Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace”

February 4, 2015

This is the 38th book selection in our Book of the Month series. Yet, as hard as I’ve tried to include the most significant books ever written, this is only the second that is certified by the literati to be one of the 10 Greatest Books Ever Written. The other is Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables (September 25, 2013). Because of its great length, I gave our readers two months in which to digest it. Since the unabridged versions of War and Peace are 1400 pages long, it seems both wise and humane for me to give Book Club members both February and March to read and fully digest the book. As always, I urge/beg our readers to be satisfied with nothing less than the unabridged text of a translation that has stood the test of time.

War and Peace so towers over the history of prose literature that it ought to be on every literate person on earth’s Bucket List, to read before they die. It is particularly timely right now because Russia has been, for some time, in every day’s news: What will Putin do next to try and get back every country Russia lost after the fall of the Berlin Wall? Once you fully digest Tolstoy’s epic, you’ll never again be able to look at Russia simplistically again.

Signet Classic 1968 Edition - Translated by Ann Dunnigan

Signet Classic 1968 Edition – Translated by Ann Dunnigan

But before we get into reasons why everyone should read the book, let’s check out some endorsements:

• “I think Tolstoy’s War and Peace is the greatest novel the world has ever known. No novel with such a wide sweep, dealing with so momentous a period of history and with such a vast array of characters was ever written before.” – W. Somerset Maugham

• “The greatest novel ever written. The characters are universal, for all time.” –John Galsworthy

• “Tolstoy stands at the head of novelists as Shakespeare among poets [and dramatists].” –V. Sackville-West

• “If one has read War and Peace for a page, great chords begin to sound; they come from the immense area of Russia, over which episodes and characters have been scattered, which accumulate grandeur and sonority after we have passed them.” –J. B. Priestley

• “Here is the greatest novel ever written. It has been called ‘life itself.’ Everything is in it. And it’s also as free as life. Its private joys and sorrows seem to continue when one has closed the pages.” –E. M. Forster

• “There is hardly any subject of human experience that is left out of War and Peace.” –Virginia Woolf

• “The greatest novel in all literature. This magnificent work has taught me more about life than any other novel in any language…. The vast canvas is covered by hundreds of figures, every one alive and distinct, and some of the leading characters, like Natasha and Prince André, are companions for one during the rest of one’s life.” –Hugh Walpole

• “War and Peace is generally considered the greatest novel of all novels…. Tolstoy couldn’t state the theme short of writing 1400 pages…. For Tolstoy… anything that human beings do has its glory. Humanity is equally glorious in its wars, its peace, its quarrels, its love affairs.” –Mark Van Doren

• “Reading War and Peace for the very first time is one of the greatest literary experiences; reading it again and again is to realize the immeasurable gulf that is fixed between a merely good book and a great one. It may be regarded as the greatest novel that has been written, the supreme fictional achievement in the literature of the world.” –J. Donald Adams

(1828 – 1910)

One of his ancestors, Count Peter Tolstoy, had been a celebrated statesman during the reign of Peter the Great. Tolstoy’s father, Count Nicholas Tolstoy, had married Princess Marya Volkonski, an heiress with a great fortune. Leo was one of five children. Sadly, his mother died when he was only three, and his father six years later. So the boy was raised by his Aunt Tatyana, who he’d always adore. The children were all born on the Princess’s ancestral estate, Yasnaya Polyana (about 200 miles southwest of Moscow). Leo would study with tutors until he was old enough to attend university classes. Though he attended two, he never graduated from either. Thanks to his aristocratic connections, he was able to attend society’s balls, soirées and parties in Kazan, Moscow, and St. Petersburg.

Early on, he lost faith in Christianity because of the wide variance between belief and daily living. At that time, atheism appeared to be the only rational alternative to him. Without any spiritual keel, he became a heavy drinker, reckless gambler, and frequenter of brothels. He even lost his ancestral home, Yosnaya Polyana, for a time because of his out-of-control gambling. So it seemed wise to join the army in its wars in the Caucasus Mountains and Crimea (it was then that he contracted syphilis).

Eventually, he came to his senses, realizing that atheism provided no hope at all. Thus he once again turned to Orthodox Christianity. But he was disillusioned so often that he would spend the rest of his life formulating his own type of Christianity, based almost solely on Christ’s earthly ministry as chronicled in the Gospels. This evolution of his spiritual philosophy of life would take the rest of his life.

At 34, he belatedly decided to settle down. He settled on a lovely eighteen-year-old, Sonya Behr. She had a graceful figure, great vitality, high spirits, and a beautiful speaking voice. On their engagement night, he almost lost her, when he lent her his diaries, in which he’d faithfully recorded not only his hopes and thoughts, prayers and self-reproaches, but also his perceived faults, including detailed descriptions of his many sexual escapades and liaisons. Sonya read and wept all night. By morning, her virginal attitude towards life was so seared, she never fully recovered. Almost, she broke the engagement, but finally forgave him–but she never forgot.

During the first eleven years of marriage, the Countess would bear eight children; during the next fifteen, five more–thirteen in all.

And so the Tolstoys settled down to rural life. He and Sonya were very much in love with each other, and they reveled in family and family education and activities. And he wrote; he had been doing so for a number of years, and his literary reputation continued to grow within the Russian Empire. And then—

Campaign of 1805

Campaign of 1805

And then . . . he was 36 years old, in the prime of life, when he began writing a book about Russia’s Decembrist Revolution. But he kept wondering more about the events of 1812 when Napoleon invaded Russia–and in so doing, changed the course of world history. He now moved the heart of the novel to 1812. Initially, the book was primarily about family, life among the gentry, the historical incidents merely a background. But the book grew . . . and kept growing. Sonya hand-copied the entire book. Eventually, apparently, seven times! before her husband was satisfied with it. It would be published during the six years it took to write it, in installments (1865-1869). First, he’d read segments aloud to his family. They quickly realized that there were real people they knew whose personalities were woven into the novel.

Though around 500 characters people the epic, four families are central: the Rostovs, the Bolkonskis, the Kuragins, and the Bezukhovs.
• It is said that the thriftless Count was inspired by Tolstoy’s grandfather.
• The pathetic yet charming Princess Mary, by his mother.
• The two “heroes,” Pierre Bezukhov and Prince André, it is generally concluded that they were modeled on Tolstoy’s own divided persona, and that he wrote the book in order to better understand himself. Alike in that, just as was true with himself, both characters seek mental peace, the answers to the mysteries of life and death, and neither finds it. Both are in love with Natasha, Count Rostav’s younger daughter. Maugham maintains that, in her, Tolstoy has created the most delightful girl in fiction. Natasha is undeveloped when the story begins: entirely natural, sweet, sensitive, sympathetic, willful, childish, already womanly, idealistic, quick-tempered, warm-hearted, headstrong, capricious, and in everything enchanting. Tolstoy would go on to create many memorable women, but never another who wins the affections of the reader like Natasha. Apparently, Natasha was modeled on Sonya and her sister, Tatiana.

Napoleon in Russia - 1812 - from the Inner Sanctum Edition of "War and Peace" (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1942)

Napoleon in Russia – 1812 – from the Inner Sanctum Edition of “War and Peace” (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1942)

But for Tolstoy, the real hero of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia was the Russian Commander-in-Chief, General Kutusov. Why? Because he did nothing, avoided battle, and merely waited for the French armies to destroy themselves. Just let Napoleon lead his armies so deep into Russia that his lines of communication can easily be severed. Result? The “Little Emperor” reaches the point where his once vast army is so thoroughly demoralized they’re nothing but sitting ducks for the Cossacks who sweep in and out, free the Russian prisoners, seize valuable supplies, and pick the French off, one bullet at a time.

Thus, the force dominating characters of the novel are Pierre, Prince André, Natasha, and Kutusov. Kutusov because, unlike vainglorious self-centered Napoleon, he remains humble, selfless, unmoved by personal glory.

Helen Muchnik maintains that, in the book, all the panoply of war, all its supposed military heroes, are secondary to events and forces beyond their control, secondary to what participants make of themselves.

John Bayley maintains that marriage is the novel’s ultimate theme, its climax, its apotheosis. The book ends with marriage, and features more happy marriages than in any other novel. Furthermore, that Tolstoy had planned and replanned the development of these destinies with such immense care, interweaving what actually occurred in history with his own invention of what must occur to complete and justify the fiction, until the reader can no longer see where truth ends and fiction begins: what happens appears inevitable. A prodigious one-of-a-kind tour de force—the world’s greatest novel.


First of all, seek out a complete unabridged text. Then, over the next two months revel in a book unlike (and unequaled) any other.


Vincent F. Hopper and Bernard D. N. Grebanier’s Essentials of World Literature, Vol. Two (Woodbury, New York: Barron’s Educational Series, Inc., 1952).

Maugham, W. Somerset’s W. Somerset Maugham Selects the World’s Ten Greatest Novels (Greenwich, Connecticut: Faucett Publications, Inc, 1958).

Muchnic, Helen, An Introduction to Russian Literature (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1947, 1964).

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Aylmer Maude’s Introduction to War and Peace (New York: The Heritage Press, 1938).

John Bayley’s Introduction to War and Peace (New York: New American Library, 1968, 1980).


Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables”

September 25, 2013

Last month, I let you relax, walk the beach, and regenerate your batteries. But now autumn is here, school is in session, and it’s time to lower the boom on you! It’s time for one of the world’s greatest heavyweights. Heavyweights indeed: depending on a number of variables, an unabridged copy comes to somewhere between 1400 and 2000 pages.

But remember this: Don’t ever waste your time reading an abridged copy of any book worth reading! I always wonder when I look at an abridged book, How can any human being have the gall to conclude that s/he knows more about what is important in a book than the person who wrote it?

So I expect you to read every word in the unabridged version. But I am not a Simon Legree: Because I want you to take the time to really savor the book, I am permitting you to take two months to complete it. There won’t be another Book of the Month until December. First of all, purchase an unabridged you can mark up, reason being Les Miserables is one of the most quotable books ever written. An additional word of warning: In recent years more and more publishers have committed what I call a crime: publishing abridged versions of classic books without indicating inside the book that it is incomplete. So, do your homework in this respect.

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Victor Marie Hugo (1802-1885), French poet, novelist, dramatist, and leader of the Romantic Movement in France, lived life on the grand scale. Since his father was a Bonaparte general, Hugo’s early years were lived in luxury; but then came the fall of the Napoleonic Empire, and life got much harder. Suffice it to say that he is generally considered to be one of the towering figures in world literature.

Since it would take years to fully digest all that Hugo accomplished, I won’t even try, leaving such a fascinating journey to you. Most of the growth in my own life has resulted from just such side trips of discovery as I am suggesting to you now.

If you only tackle a few of Hugo’s books, I suggest you seriously consider The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Toilers of the Sea.

Scan_Pic0050                                                                                                                                                                                     Scan_Pic0051

Hugo spent fourteen years laboring on this monstrous book. I don’t want to deprive you of the pleasure of discovering the novel on your own, so I certainly won’t spoil your reading pleasure by giving away the plot of what is almost universally considered to be one of the greatest novels ever written. I might even go out on a limb by admitting I have yet to read a more powerful or deeply moving book than this. When I completed it for the first time, I wrote down this summation: I am numb. It is a book to go back to again and again, for it is inexhaustible and it is suspenseful—a great read!

I think the best summation of its power was penned by the English scholar and critic, Algernon Charles Swinburne:

Les Miserables is the greatest epic and dramatic work of fiction ever created or conceived. The epic of a soul transfigured and redeemed, purified by heroism and glorified through suffering; the tragedy and comedy of life at its darkest and its brightest, of humanity at its best and at its worst.

Vincent Hopper and Bernard Grabanier, in their two-volume Guide to World Literature (Barron’s Educational Series, 1952), declared that Les Miserables “is one of the most moving appeals ever made in the history of literature to our common humanity; only a great soul could have written it.” They also point out that it is more a collection of novels than just a novel.

Don’t be tempted to lose interest when Hugo appears to have forgotten what he was writing about, and wanders off in what will seem to be a totally irrelevant direction. Those side trips will all prove their relevance later on; and if you failed to carefully read them, I guarantee you will end up failing to internally capture the power of the novel! Indeed, those side-trips have developed world-wide fame on their own—especially the passages depicting the Battle of Waterloo, the sewers of Paris, the flight of Jean Valjean, the portrait of the Bishop, the drama of the candlesticks, and the description of the Benedictine monastery. Indeed, the book might aptly be likened to a vast mosaic or puzzle: as you read along you will keep slotting in images, many seeming not to fit in anywhere, but by the moving conclusions, all the pieces will finally be placed—and you’re left with the completed masterpiece. Interestingly enough, John Steinbeck, much later on, borrowed from Hugo in his own sidetrips in The Grapes of Wrath.

Welcome to one of the world’s greatest books. I look forward to hearing back from you after you return from Victor Hugo’s world, from experiencing first-hand the French Revolution.


Part Two
February 20, 2013


Last week, I wrote about the leveling process of perceived greatness that is societally generated. Now, let’s turn to two other factors: adulation and inner erosion.

On April 5, 1887, Lord Acton famously postulated in a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton, that “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” By extension, we might also conclude that adulation tends to destroy and excessive adulation destroys completely.

Few things in this journey we call life are more destructive than adulation—or more difficult to remain impervious to. One has to be almost superhuman to resist it for long. In the newspapers recently was a column that addressed this issue: the subject being an obsequious interview of retiring Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton and President Obama (perhaps the most powerful person in the world today, and Clinton, the person second in line to succeed him in case of death or incapacitation). The writer of the column felt that the interview imploded once it degenerated into fawning by the outgoing Secretary of State. Clinton perhaps didn’t realize at the time that there is a fine line between respect for the office of the President and obsequious overkill.

But who of us has not been guilty of the same sort of thing in our own interactions with those who are powerful and can, by a word or an act, strengthen or weaken our standing in the eyes of our peers? Nevertheless, just think of the impact of such adulation on the recipient—especially when such behavior is replicated in others, day after day, week after week, month after month, and year after year. Could you remain unchanged were you the recipient of it? Could I?

Yesterday, a similar situation occurred on Fox Television when famed neurosurgeon Ben Carson of Johns Hopkins was “interviewed” in what turned out to be an overkill of adulation both by the interviewer and by the studio audience of VIPs. I’m not denying that Dr, Carson isn’t worthy of such obsequiousness, I’m just wondering what the effect was on him. And, as a sidebar, I wondered if I could have resisted it.

Where all this is leading to, I’m sure you’ve already figured out: the impact of continual—not just national but international—adulation on perceived superheroes such as Tiger Woods and Lance Armstrong. Were they truly noble, how long could they have held out against it?


But the third leveling factor is by far the most significant of the three (deconstructing, adulation, and inner-erosion). Inner-erosion is insidious in that it tends to destroy the victim of it from inside, thus the person infected by this virus all too often remains unaware of what’s happening within. And since we all tend to view our actions through rose-tinted-glasses, it is very difficult for any of us to be objective about our own inter-deterioration. History—and Scripture—are full of prototypes of such inner-erosion. Just look at Saul, David, and Solomon (all three devoured from within by inner-erosion). Look at Nebuchadnezzer (“Is not this great Babylon that I have built?”); Napoleon, Henry VIII, Lord Byron, Louis XIV, Benedict Arnold, Richard Nixon—the list is endless.

America’s greatest poetess, Emily Dickinson, likens this inner-erosion to a work of art, a perfect piece of sculpture, that, ever so slowly (so gradually that the process is almost impossible to see with the naked eye) is chipped away in tiny almost invisible fragments—until, one fateful day, all the world can see is a ruined work of art.

Both Tiger Woods and Lance Armstrong eroded from within, over long periods of time. The very first time each was false to what he knew was right was a first chip. The first time Lance doped in order to win was a chip, and then came chip, chip, chip, and chip. And to avoid losing his perceived cycling supremacy, the first time he viciously turned on, and sued, associates who dared to tell the truth about what it was that made all those Yellow Jersey victories possible—another chip and then, of course, a long succession of such chips. And then there it was for all the world to see: a ruined work of art.

* * * * *

But having said all this, who am I to cast the first stone? When I take off my own rose-tinted classes and look at my own journey, I see so many mistakes, so many failures, so many sins, that I would despair were it not for the good Lord, who in His great divine mercy, stoops down each time to help me get off the floor, forgives me once again, and encourages me to try harder to be true to the better self in me, next time—and next time.



Barbados, the easternmost island of the Caribbean, was first discovered by the Portugese explorer, Pedro a Campos en route to Brazil in 1536. He named it Los Barbados because of the island fig trees with their long hanging aerial roots. The island, however, remained uninhabited until 1625, when Captain John Powell landed here and claimed it for England. As was true in most other Caribbean islands, slaves were brought here from Africa to tend the sugar plantations, hence the predominant African population today.

Dubbed “Little England,” it lives up to its name by being the most English of all the Caribbean islands. The islanders remained loyal subjects of the British crown for almost 350 years, then since declaring independence, have remained British because of their Commonwealth status. It is British in so many ways: (1) they drive on the left-hand side of the road; (2) their national sport (make that obsession) is cricket; (3) not far behind being polo and soccer; (4) they love, cultivate, and cherish traditional English gardens; (5) Saturday horse races are part of the culture; (6) most Barbadans are Anglicans; and (7) they still celebrate the monarchy.

The island’s land mass is 166 square miles (21 by 14), and has a population of 285,000. Unlike most Caribbean islands, it is largely of coral formation rather than volcanic. Much of it is relatively flat; its highest point is 1161′ Mt. Hillaby. It is blessed with many lovely beaches: calm turquoise seas on the Caribbean side, wild Atlantic breakers on the east side. Since most of the forests were cut down in order to plant sugar cane, not much is left; even so, Barbadans have created a wildlife reserve to safeguard the species they have left (including over 8000 green vervet monkeys.

As was true with St. Lucia, Barbadans have created over the last four centuries a vibrant and rich culture. In sports, their cricket heroes are known around the world: especially the Three W’s: Clyde Walcott, Frank Worrell, and Everton Weeks (all three knighted by the Queen), and Garfield “Gary” Sobers, generally considered to be the greatest cricket player of all time. One of the Eastern Caribbean’s leading poets is Edward “Kamau” Brathwaite, and their foremost novelist is George Lamming.

Through astute planning, and investing, Barbadans have made Grantley Adams Airport the main eastern Caribbean hub for flights from North America and Europe. Cruise ships disgorge over 500,000 tourists a year.

Here’s a trivia item for you: Did George Washington ever leave the North American continent? Yes, but only once. In 1751, then only 19, he accompanied his half brother Lawrence on a voyage to Barbados. Lawrence, suffering from tuberculosis, came here, and rented lodging, seeking a climate conducive to curing his ailment. George, on the other hand, during the six weeks the brothers spent here, contracted the dreaded disease smallpox, which left his face permanently scarred. As for Lawrence, he was dead within a year—as a result George inherited the Mt. Vernon estate.



It was pouring rain when we disembarked from our ship in Bridgetown. Ed and I were drenched in our mad dash to get to the safety of our bus. Jason, our guide, was most informative. We learned that Trafalgar Square, erected in honor of the greatest naval hero of the age, Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson, had sailed out of Barbados in 1805, only months before dying in the great battle of Trafalgar, which ended Napoleon’s hopes of dominating the seas. We also learned that Barbados was one of only four permanent airport destinations for the near mythical supersonic passenger jets, the Concordes. Not only that, but one of the few intact Concordes ended up here in a large building constructed around it. Of course I had known of the Concorde’s flying at twice the speed of sound, but never could imagine coming up with the price of a ticket to fly in one. Only princes, potentates, and wealthy people had that kind of money.

Joe inside the Concorde

When we walked into the building, I was overwhelmed by the reality of its size and configuration. It looked otherworldly and forbidding. In a sound and light show we learned that it was supposed to usher in a new age of ever faster flight: getting to places before you left them (time-wise, that is). But few airports could handle them and their thirst for gasoline was the stuff of legend. And they could only accommodate 80 people a flight. After the show we were permitted to ascend the steep flight of stairs into the plane. Never in my life had I seen a plane standing so high off the ground. At rest, the long nose dropped like a mosquito’s proboscis; in flight, it straightened out. Inside, it felt like we were in a rocket instead of a plane—very little headroom, and dark. Thanks to the sound and light effects, we really felt like we were flying in it. The blue-lighted cockpit seemed the stuff of sci-fi or dreams. They even gave us a facsimile ticket just as though we’d paid full price. Tiny windows, because of the extra pressure exerted by mach 2 speed. Though the Concorde never became cost-effective, before the last flight took place, it had changed aviation forever.

Concorde's blue cockpitEd in the aisle of the Concorde

Anything after that was anticlimactic, but we did enjoy our tour through the rest of the island. Our guide also told us that Barbados is the place where rum (distilled from sugar cane and molasses) was first concocted in the 1600s. From here, rum spread around the world; but even today, the island is one of the world’s leading processors of it.

Then it was back to Bridgetown, shopping, and reboarding our ship.

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Next week, it’s on to Grenada.