Archive for October, 2010

How I became so stuffy and elitist

I wonder when I became stuffy and elitist. I’m sure I wasn’t born that way, but given how frequently that which I love so dearly is described in such terms, I have little option but to accept that, as a lover of classical music, I am, indeed, stuffy and elitist, and that there’s little I can do about it.

I wasn’t always stuffy and elitist, of course. Coming into my early teenage years, I remember jumping up and down to stuff like this. And this. And this.  You get the idea. Then, from my friends at school, I realised that I shouldn’t be enjoying this kind of thing: I should be listening instead to the bands that really mattered – bands such as Led Zeppelin, and Pink Floyd, and Emerson, Lake and Palmer. And King Crimson. (Yes, I remember them too: I even bought one of their albums.)  And so on. Desperate to be an individual who could think for himself, I did as I was told and liked it. As the years went by, new names took over from the old – the Stranglers, the Ramones, the Clash, the Jam. ( I may have got my chronology a bit mixed up here – it was all a very long time ago.) And all the while, like, I imagine, many others, I secretly enjoyed more the tunes of Abba. This was at the time so shameful a secret that I had to keep it hidden even from myself. It would never have occurred to any of us that, only a few decades afterwards, those bands that were so timeless for a while would only be listened to – if at all – for reasons of nostalgia by those who had grown up with them, while new generations will be discovering for themselves and enjoying those same Abba tunes that embarrassed us so. It would never have occurred to us that youngsters in days to come, appearing on University Challenge, would look at each other in blank bemusement when asked to identify a well-known (to my generation, at least) track by John Lennon: I’d be happy to bet that the same students would have recognised any number of Abba tunes from a mere few bars. And thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges.

But if Abba was deeply uncool, classical music was, and remains, off the scale. Unlike literature, say, or the visual arts, or even, perhaps, cinema, people tend to regard music as a signifier of one’s lifestyle, an indicator of one’s very identity. Under such circumstances, classical music doesn’t stand a chance. Indeed, these days, music is rock & pop unless otherwise specified: one has to search very hard in, say, the music pages even of broadsheet newspapers to find anything relating to classical music. And what there is is either vapid, or, given the very restricted column inches, terse to the point of being meaningless.

But I digress. The question remains: how did I become so elitist and stuffy? I certainly did not grow up with classical music at home, and, educated as I was in a comprehensive school near Glasgow, followed by years at redbrick universities, it formed no part of my formal education. And yet, when, as a student, I found myself heading to City Halls in Glasgow to hear the Scottish National Orchestra or the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, I honestly do not recall anyone standing at the door barring my way and telling me “I’m sorry sir, you can’t come in – this event is reserved for an elite”. I even went to the Theatre Royal in Glasgow to attend performances by Scottish Opera: going to see Scottish Opera was actually cheaper than the average rock concert at the Glasgow Apollo – and cheaper still with a students’ discount. (Looking at various prices on the net these days, things don’t appear to have changed in this respect: classical concerts still seem to me no dearer than the average rock concert, and, quite often, far cheaper.) And even in opera, that bastion of elitism and stuffiness, I was allowed entry. I don’t remember ever dressing up for these events: I wore the clothes I normally wore. But no-one ever batted an eyelid. Or, if they did, I can’t honestly say I noticed. And neither was there any problem mastering the esoteric codes of expected behaviour at such events: I showed my ticket to the usher, put my arse down on the designated seat, and kept quiet while the music was playing so I could try to take it in. And even if I couldn’t take it in, I kept quiet out of consideration for those other paying customers who could. And once the musicians had stopped playing, I could, if I felt like it, applaud. And then, I was free to walk out. Hardly the quasi-Masonic rituals that, we keep getting told, put off ordinary people (of whom, presumably, I am not one, since I am so stuffy and elitist) from attending classical concerts.

Keen to find out a bit about this music that I found to my surprise was holding me increasingly in its spell, I took to checking out books on music from the local lending library, and trying to learn at least the rudiments of such mysterious matters as harmony and counterpoint . I even took to checking out classical music records from the very well-stocked record library. (Of course, record libraries tend not to stock classical music these days, as it is clearly stuffy and elitist to make this music easily accessible to the public: but I grew up in less enlightened times.) Once again, to my surprise, I wasn’t prevented in any way from doing this.

And so my taste, such as it is, developed. It wasn’t all plain sailing, of course: works such as Dvořák’s New World Symphony or Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker could more than hold my attention by their extraordinary melodic flair, and their kaleidoscopic orchestral colours; but Beethoven’s string quartets, say, or Bach’s fugues, tended to present tougher challenges. But I can’t say I was too put off by that: in my ignorance, I reasoned that if I was prepared to apply myself to absorb the plays of Shakespeare, say, or the novels of Dostoyevsky, then there was no reason why I should not similarly apply myself to take in music of Bach or of Beethoven. Admittedly, this went against the grain somewhat, as, having grown up with rock and pop music, I hadn’t trained myself to listen to music carefully, and to concentrate on what I was hearing: music for me was merely something to tap my feet to, or to hum along to, while I was doing something else. The very idea of actually concentrating on music was novel, and, given my lack of a musical background, far from easy. But – and I suppose this is when I really started to become stuffy and elitist – I did put in some effort, and am continuing to this day to do so; and – who knows? – maybe some day, I actually will come to an adequate understanding of the fugues of Bach, or of the string quartets of Beethoven. But even if I never do, there are, it seems to me, certain journeys that are perhaps doomed to remain unfinished, but which are, nonetheless, worth embarking upon.

However, for all that, the fact remains that classical music is, indeed, stuffy and elitist, and, try as one might, incapable of attracting new audiences who are, quite rightly, put off by the stuffiness and the elitism; who are put off by the stringent and mysterious codes of behaviour expected of audiences, and by the exorbitantly high prices designed to keep out the riff-raff. I’m afraid I really don’t know what one can do about all that.

Synopsis of “War and Peace” Epilogue, Part 2

With young Nikolai’s words, the narrative has come to a close. This second part is an extended essay on the nature of free will. Many skip this, but it’s worth reading. And it’s certainly related thematically to the novel. Tolstoy has been fascinated with human behaviour – what makes people behave one way, and not another. It is only a short step from this to asking what governs the historic movements of people – why the great events of history happen. There are many passages in the novel where Tolstoy had directly touched upon this theme, but here, he explores in greater detail the question of freedom of will: when human beings act, to what extent do they have control over their own actions?

First of all, Tolstoy throws great scorn on the reasons historians give for the great historical events. In the first chapter of this essay, Tolstoy gives us a devastating and quite hilarious parody of the reasons historians normally give for the French Revolution and for the Napoleonic Wars. Tolstoy’s parody is very unfair, to be sure, but hugely enjoyable.

The conclusion Tolstoy eventually comes up with is certainly debatable, and I do not know enough about philosophy to debate it. There is no such thing as freedom of will, Tolstoy concludes. Everything is predetermined. But the nature of this predetermination is so complex and the product of so many minute reasons – and infinity of infinitesimally small causes – that the human mind is not equipped to understand the nature of this predetermination. Thus, we are given an erroneous impression of freedom of will, whereas, in fact, none exists.

A contentious conclusion, certainly; but one that cannot detract from the sheer glory of the novel itself.

[All excerpts quoted are taken from the translation by Rosemary Edmonds, published by Penguin Classics]

Synopsis of “War and Peace”: Epilogue, Part 1

Having followed these characters for some seven or eight years, Tolstoy, in the epilogue, skips another seven or so years to 1820. These characters have all changed once again – life, as we have seen, is, after all, a constant process of change; and yet, they are all recognizably the same. And, in contrast to the sense of elation and optimism with which the main part of the novel had ended, in the epilogue, we are presented a different picture. There is no “happy ever after”: Pierre is older, but his experiences – and the wisdom of Platon Karatayev which he had thought had given him a new lease of life – have not made him wiser. He is still searching, still bumbling.

We are filled in on some of the events. Pierre has married Natasha. Count Rostov has died, and has, as expected, left his family in poverty. Nikolai, ever aware of his duty, does not shirk his inherited debts. He resigns his commission in the army, and moves into a small house with his mother and with Sonya. He very nearly ends up in prison. Marriage with Sonya is now out of the question, and anxious not to be seen as a mercenary, he tries to avoid Maria as well. Eventually, Nikolai and Maria do eventually marry; and, through hard work and dedication, Nikolai pays off all the debts without touching his wife’s property. They live on in Bald Hills, where Maria had spent her unhappy childhood. And Nikolai is saving to buy back the old Rostov country estate.

We spend an evening in Bald Hills with Nikolai and Maria, and with Natasha and Pierre. Denisov, an old friend of Nikolai’s, is there also. Natasha has become fat, and is almost insanely jealous of her husband Pierre: Denisov can’t help wondering what he had seen in her all those years ago. And there’s the old Countess Rostov, who seems to have lost touch with what’s going on around her. And Sonya is also there, accepting with apparent contentment her by now accustomed role as martyr.

Also in the family circle is young Nikolai, Andrei’s son. He does not get on too well with his Uncle Nikolai, and Nikolai feels a bit guilty about not loving his nephew as much as he does his own children. But there’s one feature young Nikolai shares with his late father and his late grandfather: he loves Pierre.

We see these characters changed, more mature: but, since we know them so well by now, we can figure out for ourselves how they have changed, and why. We see them older, not wiser: a great sense of sadness hangs over these pages. Pierre still respects the memory of Platon Karatayev, but having met this wonderful man has not made him any wiser: he will go on searching till the end, never satisfied.

Nikolai, on the other hand, is very satisfied: his mind is not the questioning mind. Pierre has obviously been involving himself with secret political organizations. (In the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, European governments became very reactionary, and political liberalism was barely, if at all, tolerated.) Nikolai instinctively reacts against the very idea. As we had seen in Tilsit, Nikolai needs certainties in his life, and, when faced with anything that disrupts his sense of certainty, he is happy to accept blindly whatever authority decrees. He is not prepared to question authority, any more than he is prepared to have his own authority questioned. And Pierre’s questioning of authority annoys Nikolai, who speaks rather bluntly.

Nikolai is unhappy to find that young Nikolai had been present at this disagreement: he does not like the idea of young minds coming into contact with disrespect for authority. But young Nikolai is already on Uncle Pierre’s side. He excitedly tells Uncle Pierre that his father, Andrei, would certainly have agreed. Wouldn’t he? Well, no, he wouldn’t: and Pierre knows that. Pierre turns away with some embarrassment.

Young Nikolai cannot even remember what his father had looked like. But he has built an image in his mind of his dead father that is nothing like what he had actually been. Throughout this scene, the dead Andrei is a sort of unseen and unspoken presence. And in the end, we are with Andrei’s son, Nikolai. He had just woken from a dream in which he had been marching alongside Pierre, and suddenly his Uncle Nikolai had appeared as a threatening presence. And, instead of Pierre, there was his father, Andrei, who loved him.

Nikolai clearly knows nothing of what his father Andrei had been like. He knows nothing about Andrei’s thirst for glory, his disillusion, his longing for death – that great spiritual journey that we, the readers, have witnessed. So Nikolai’s last words are all the more poignant: “Yes, I will do something that even he would be content with….” And who knows? – Where the older generation has failed, maybe the younger might yet succeed…

[All excerpts quoted are taken from the translation by Rosemary Edmonds, published by Penguin Classics]

Synopsis of “War and Peace”: Book 4, Part 4

We return now to Natasha, in mourning for Andrei, and as yet unaware of the latest loss. She goes through in her mind all that she and Andrei had said to each other before his death, and whether they had understood each other fully. And then, the next storm breaks. News comes of Petya’s death, and Countess Rostov is hysterical. The old Count, who had long felt guilty about his inability to do his duty to his family, is now helpless: when his wife most needs support, he is unable to provide any. And after all, who is there to support him? He is a broken old man. Between his sobs, he asks Natasha to see to her mother, and waves his arm in despair. The Countess is screaming hysterically, banging her head against the wall.

The latest tragedy seems to awaken Natasha from the torpor that had settled on her after the death of Andrei. What brings her mother down strangely reawakens her. Natasha tends to her mother now, and it is only after three days that her mother starts weeping for what has happened.

Maria, on hearing of Petya’s death, postpones her departure to Moscow. When she does go, she takes with her Natasha, with whom she is now the closest of friends. Not least of Tolstoy’s achievements is his ability to depict without sentimentality close friendship.

We return now to the final stages of the war. Kutuzov, on one of his routine inspections, sees line upon line of wretched French prisoners – ill, wounded, starving, frostbitten. He sees two of them fighting over a piece of raw meat, and is horrified. Can humanity really sink to such depths? He addresses his men. And then, as if to exorcise the pity he feels for his enemies, he shouts out: “Who invited them here?”

We are given a picture of Russian soldiers by the campfire. Some have torn down a wall made of wattle, and are using it as a screen against the bitterly cold northerly wind. Two French stragglers, both in a bad way, make their way to the campfire, and ask for sustenance. They are Captain Ramballe and his orderly, Morel.

Kutuzov is facing criticism from all quarters for his “failure” to wipe out Napoleon’s army when he had the chance, and for his refusal to chase the French army beyond the borders. He is openly accused of blundering, and the Tsar is known to be displeased with him, even though, as a matter of form, he awards Kutuzov the highest military honour. But, whatever others think of him, Kutuzov, old and tired, had done his duty. He can now die in peace.

Pierre, on being rescued, had seen Petya’s corpse. Now, he learns about other matters – the death of Andrei at the Rostovs’, the death of his wife Hélène. He finds it hard to take all this in. And, on his way back to Moscow, he falls ill: the horrific experiences he has undergone take their toll on even so powerful a physique as Pierre’s.

Recovering from illness, Pierre is overcome by an unaccountable sense of elation. It seems as if he had learnt great wisdom from Platon Karatayev. And all the matters that had so tortured his mind before suddenly seem irrelevant. Everyone seemed to notice this change in Pierre.

On hearing that Maria Bolkonsky is in Moscow, he goes to visit her. With her is a lady in black whom he does not at first recognize: it is Natasha. He had not recognized her partly because he had not expected to see here there, but mainly because that expression of joy that had so distinguished her features had now vanished, and replaced with one of the most profound sadness. And she was thinner and paler than before.

But Pierre still feels elated. Natasha tells him in detail about Andrei’s last days: she had never told this to anyone before. Pierre listens, deeply moved: he had last seen Andrei a very bitter and tortured man. And Pierre tells of his experiences. As he does so, he can feel his love for Natasha resurging. And, as if able to read her mind, he tells her that it is not his fault that he is alive and wants to live on; and neither is she at fault for feeling the same.

Pierre has decided to go to Petersburg, and honour his former wife’s debts, even though he was under no compulsion to do so. First, he speaks to Maria alone, and ascertains from her that a proposal to Natasha would not be refused. Maria is a bit disconcerted at first that Natasha appears to have forgotten Andrei in so short a time, but she soon reassures herself that this is not so. Natasha now is looking to the future, and is anticipating a marriage between Maria and Nikolai.

And, on this note of optimism for the future, the main part of the novel ends. But there is a long epilogue, and Tolstoy has a few surprises for us.

[All excerpts quoted are taken from the translation by Rosemary Edmonds, published by Penguin Classics]

Synopsis of “War and Peace”: Book 4, Part 3

Kutuzov is still doing his best, despite pressure, to avoid open conflict. But the French troops, who are in a quite dreadful state by now, are harassed by guerrilla waged by the Russians. Denisov – whom we had seen earlier proposing guerrilla warfare to Kutuzov – is in charge of a band, and tries his best to resist pressure to join up with bigger battalions. Denisov is looking to attack a French detachment, but he needs information about their numbers. He is awaiting Dolohov, who leads another such band of guerrillas.

A young officer comes to report to Denisov: it is Petya, trying his best to act grown-up. Petya, soon recognized by Denisov, asks for permission to stay with him. He soon meets with Tikhon, a jovial, daredevil young peasant from a nearby village. Tikhon had, without permission, been into the French camp, trying to capture someone who would give the information required for the attack. Tikhon had been unsuccessful on this particular venture, but he amuses everyone by giving his own very idiosyncratic account of his adventures. And, even while laughing at Tikhon’s account, it occurs to Petya that Tikhon had just killed a Frenchman minutes earlier. This makes Petya feel uneasy, but seeing that it doesn’t seem to bother anyone else, he tries to forget about it.

Petya is recognizably a Rostov, and in his patriotism and his eagerness to see action, we are reminded of Nikolai in the Austrian campaign. And yet, for all his efforts, his childlike innocence is apparent. He wonders whether he should mention the French drummer boy who has been arrested. Eventually, he does, and is surprised to find that no-one laughs at him. Petya calls the drummer boy over to have something to eat. Petya wants desperately to be accepted, and gives away all sorts of things to other soldiers – knives, flints – even raisins, which he loves.

Dolohov now arrives. Dolohov is renowned both for his bravery, and for his cruelty to prisoners-of-war. Seeing the French drummer boy, he mischievously asks Denisov what he does with the prisoners. Denisov becomes defensive here: he never kills prisoners, and hands them over to the proper authorities. Dolohov, ever the bully, has discovered Denisov’s weakness, and probes it mercilessly. The “proper authorities” don’t look after the prisoners: the prisoners die of cold and starvation, says Dolohov, and it’s best for everyone just to shoot them on the spot. Denisov is aware of this, but tries not to face the facts. He cannot bring himself to shoot prisoners, and insists that he has no-one’s death on his conscience.

Dolohov wants to go into the French camp dressed as a French officer, and asks for a volunteer to accompany him. Denisov cannot prevent Petya from volunteering. Dolohov and Petya, dressed in French uniform, walk straight into the French camp. Petya is astonished at Dolohov’s cool courage, as he refuses to give the password to the French sentry, and then openly asks the French how many men they have, and how they are positioned. As they return, Dolohov is the subject of open hero-worship by Petya.

As Petya sleeps, he dreams that he hears music. But soon, he is awoken: they are about to attack.

The attack is successful. The French don’t put up much of a resistance, and soon surrender. However, a bullet has pierced Petya’s skull. Dolohov’s reaction to this is to order all French prisoners to be shot. Denisov, however, picks up Petya’s lifeless body, and howls like an animal.

Among the Russian prisoners liberated is Pierre Bezuhov.

We now go back to Pierre’s march. Conditions have deteriorated even further. The casualties even amongst the French soldiers have been horrific; amongst the prisoners, it has been even worse. They march on, starved, ill, frozen. One evening, around the campfire, Platon tells a story about a merchant who had been wrongly sent to Siberia for a murder he had not committed. And this man, in his prison, had accepted his unjust punishment as reparation for his sins. For some reason, this story seems very important to Platon, and Pierre, too, finds himself sharing in Palaton’s happiness as he tells this story.

The next day, Platon refuses to march further. Pierre, looking back, sees him sitting on the ground, with two French soldiers standing over him. Then, he hears a shot. Two French soldiers run past him, one with a smoking gun, and with an expression Pierre recognizes from the executions he had witnessed in Moscow. They, too, were afraid.

That night, Pierre has a dream similar to the one he had had in the carriage at Mozhaisk. It seems someone is uttering certain words into his ear:

Life is everything. Life is God. Everything changes and moves to and fro, and that movement is God. And while there is life there is joy in the consciousness of the Godhead. To love life is to love God. More difficult and more blessed than all else is to love this life in one’s sufferings, in undeserved sufferings.

“Karatayev!” flashed through Pierre’s mind. And he has in his dream a vision of his old schoolteacher, a gentle man, showing him a globe in which everything is in constant motion, everything constantly changing. This is life, the old teacher says, and it all seems so clear and so simple to Pierre. Then, he was brutally awoken by a French soldier.

Before sunrise, Pierre and the other soldiers are liberated. The cost is great. As Dolohov sees to the French prisoners – whom he means to kill – Denisov gently carries the body of Petya to a hole that has been dug in the ground.

Then, the frosts begin. On top of everything else, the retreating French troops have to bear the ravages of a Russian winter. And still, Kutuzov holds back, as far as he can, from direct engagement with an army that is being destroyed even without any action on the part of the Russians.

[All excerpts quoted are taken from the translation by Rosemary Edmonds, published by Penguin Classics]

Synopsis of “War and Peace”: Book 4, Part 2

If the previous chapters had been shot, as it were, in extreme close-up, Tolstoy now switches to long shots, and gives us a panoramic view of the French retreat. The French army is retreating without discipline. They burden themselves with their plunder, which they seem unable to relinquish. The army is self-destructing.

Kutuzov understands this, and, aware of the perilous state of his own army, tries to avoid battles. But he cannot always prevent this. The military staff wants to engage in conflict, and makes all sorts of elaborate plans for destroying the French army. But Kutuzov sees little point in risking his own badly worn troops to achieve what was being achieved anyway. And even when conflicts are agreed upon, against Kutuzov’s will, he sees – to his fury – that the troops are not even prepared for battle. Kutuzov makes himself unpopular by what is perceived by those who do not understand the situation as his cowardice and inactivity.

Tolstoy pours more scorn on Napoleon, and on the historians who insist on seeing him as “great”. At no point, Tolstoy insists, either in his career on in his subsequent exile, did Napoleon live up to the standards of human dignity or of simple goodness. The proclamations he gave out in Moscow were meaningless, especially in view of the forged Russian currency he was busy circulating.

Pierre and the other prisoners have established friendly terms with their captors: Platon is busy making shirts for one of the French soldiers. But as soon as the orders came to withdraw, things changed, and again, the soldiers turned to brutality. The prisoners are forced to march with their captors, and there are orders that any stragglers were to be shot. Pierre could see in the faces of the French soldiers the same expression he had seen at the executions.

While a prisoner in Moscow, Pierre had actually been happy – possibly for the first time in his life. Unhappiness, he felt, was not deprivation: it came from superfluity. Here, he didn’t eat much; but when he did, it was only because he was hungry; and when he drank, it was only because he was thirsty. He found a great solace in what he took to be the simple wisdom of Platon Karatayev – just as, after an earlier crisis in his life, he had taken solace in the wisdom of Bazdeyev. But now, Moscow is being evacuated. And as the prisoners march through the city, they are shocked to see how much of it has been destroyed. Amidst the ruins, someone had – presumably as a joke – propped up a corpse and had blackened its face. The prisoners look at this grotesque image as they march on.

The French soldiers, themselves stretched badly, ill-treat the prisoners, who are exhausted and starved, but who have to keep marching, as all stragglers are shot. And, at the end of his tether both physically and mentally, Pierre bursts into hysterical laughter: Who is imprisoned? He, Pierre? How can they imprison his soul? What nonsense!

That genius, Napoleon, had made the worst possible decision under the circumstances: he had decided to withdraw from Moscow. Of course, this “great man” made sure that he got away first, and did not have to suffer with the rest of his troops. When Kutuzov hears of the French withdrawal from Moscow, he weeps, and prays to God with tears of gratitude.

[All excerpts quoted are taken from the translation by Rosemary Edmonds, published by Penguin Classics]

Synopsis of “War and Peace”: Book 4, Part 1

Not even the invasion of Russia, and the fall of its “ancient and sacred capital”, could check the frivolity of society life in Petersburg. Hélène is struck down by a mystery illness, and equally mysteriously, she dies very suddenly. It is given out that she had angina, but it’s not hard to piece out from the various rumours that are circulating that the cause of her death was a botched abortion.

We now turn to Nikolai who, a few days before Borodino, is sent to Voronezh to buy horses for his hussars. In Voronezh, he is greeted – as is usual for this young aristocrat – by the cream of the local society. At a social gathering, Nikolai innocently flirts with the wife of a local official, not even pausing to think that this may be unpleasant for her husband. But there’s a surprise for Nikolai: Maria Bolkonsky is also in Voronezh, with an aunt of hers who lives there. Nikolai feels attracted to Maria, but is reluctant to go back on his word to Sonya: even a promise uttered while still effectively a child is nonetheless, to Nikolai, a sacred word of honour. Meeting Maria again merely intensifies what Nikolai had felt for her, and he certainly does not behave towards her as he had done with the wife of the local official. News of Borodino has reached Voronezh, and Nikolai sympathizes as Maria worries about her brother, and tries to assure her as best he can: after all, had Andrei been killed, the fact would have been reported.

Suddenly, he finds himself unburdening his problems to the governor’s wife, who knows his mother and who appears sympathetic. The very fact that she is a stranger to Nikolai allows him to speak freely to her, just as Pierre had spoken freely to Captain Ramballe. And all that had seemed complex to Nikolai seems straight-forward to the governess’ wife: one can’t be held by promises given in childhood; and besides, he’d break his mother’s heart if he were to marry Sonya.

Then suddenly, as if in answer to a prayer, he receives letters from his family, including one from Sonya setting him free from any obligation to her. There is also news of Andrei: he is wounded, and is with the Rostovs in Yaroslavl. Maria sets off immediately to be with him.

Sonya’s letter had been written in response to repeated entreaties from Countess Rostov. Growing up with the Rostovs as a poor relation, Sonya had learnt to keep her feelings private; and she had learnt also self-sacrifice, which she regards as a duty to her benefactors, despite the daily humiliation that, by this stage, the Countess could not help heaping upon her. But in this case, trusting in Nikolai’s sense of honour, she had written him the letter hoping that far from breaking ties with him, it would bind him all the closer to her. She was right about Nikolai’s sense of honour, but was badly mistaken in her judgment of the strength of Nikolai’s feelings for her.

And of course, there is still the hope that Andrei will recover, and marry Natasha. Sonya suddenly remembers the night when they had tried to tell fortunes. At the time, she had seen nothing, but had said that she had seen a figure lying down. Now, she convinces herself that that vision had been real, and that the figure she had seen had been Andrei.

We now return to Pierre. He refuses to give his name to his captors, even when interrogated by Davoust. This, naturally, strengthens the impression that he is a criminal – possibly one of the incendiaries. Suddenly, Pierre and Davoust catch each other’s eyes; and for a brief moment, they are aware of each other’s humanity. But the moment does not last long: someone comes in with a message for Davoust, and his attention is diverted.

Pierre is led out to a yard with some other prisoners. He is sixth in line. The first two are taken to posts, tied and blindfolded, and shot by firing squad. Pierre turns his head away from the horror, and the loud noise of the guns seems earth-shattering. He opens his eyes again, and sees two bloodied corpses being dragged away. And the next two are led up and tied to the posts. And again he turns his head away as his ears are assailed by the sound of another frightful explosion. Pierre looks around at the faces around him – Russian and French. And on all faces, he could see the same dismay, horror and conflict that he feels in his own heart. So who is doing this? he asks himself. The French themselves are as sickened as he is. So why are they doing this?

They take one more prisoner to be shot. Pierre does not at the time see the significance of this: the order had been to shoot five prisoners, as a lesson to all the others. This time Pierre watches. The fifth prisoner is only a young lad. This lad tries to grasp Pierre, and Pierre instinctively shakes him off. The boy is unable to walk, and he is dragged to the post. Then suddenly, he stops resisting – whether understanding that resistance is useless, or whether unable to comprehend that these men were about to kill him, Pierre could not say. But this fifth murder, he watches. As they tie the blindfold around him, the boy adjusts the knot at the back of his head, which was obviously making him feel uncomfortable. Pierre does not hear the shots ring out this time, but sees the body sag.

Pierre, with all the other prisoners, pass by the pit where the soldiers were dumping the corpses. The body of the young lad still seemed to be heaving, but earth was already being shovelled over them. Pierre sees one young French soldier, standing on the spot and swaying as if drunk. “That’ll teach them to start fires,” says one soldier, but there is no conviction in his voice.

After the break-up of Pierre’s marriage, Tolstoy had given us an image of Pierre’s state of mind as of a screw which had lost its thread, and which can neither go in, come out, nor stop turning. Now, Tolstoy gives us a similar image: the spring which had held its soul together had suddenly been wrenched out, and everything had fallen in meaningless pieces. His faith in everything – in the ordering of the universe, in humanity, in himself, in God – all disappears. At the time of his earlier crisis, he had met Bazdeyev, who, for a while at least, had given Pierre some sense of order and meaning in his life. Now, he meets Platon Karatayev, a fellow prisoner. He is a peasant – a kindly, good-natured, simple man. In many ways, he is saintly. On seeing Pierre in his dazed state, Platon tries to comfort him. He gives Pierre some potatoes to eat from his own meagre share. Pierre mentions to him the executions – particularly that of the young lad. “What a sin, what a sin,” Platon murmurs. He comes out with some homely peasant wisdom – not as a lecture, but simply because this is his way of talking. Over the next few weeks, Pierre grows close to Platon Karatayev, and comes to love the simple goodness of this man.

In the last section of this part, Maria arrives at Yaroslavl to be with her brother. Maria and Natasha had disliked each other at first meeting, but all that vanishes as soon as they see each other again, and recognize in each other fellow mourners. And yet, something has happened. Andrei, who had earlier shown such tenderness, is now more distant and detached than ever – as if nothing could touch him any more. This distresses Natasha, and it distresses Maria also. Even when his son is brought to him, Andrei cannot raise himself out of this detachment. Nothing earthly seems to him to be of the slightest consequence.

Andrei feels not only that he is dying, but that he is already half-dead. That sinister, eternal something, which he had sensed all his life, was now, he knew, upon him. During his hours of painful and semi-delirious solitude, he had brooded much on love – on human love, and on divine love. And he had realized, that to love everything and everybody, always to sacrifice self for love, meant to love no-one in particular, meant not to love this mundane life. And the more imbued he became with this principle of love, the more he let go of life, and the more completely he annihilated that fearful barrier that – in the absence of such love – stands between life and death.

A few days earlier, he had had a dream in which he was with a room full of people. And he had chatted with them, talked, socialized. But he dimly realized that all this was trivial – that what mattered was a fearful “it” outside the closed door. And that he must do everything to prevent “it” from entering. Gradually, all the people start to disappear, and all he is concerned about is to prevent “it” from entering. He tries with all his strength to keep it out, but he cannot. And in his dream, he died. And at that very point he woke up. And on seeing death as an awakening, he felt his soul “flooded with light”.

We have encountered this “it” before – in the first chapter of Book 2 Part 5, where Pierre had felt that he must do all he could “not to see it, that terrible it“.

Andrei dies, and everyone weeps. Andrei’s son, little Nikolai, weeps because his heart is “torn with perplexity”. Sonya and the Countess weep out of pity for Natasha. The old Count weeps because he knows that he, too, will soon be stepping over that terrible threshold. And Natasha and Maria also weep, not so much out of personal grief, but “from the emotion and awe which took possession of their soul before the simple and solemn mystery of death that had been accomplished before their eyes”.

[All excerpts quoted are taken from the translation by Rosemary Edmonds, published by Penguin Classics]