Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace”

BLOG #5, SERIES #6
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
DR. JOE’S BOOK OF THE MONTH CLUB #38
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

COUNT LEO TOLSTOY
(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.

LAST SUGGESTIONS

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

CHIEF SOURCES

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).

* * *

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).

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The Sochi Olympics

BLOG #8, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
THE SOCHI OLYMPICS
February 19, 2014

Another Winter Olympics is almost history. And it will be sad to see it end. Sad because in all the world there is nothing like it. Oh there are so many stories to tell in such gatherings.

Yesterday, anchorwoman Meredith Viera was asked by Matt Lauer what impressed her most about this particular Olympics. Without missing a beat, she shot back: “The people.” “The Russian people.” She noted their deep unabashed pride in their nation, the evident pleasure it gave them to show visitors around or tell them about why their nation is special, unique.

During the last couple of weeks, a number of the pundits have pointed out another key variable in this particular Olympics. The opportunity to once again feel proud of their country. For the fall of the Berlin Wall dealt a terrible blow to Russians’ feelings of self-worth. We chuckle a little and say, “Get over it! You’re still the largest nation on earth.” But to them, it’s like large sections of their heart have been torn out. Just imagine if we had lost such a land-mass: Estonia (17,300 sq. m.), Armenia (11,506 sq. m.), Azerbaijan (33,436 sq. m.), Belarus (80,154 sq. m.), Estonia (17,300 sq. m.), Georgia (26,910 sq. m.), Kazakstan (1,049,150 sq. m.), Kyrgyzstan (76,640 sq. m.), Tajikistan (55,520,sq. m.), Turkmenistan (188,450 sq. m.), Uzbekistan (172,740 sq. m.), Ukraine (233, 100 sq. m.). Total 2,025,354 square miles. That’s the equivalent of two land masses the size of Argentina! Not counting the Eastern Europe satellites. No wonder that Vladimir Putin is trying hard to reestablish Russian pride as it was before 1991.

But back to Sochi and Winter Olympics. Watching both the national (think medal count) and individual stories play out, we’re seeing a continual interplay of triumph and tragedy, euphoria and heartbreak. Just one little misstep or stumble separating a gold medal from elimination. All the harder to take such a loss given the single-minded day by day effort, practice, and struggle necessary to even qualify to be an Olympian. And the more the media hype before the slip, the more devastating the fall.

Another reality is that the vast majority of participants have no illusions as to the odds of their making a podium. They train and come to an event such as Sochi for one reason: being a part of the greatest show on earth for two weeks. The camaraderie, the friendships, the experiences, the romances, the memories–all these are guaranteed to change their lives forever. And every two years of their lives, when a summer or winter Olympics rolls around, they vicariously live again the thrill of being part of the world’s largest and greatest tests of strength and skill.

And how could we possibly forget the stunning beauty of the magnificent snow-capped Caucasus Mountains, now limned in our memory banks forever.

As for we the viewers, we too are changed because we not only learn a great deal about the host nations, we too vicariously experience all the emotions, all the highs and lows, the Olympians do. Each of them becoming a part of us – for always.