Monday, November 17, 2014

War and Peace: Count Tolstoy's Tale

"Pierre did no see these people as individuals; he saw only their movements."

Greensboro, NC – Reading the book alone felt like a massive literary accomplishment. The book has more pages than the Bible. At the seventh longest novel ever written, the tale is not a "quick read" in any sense of the word. For Count Leo Tolstoy, writing War and Peace over the course of nearly a decade, he probably did a dance when he finally wrote the words “The End.”

War and Peace is the story of five families, beginning in 1805 with the rumors of war, and Napoleon, and great events. But the story is not just about that. Although the great currents of the story sweep across Europe, with scenes taking place in councils of war and palaces, there are also scenes in card rooms and garrets and tents and fields.
The tale does have the great ministers of the world, and the kings and generals and counts, but it also has young men trying desperately to make their way, bad men trying to stop them, and men who are trying decide whether they want to be good or bad.

In the pages of the book, between the great charges from the cavalry, the cheating at cards, the dueling, the attempts of men to reform themselves, you will meet skillfully crafted characters. The young Pierre, entitled to become the next count Bezukhov, if his uncle does not cheat him out of it first. There is Natasha, trying to decide between three men. And  Prince Andrei, who does not hate his wife, nor love her, and does not want to die in battle, or really to live either.

There is Dron, the ignorant peasant man who knows nothing but following his master. But what to do when the peasants want to revolt? There is Mac, the Austrian General, "Unfortunate" who cannot win a battle. And there is "Uncle" the lovable hunter who plays the guitar.

There is the tragic, as Napoleon makes one of the two great mistakes of his career, and marches into Russia. The characters, the good, the bad, the unknown all join arms to fight him and one by one the Princes and Generals of Russia are killed. There is the humorous. General Kutuzov takes a nap rather than fight the battle, saying that sleep is more necessary. And the down right mad, as Pierre attempts to get himself killed.

Moscow is burned to the ground, and a new side of human nature is shown. That side trying desperately to survive. Some kill. Others pillage. Some wonder aimlessly about, while others flee, and others again try to fight. As panic sets in, people abandon their homes, and even their children.

Amidst the Princes and Princesses, the Counts and Generals, Senators and Merchants, all going out in concentric circles of power from the great thrown of Russia, and the two emperors, the Tsar Alexander and his wife, you find in the high as well as the low in Tolstoy's tale the same problems, with money, with vice, with their children, and the need to find a purpose in life.

The question of a purpose in life torments many of the young as well as the old in the book. Some attempt to drown the question in liquor, one by suicide, some by joining the army, another by marriage, and some by even joining the masons. Some try to find it in dancing, and some in signing, Princess Marie tries to find it in giving alms, and the old count Bezukhov tried to find it in extreme unction. Yet at the end of the tale, those that survive and thrive, realize, in Tolstoy's words, that the only peace is found in God. And that He is the only answer to the questions which drive more than one in the tale nearly mad.

Throughout the book Tolstoy constantly takes field trips out of the story to present us with his views of philosophy and history, some of which are enlightening, others of which are interesting, and some of which are downright odd. Such as his belief that generals do not control armies, but they control themselves, and not a single order has ever been carried out by a soldier from his general.

But when Tolstoy is in the story, which is usually, he is superb. Whether he is describing one of the many battles, or one of the many balls, (they rival each other in number) or a hunt or a debate in the senate or even a quiet talk by two girls and two boys by moonlight about the philosophy of dying, he can tell a tale so that you can see it. Often a rare gift.

The book is called War and Peace. But in the end, when all the loose ends are tied, all the careers are made, the marriages have finally happened and the smokes of the battlefields have at last cleared, you feel that there is more war than peace in this book. From the beginning, when rumors of war are flying across Europe, to the end of the tale, at the great manor house at Bleak Hills, with the princes and counts discussing talk of Revolution which is goring throughout Russia, we find that war never ends. Napoleon is gone, but death and unrest and horror march on.

The tale, at times, can remind one of a history of a country, which in a way it is. There are rises and falls and intrigue and betrayal and base treachery by old friends. When you finally close the book in the end, you will not remember all the names. You might not be able to tell Denisov and Dolokhov apart. Or to remember who shot who and who married who. But that is not, in the end, what Tolstoy was trying to get across. The ending lesson of the story seems to be this: Yes, war will always be here, only interrupted by occasional flashes of peace. But in the end the only peace we can ever have is the one we find within ourselves. And there is only one way to do that.

Some of the counts and soldiers and generals in this epic tale spend their whole lives finding peace, and some of them never discover it. But Tolstoy teaches us where to look when, in battle, Prince Andrei, lord of Bleak Hills, is knocked from his horse by the French. As he tells his friend, look up. "How did I not see it before? The sky?" It is so vast and great. How could there not be a God to create all this? And how could he create without meaning?

Andrew C. Abbott

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