Thursday, May 19th, 2011
My summary of War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy continues…
Well, my Tolstoyan brethren, it has taken three months of reading and five months of blogging. But now, at last, the inkwell has run dry, the poor paper-merchant is made redundant, and Mrs Tolstoy’s pleas for attention may finally be satisfied: for it turns out the man is capable of finishing a book. He doesn’t let us go easy mind, for to tie up one of the longest novels of all time, the Big T decided that one ending was clearly inadequate. And so we are treated to not one, but two epilogues…
In the first it is 1820, and in an addendum as needless as Rowling’s add-on to the final Harry Potter, we are granted a glimpse of the halcyon days our heroes are enjoying now their stories are over. Our great cast of characters has been whittled down to one family. Pierre has married Natasha, and her silly brother Nicky has wed drab Princess Mary. Between them they have spawned half a dozen irksome and indistinguishable children, and share the burden of playing host to drifting ‘sterile flower’ Sonya and old Mummy Rostov, decaying in sorrow for her poor still-dead little Petya and her now-also-deceased husband. There are petty squabbles, there is jealousy, there are reminiscences, and there is Prince Andrei’s ignored orphan son Nicholas Bolkonski. And then, in the second epilogue, there is Tolstoy.
Since about Book Nine, Tolstoy has spent almost as much time harping on about his theory of history as he has on actually narrating the history itself. That is until the second epilogue, when with the final throw of the dice he vents his spleen in the most protracted and repetitive way possible. To state his case briefly: the chap would really rather quite like it for historians to stop wasting their time studying individual people and to forget the silliness that is the notion of freewill and human influence, and to instead accept the inevitability of events and devote themselves to discovering the greater laws that govern human movement and history.
Now, the man’s entitled to his opinion. But really – is it really conceivable that no individual has had absolutely no particular influence on the course of human history? Can we really accept Napoleon as an insignificant piece of flotsam on the tide of war, as an impotent, over-arrogant thicko who rose and plummeted as spectacularly as he did merely because of luck and misfortune? It is an argument especially difficult to accept considering as how Tolstoy, while damning Bonaparte with one breath, heaps praise upon his favourite Russian generals with the next. General Kutusov in particular is singled out for unreserved adulation, and his apparent failings – his reluctance to attack, his abandonment of Moscow – are conveniently explained away by the fact that Kutusov was gifted with the same far-sighted historical wisdom and awareness of ‘how things would inevitably be’ as Tolstoy himself. This is incidentally the same Kutusov who in real life, upon his death, bequeathed his fortune to the Tolstoy family…
And there were other tendencies towards partisanship that proved liable to bob to the surface of my consciousness when crawling toward the elusive The End through this final epilogue. For example, is it not a bit curious that for an author who criticises historians for not studying ‘the histories of all, absolutely all’, and in a novel which attempts to illustrate the universal human experience of life and war, that most of the characters are of noble birth, and that all the principle figures – the princely families of Bolkonski and the Kuragins, the richest-in-Russia Bezukhovs – are from the very highest echelons of society? Or that non-Russian characters are largely derided if featured, and that the best human qualities are ascribed to Russians – or rather, that if a Russian does something good and admirable it is achieved because he is Russian? Or that besides being the story of man’s experience of war, War and Peace is more particularly the story of how the Russian people won this war and were ultimately responsible for Napoleon’s downfall – not the Russian winter; not British seapower; not the Spanish ulcer; not the European coalition against Napoleon in 1813; not a combination of all these things: but the Russian people? So much for a rejection of simplistic history.
But ultimately, these grievances over excessive patriotism and objectionable theories are truly nothing compared to the pleasure and amusement I have enjoyed in reading this vast, epic, funny and gripping novel. My pedantic quibbles aside, this truly is a Great book. And to anybody who has followed one, some or all of my summaries thereof: thank you for indulging me.
Georgina Phipps, Editorial Administrator
(Missed the previous summaries? Read them all here: Book One , Book Two , Book Three , Book Four, Book Five, Book Six, Book Seven, Book Eight, Book Nine, Book Ten, Books Eleven & Twelve Part I, Books Eleven to Twelve Part II and Books Thirteen to Fifteen)