meinena she’s a former society beauty, and a safe bet, because she’s now married and pregnant; (‘the little princess’ so little, she’ll die in childbirth, so don’t worry about learning her name; and don’t worry it’s a boy, Nikolay (3); her husband Prince Andrew/Andre Nikolayeveich Bolkonski, and upright as a toothbrush is an adjutant in the army to General Kutuzov, later Prince Kutzov supreme leader of the Russian army in 1812 that push Napoleon and the French out of Russia; and Nikolay’s father Prince Nikolay is old school, a friend of Kutuzov, from Catherine I’s era and as Prince Nikolay (snr) is banished/stays away from Moscow to show he’s not to be messed about, even by new-fangled liberal-minded Emperors such as Tsar Alexander I, and must maintain the proprieties of bringing up his children in a regimented regime, his daughter Prince Mary/Marya Bolkonskia is an educated women, but no great beauty, apart from her eyes, which show a pure and lily-white soul that lights up her face and, for anyone that cares to look, shows what a good and kind person she is, but nobody does much to begin with, because she’s pretty old and out the way in Bald Hills, over 100 miles from Moscow, what’s tempting is her dowry; there are other pure souls, simple Pierre/Petyl, which is great because he’s only really got one name, but it gets more complicated because he’s the illegitimate son of Count Kirill Vladimirovich Buzokov (bit of a dandy, lover of Catherine I, [word on the street was that she was a bit of a slapper, flung it about a bit, but that’s not in the book, because it comes too early in history and Empresses are always discrete enough to murder anyone who blabs about who they were sleeping with last night, that’s why I’m not saying too much, nudge, nudge, wink, wink] Pierre is happy with his education abroad and his books and his blundering about the place; he knows, of course, it’s impossible to inherit because he only has one name and that’s, whisper it, bastard, but Count Buzokov, on his deathbed does a terrible thing and make Pierre his legitimate son and one of the richest men in Russia, worse that means that Pierre must marry the society beauty Helene, he’s been sneaking a look at her breasts, [who hasn’t? even Napoleon laps up against that pearly shore] she wears one of those pushy-up dresses that were all the rage, which every society woman wears, apart from Mary, who wears sensible shoes and a cardigan and sits knitting at home and reading Orthodox prayer books, the marriage between Pierre and Helene is arranged by Prince Vasily, Helene’s father, Pierre doesn’t even have to ask what’s happening to him, which he frequently does, anticipating the French philosophy of existentialism and in the same way Prince Vasily doesn’t need to ask for a few million rubbles to help him out anticipating Thatcherism, he’s been having monetary difficulties recently and Pierre, well, good chap, doesn’t seem to mind, but Pierre has a bit of a pash for Natasha Roystova, whose father Count Ilya Rostov is also having monetary worries, serious monetary worries, but nothing that his sons Nikolai/Nicholas need worry about, or the baby of the family Petyl/Peter, not unless of course he doesn’t manage to sell the house and estate in Moscow, unless Moscow is burnt to the ground by marauding French troops, which is very unlikely to happen, as is the death of Petyl, who at sixteen in 1812 has grown into a fine young man, but not for long some might say, especially his mother; French artillery also manage to kill Prince Andrew, but that takes two goes, the first a freebie at the battle of Austerlitz, which was a decided victory for the French, Andrew, almost fatally wounded, was tended by Napoleon Bonaparte’s own doctor, this isn’t exactly a good thing, cures included bloodletting and leeches; and later when Pierre is captured by the French and made to walk in his pink little tootsies from a burning Moscow at temperature -30 degree he also recovers, despite medical treatment, as does Prince Andrew, but at the Battle of Borodino outside Moscow, which despite the Russian retreat, was a score drawer on the coupon, Prince Andrew wasn’t so lucky, shrapnel wound to the stomach, left for dead again, not even leaches can bring him back, but he limps on long enough to tell Natasha that he’s always loved her and wanted nothing more than to die in her arms, which leaves Natasha bereft, until Pierre appears, and then she’s bereftless, but only after she’s checked with good-shepherd Mary that it’s OK to be in that condition, after all, she’s had a bit of form in that department, trying to sneak off with Anatole Kuragin, but she’d a lucky escape, because his wicked plans was thwarted and he was already married and had his legs blown off and died a horrible death, which he probably deserved, being such a cad, and even better Natasha could double-date with her brother latching onto Mary, whose dad, Prince Nikolay, has also conveniently died, her brother Prince Andrew also dead, and she’s all alone, apart from a few thousand serfs, who don’t really like taking orders from a woman, even though they are serfs and should know there place, she needs a strong man, somebody like Count Nicholas Rostov, who has already proved his worth by smacking a few serfs about that were getting overfamiliar and cheeky, but it’s not quite as simple as that, he’s so much debts and in debt to Sonya, it’s kind of incestuous, she’s a great beauty too, virtuous and kind, but a charity case, reliant on the Rostov’s and although she’s like a sister to Natasha, she’s not family and really a sterile flower, there’s something in the bible that says stamp them out, especially if they are informally but not formally engaged to the one and only heir and, of course, there’s Countess Rostova, she can’t be told they’re poor, because after their son’s death, that would kill her, as it did their father; the kindest thing would be if the Rostov’s were re-united with money through marriage, that always ensures a happy ending, even Pierre couldn’t argue with that, it would seem like divine providence or the great architect in the sky drawing up his master plan and marking down his spheres of influence and who should rise and who should fall; it’s all of a fixed pattern if you look at it one way the French were foredoomed to fall away their army melting in a fixed geometrical pattern of suffering and death and the rise and fall of Russia was part of the great mercy of man; although that may be a bit of an oversimplification.
Well, that was a bit of a mouthful. The second reason why I couldn’t manage to work my way past the opening pages of War and Peace was class. Leo Tolstoy is an insider, with aristocratic connections looking back the great struggle with Napoleon that shaped Europe and the Russia he knew. Like any great author he is every man and every woman he creates. So he is the whip thin adolescent Natasha that charms so many men and engineers the moment when she receives her first kiss from an impoverished Princess Boris, son of Princess Anna Mikhaylovna Drubetskaya, and decides that she loves him, and only him, as she decides that she loves Prince Andrew and only him, apart from Anatole Kuragin, who bewitches her, rather than she bewitching him, and later Pierre, good honest Pierre, whom she marries and has three children to and becomes a stout shrewish and jealous wife. But Tolstoy is also the bearish and buffoonish Pierre, the object and the subject of attention. So when Pierre gets involved in the secret brotherhood of Freemasonry the reader tags along, which I quite enjoyed. And when Pierre feels guilty about having so much and his serfs having so little and tries to change it but does nothing but make a few freeloaders richer and himself poorer Tolstoy shows how that happens. Tolstoy is also there to show what affect the homespun philosophies of a good Russian peasant, son of the soil, Platon Karataev, come to mean to the more mature and reliable Pierre. Tolstoy is imperious in his understanding of the Napoleonic war. He shows how hollow the great man arguments of historian are and how quickly soldiers and generals in particular spend more time fighting among themselves than fighting the enemy. The quest for glory brings only death and in particular how the French fleeing from Moscow were one bedraggled army pursing another bedraggled arm with food and warm clothing more important than horses, bullets or artillery. Starvation and cold took no prisoners. The old man Prince Kutzov is portrayed as heroic figure because he understood that better than most. Decisive battles were for fools. And less heralded figures (Prince Andrew apart) are given their due, such as Dmitry Dokhturov quietly went about their business without the need for medals been pinned to their chest, promotions, and the promise of increased annuities, were worth more than the combined weight of the general staff. The parasitic Fedor Ivanovich Dolokhov (Fedya) who in Moscow lives off the rich and foolish vanity of the officer class, such as Nicholas Rostov, for example, winning 43 000 rubbles off him in one night of cards, compares this with the 2000 rubbles Nicholas is later forced to live on and keep house with his mother, her companion and Sonya, or the 600 rubbles Lieutenant Berg who marries his eldest sister Vera manages to live on and save some money and you’ll get some idea of the scale of his loss, but Tolstoy’s genius is that in the environment of postwar-Moscow, Dolokhov’s psychopathic qualities are just what are needed in the guerrilla campaign conducted against fleeing French soldiers. Dolokhov’s weaknesses are Dolokhov and Russia’s strength.
But just as a duck does not understand the egg, Tolstoy does not understand that because Pierre turns out to be a good person, as does Nicholas, that that they should have 20 000 serfs under them as Pierre once had. In the good old days of Catherine multiply that by ten. Just in the same way that I don’t think that some bosses should get 200 000 or more times the salary of their lowest paid worker. It’s an absurd system no matter which greatcoat you hide it in. So in the opening pages when all these great men and beautiful woman are being helped on and off with their boots and cloaks and their carriages being parked and their hats being taken and candles being lit and food being served, my thoughts aren’t with the gentry, my thoughts are with the people like me that would be doing these kinds of shitty jobs and expecting to be endlessly grateful for the chance. Thanks Count Nicholas for restraining your temper and not punishing me by beating me, thanks boss. That makes me cringe. I read on, but I’ll need to have a look at the BBC scripts for the adaptation of the book. My guess is it’ll be all lingering looks and gunfire. There’s a lot to be said of the theory of surplus value. And the difference between meretricious and meritocracy is not found in these pages, but setting that aside, it’s an epic book and a classic still being read in the twenty-first century and for the best reason of all, it’s not all about war or love or honour, although these motifs do occur, it’s a book about what it means to be human. You can’t ask for more than that.