At last – War and Peace, most days my favourite novel of all.
I’ve been wanting to write about Tolstoy’s novel for three weeks – but instead I’ve been consumed by the 2013 conference of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature, held last week at Charles Sturt University in Wagga Wagga. And I’m so pleased I didn’t have a chance to write about it before now, because one of the conference papers revealed an extraordinary connection between Australia and Russia I’d never known before.
The paper – ‘Upon the Airy Ocean’: Australia, the Russian Pacific, and the Transnational Imaginary – was given by New York based polymath Nicholas Birns. Among the many connections Birns drew between Australia and Russia was his discovery of a fort at North Wollongong: astonishingly (to me in 2013) it was built in 1892 to protect Wollongong Harbour from attack by Russia. The fear of Russian invasion was prompted by the Crimean War of 1853 to 1856 – the very war that ruined Count Leo Tolstoy’s illusions about the glory of battle and fuelled his novel War and Peace, where he called war ‘the vilest thing in life’.
‘And only now, when I am living for others – or at least trying to – only now do I realise all the happiness life holds,’ says Pierre Bezuhov, one of the central characters of War and Peace. Pierre is the character most like Tolstoy himself, and his realisation reflects the view of life Tolstoy had reached following his marriage aged 34 to Sofya (Sonya) Andreyevina Bers, the teenage daughter of the Tsar’s physician.
After years of carousing, excessive drinking, gambling and sex, as well as restless questing for purpose, in 1862 Tolstoy settled into a decade of domestic bliss. During this decade he dedicated five frenzied years to one massive work, which would become War and Peace, the realisation of a vast vision. Tolstoy felt himself to be at the height of his powers – as he said at the time: ‘Now I am an author with all the powers of my soul.’
War and Peace began as several chapters of a novel about an exiled hero of the Decembrist Uprising of 1825, a key revolutionary moment in Russia’s history. But as the work progressed Tolstoy soon realised that the Decembrist Uprising was so inextricably bound to Napoleon’s advance into Russia 23 years earlier that he could not write about it without going back to Napoleon’s 1812 invasion and the battle of Borodino. As he writes at the opening of Part Three of War and Peace:
‘The battle of Borodino with the occupation of Moscow that followed and the flight of the French, without any more engagements, is one of the most instructive phenomena in history.’
Tolstoy was fascinated by the sudden failure of the French incursion into Russia, by the apparent psychological collapse of the French Army, rather than its military defeat. His fascination with Napoleon’s battles led him to the idea of a psychological novel about Tsar Alexander I and Napoleon, and the lives of the Russian people during the upheaval of war.
‘My mind was filled with the possibility of doing a great thing – of writing a psychological novel of Alexander and Napoleon, and of all the baseness, all the empty phrases, the foolishness and the inconsistencies of their entourage and of the pair themselves.’
The work that resulted is a sweeping portrait of Russia from 1805 to 1820. Tolstoy’s extraordinary achievement in War and Peace is to have written a novel on a grand scale, featuring over 550 characters, embracing Napoleon’s march across Europe and running to well over 1000 pages in English, from a perspective so intimate it’s not only compelling but devastating to read. At the heart of War and Peace are the lives of three characters – Pierre Bezuhov, Prince Andrei Bolkonsky and Natasha Rostov – and two families, the Rostovs and the aristocratic Bolkonskys. Together they bring this vast novel to life, animating its broad sweep of history with their love affairs and heartbreaks, marriages and births, their losses, anxieties, quests for meaning and their fortunes on the chaotic fields of war.
War and Peace opens on a July evening in 1805 at an aristocratic soiree in Petersburg with a discussion about the inevitably of war and the scourge of Napoleon, held to be ‘the Antichrist’. But Pierre Bezuhov commits the sacrilege of praising him: ‘Napoleon is great because he towered over the Revolution, suppressed its abuses, preserving all that was good in it.’
Pierre, a stout young man who’s been educated abroad in Europe, is making his first appearance in society. He takes up with the handsome Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, who finds society tedious and is patently bored: ‘Drawing rooms, tittle-tattle, balls, idle conceits and futility – such is the enchanted circle that encloses me. I am setting off now to take part in the war, the greatest war there ever was.’ The novel proceeds to unfold the tale of this war, as well as several great love stories, the greatest of which are the loves of its heroine Natasha Rostov, whom we first meet as a young girl with her doll: ‘The little girl with her black eyes and wide mouth was not pretty but she was full of life.’
As well as the stories of Natasha, Andrei and Pierre, and vivid set pieces of battle scenes, diplomatic negotiations and councils with Napoleon and Alexander, Tolstoy digresses to propound his theory of history, a view that is typically idiosyncratic and at odds with the prevailing view of his times. He even applies to history a new branch of mathematics – calculus – developed in the 17th century by Isaac Newton in England and Gottfried Leibnitz in Germany.
‘Only by assuming an infinitesimally small unit for observation – a differential of history (that is, the common tendencies of men) – and arriving at the art of integration (finding the sum of the infinitesimals) can we hope to discover the laws of history,’ writes Tolstoy. In his understanding of the spirit of history and the multitudes of people and apparently insignificant events that contribute to its making, Tolstoy went against the intellectual fashions of his day, which were characterised by Thomas Carlyle’s hero-based view expounded in On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History (1841). Tolstoy’s view is in fact closer to our current understanding of the behaviour of complex systems as explained by Chaos Theory.
Over his 82 years, Tolstoy lived to see Russia change from a serf-based agricultural economy, through the emancipation of the serfs in 1861 by Tsar Alexander II, to an industrialising nation engaged on the world scene in the early 20th century. To his dismay, Russia seemed to be abandoning its old ways in favour of the revolutionary spirit of western Europe fired by the great exploits of Napoleon early in the 19th century.
In War and Peace the spirit of old Russia is embodied in the Russian general Kutuzov, whose sense of his own marginal role in the outcome of events is vastly different from the egoistic temperament and heroic dreams of Napoleon as Tolstoy portrays him. Kutuzov understands that battles are decided not by individuals, not by generals, but by ‘that intangible force called the spirit of the army, and he kept an eye on that force and guided it as far as lay within his power.’ Tolstoy’s view of Kutozov’s role ran against the received wisdom of the day, which considered the old general to have been washed up and ineffectual.
Tolstoy was born into an aristocratic family in 1828 on the family estate, Yasnaya Polyana, south of Moscow. His mother died when he was one and his father several years later, so Tolstoy and his four siblings were sent to stay with an aunt in western Russia. There he went to university in 1844 and spent several dissolute years studying Oriental languages before transferring to law because it was less demanding. During these years Tolstoy read widely and voraciously, particularly enjoying the work of Dickens (he especially loved David Copperfield), Laurence Sterne’s Sentimental Voyage and the French philosopher Rousseau’s Confessions, the last of which had an enormous influence on him. So much did Tolstoy love the work of Rousseau that instead of a cross around his neck he wore a medallion imprinted with the face of Rousseau.
When he was 19 Tolstoy returned to Yasnaya Polyana. Here he began to keep a diary, filled with strict rules designed to restrain his vigorous appetite for sex and gambling – and harsh outbursts of self-reproach for his failure to stick to his rules.
In 1851 Tolstoy travelled to the Caucasus, where his brother was an army officer. He too joined the army, fighting in the Crimean War, and soon began to write short stories about the war, horrified by the reality of battle and its abysmal failure to live up to his heroic dreams. After the war, Tolstoy resigned from the army in disgust to devote himself to a higher calling – education – and opened a school for the children of his serfs.
His first published work, Childhood, appeared in a periodical in 1852. Plagued by crippling doubts about his talent, Tolstoy was overjoyed when he heard that Childhood had been accepted for publication in the magazine The Contemporary, founded by the poet Pushkin. Then in 1865 Tolstoy began work on War and Peace, which he completed in 1869. As Tolstoy wrote his wife Sonya copied out his pages. She noted in her diary that her husband worked with great emotion, ‘the tears starting in his eyes and his heart swelling. I believe his novel is going to be wonderful.’
During their long marriage Tolstoy and Sonya had 13 children, although the happy years of their early married life did not last long. After he completed Anna Karenina in 1876, Tolstoy fell into profound despair. Haunted by thoughts of death and the meaninglessness of life, he read the great works of Christianity, Buddhism and Islam, hoping to find comfort in their pages. He finally found solace in the teachings of Jesus. But, typical of the man, he was not content with the Gospels as they had been written and decided to write his own. Impatient with their miracles and the mystic trinity of Father, Son and Holy Ghost, Tolstoy rewrote the Gospels to forge his own singular version, fusing the four accounts of Jesus’ life into one that portrayed Jesus not as the son of God but as a wise man who understood how to live. For this and other heretical behaviour, Tolstoy was excommunicated by the Russian Orthodox Church in 1901.
By the end of his long life Tolstoy had renounced literature and become a spiritual leader with thousands of followers around the world, some of whom saw him as a prophet with godlike powers. In 1894 the young Indian revolutionary Mohandas (later Mahatma) Gandhi read Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God is Within You and was profoundly influenced by its ideas, especially Tolstoy’s pacifist doctrine of non-resistance to evil. Gandhi referred to Tolstoy as ‘the sage of Yasnaya Polyana’ and founded the Tolstoy Farm near Johannesburg, where he spent the final phase of his passive resistance campaign in South Africa, from 1908 to 1914.
Dozens of Tolstoy’s followers moved to Yasnaya Polyana to be closer to their idol, which interfered with his family life and put a great strain on his marriage (as vividly portrayed in the 2009 film The Last Station). Eventually, in 1910 aged 82, Tolstoy fled the chaos of his beloved Yasnaya Polyana in the middle of the night with his doctor and one daughter. He died soon after in a deserted railway station on his way to a monastery. Four thousand people lined the streets for Tolstoy’s funeral and in Moscow students rallied. The Russian parliament was adjourned for the day and all of Russia mourned.
Although Virginia Woolf thought little of James Joyce, the one thing about which the two writers were in perfect agreement was Tolstoy’s genius. Joyce worshipped Tolstoy. Woolf called him ‘the greatest of all novelists – for what else can we call the author of War and Peace?’
The first English screen adaptation of War and Peace appeared in 1956, starring Audrey Hepburn as Natasha, Henry Fonda as Pierre and Mel Ferrer as Andrei. An 8-hour epic Russian adaptation made by Sergey Bondarchuk was released in 1967 starring Bondarchuk as Pierre, Lyudmila Saveleva as Natasha and Vyacheslav Tikhonov as Andrei.