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]

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

This part starts with Tolstoy musing again on the cause of historic events. He draws an analogy with calculus. If we regard time as discrete units, movement is incomprehensible; only when we see time as sequences of moments infinitesimally small, and integrate these infinitesimals together, can we understand the process of change. And similarly with historic events – they are products of an infinite number of infinitely small causes, and to attempt to ascribe them to one or two major causes – such as, say , the will of Napoleon – is sheer charlatanism.

After Borodino, the French Army, like a badly wounded animal, advances towards Moscow out of its sheer forward momentum. It cannot stop. And Kutuzov gives up Moscow without a fight rather than sacrifice the army in an attempt to defend it. This is met with general disapproval: Moscow is, after all, the “ancient and sacred capital”.

Those who can – i.e. those wealthy enough to do so – evacuate Moscow.

Meanwhile, in Petersburg, Hélène has a dilemma: she has two suitors. And to complicate matters, she is already married. That is not a problem, however: to someone of Hélène’s great intellect, it’s all so simple. Hélène suddenly converts to Catholicism. Now, she can obtain a divorce – ratified by His Holiness the Pope himself – and then choose from between her two suitors. She sends a letter to Pierre, asking for a divorce. The letter arrives when Pierre is at Borodino.

After the battle, Pierre returns to Mozhaisk, and is forced to spend the night in a carriage. He has a confused dream, in which the words Andrei had said to him about war merge with Masonic teaching. On his way back to Moscow, he hears of the death of Anatole, and of his friend Andrei.

The governor of Moscow, Count Rostopchin, advises Pierre to make himself scarce: all sorts of rumours are flying around – will Moscow be given up to the French? Who is responsible for this? etc. – and Rostopchin cannot guarantee the safety of freemasons. A certain Verschagin has been sentenced to hard labour for allegedly circulating forged proclamations. Moscow is descending into chaos.

The Rostovs have left it late to evacuate from Moscow, mainly because they did not want to leave without Petya, who, until recently, had been with his regiment. Natasha, now recovered somewhat from her depression, helps with the packing. But when the wounded pour in from Borodino, Natasha tells them that they may make use of their carts and wagons. Her father, she knows, won’t mind. Her father indeed does not mind, but her mother is furious when she finds out. As if it weren’t bad enough that her husband had squandered the family fortune – now they must leave everything behind! Count Rostov, for ever feeling guilty about the ruin of the family fortunes, has no alternative but to give way. But Natasha is furious. How can they even think of taking their belongings instead of taking the wounded! The Countess has no option but to give way to her daughter. And, unknown to Natasha, one of the wounded they take is Andrei. The Countess, reluctant to re-open old wounds, tells Sonya not to let Natasha know.

On their way out of Moscow, the Rostovs meet Pierre, who is wandering around Moscow in a peasant coat. Pierre, having returned from Borodino, his mind swimming from what he had witnessed, had deserted his house, and had made for Bazdeyev’s. Bazdeyev is now dead, and the house is occupied by his widow, and by his mentally retarded brother. Pierre settles down to go through Bazdeyev’s papers. At the back of his mind is the vague thought that his fate is somehow related to Napoleon’s, and an idea starts taking shape: he, Pierre, will liberate Europe by assassinating Napoleon. He asks for a peasant coat, and a gun.

Napoleon has entered Moscow, but, to his surprise, there is no deputation to meet him. The rulers of the town and its chief citizens have all left. The city is populated only by the working men and women: their “masters” are all gone. For all intents and purposes, Moscow is empty. Rostopchin, before he leaves, fearing an insurrection, eggs on the crowd gathered in front of his palace to lynch Verschagin. And he justifies to himself this dreadful crime: after all, Verschagin was a criminal, wasn’t he? And the crowd’s wrath has to be appeased!

Fires start in Moscow soon afterwards. It’s not the French armies who start it; and neither is it the fanatical patriotism of the Russians that is responsible. Fires are inevitable in a city consisting mainly of wooden buildings left unattended.

Some French officers enter Bazdeyev’s house, and Pierre sees Bazdeyev’s retarded brother attempting to shoot one of them. Instinctively, Pierre prevents him. The French officer is a genial chap, and is very grateful to Pierre for saving his life. On Pierre’s request, he even allows Bazdeyev’s brother to go free. He introduces himself as Captain Ramballe, and invites Pierre to sup with him. And as Pierre sups, and becomes more and more drunk, he feels his resolution – to kill Napoleon – vanishing. And, after a few drinks, he tells Ramballe all about himself – even about his love for Natasha.

We now move to the Rostovs, who, with the other evacuees from Moscow, see the sky red with the fires. They look on helplessly as their beloved city burns.

Much to the Countess’ annoyance, Sonya tells Natasha about the presence of Andrei amongst the wounded. There’s a whiff of suspicion that this was a calculated act: if Andrei survived, and married Natasha, then, according to the rules of the Orthodox Church, Nikolai could not marry Maria. Ever since Nikolai had rescued Maria at Bogucharovo, there has been much talk of this.

Natasha waits till all her family is asleep, and then goes to where she knows Andrei is. She does not know how he would react to seeing her again. He smiles, and holds out his hand to her.

We are taken back to Andrei’s perspective. Still semi-delirious with pain, his mind is not in a normal state. He has, uncharacteristically for him, asked for a New Testament. It seems to him that in the army hospital, something new had been revealed to him – something he could not quite define to himself. He remembers that next to him was a man he had wanted to kill. This man’s leg had been amputated, and he had been sobbing like a child. And Andrei had felt no bitterness, no anger: just pity – pity for himself, and for this man who had been an enemy of his. And as he muses in his semi-delirious state on love – which he knows he cannot quite attain in the course of his normal life – he sees a figure in white approaching him. It is Natasha. Falteringly, she asks for forgiveness, but he does not understand what there is to forgive.

From that day onwards, Natasha tends to Andrei, never leaving his side.

We now return to Pierre. The morning after his drunken supper with Captain Ramballe, Pierre, disgusted with the way he has behaved, determines to carry out his intention. There is chaos in the streets. Pierre rescues a girl from a burning building, but then cannot find her parents. Then, noticing some French soldiers harassing a woman, he goes to her rescue. Strong though he is, he is overpowered. They find in his possession a revolver, and a knife; and he refuses to reveal his name. Pierre is arrested on suspicion of being an incendiary.

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

Synopsis of “War and Peace”: Book 3, Part 2

This is the longest part of War and Peace, and is virtually a novel in itself. In many ways, it is a sort of microcosm of the entire work, mixing as it does great historic events and panoramic long shots of movements of entire peoples, with scenes of personal drama, often of a quite overwhelming emotional intensity. The whole part culminates in a depiction of the Battle of Borodino, which is possibly the greatest representation of battle in literature.

In the first chapter, Tolstoy presents a picture of the advance of the French troops into Russia. As ever, he pours scorn on the idea that any of this was planned by anyone, either from the French or from the Russian side. Everything has an infinite number of infinitely small causes. Tolstoy also presents the mutual antagonism between the two leaders on the Russian side, Prince Bagration and the German Barclay de Tolly. There is much anti-German feeling in the Russian Army.

At Bald Hills, Prince Bolkonsky’s cruelty to his daughter continues. He accuses her of having created the rift between himself and his son. Maria still receives letters from Julie Karagin, now Boris’ wife: she writes in curiously Frenchified Russian. (It is now considered unpatriotic to write in French, but people of Julie’s class barely know their own language.)

Princess Maria is so used to leaving major decisions to her father, that she has not been concerned about the French advance, mainly because her father had given the matter no importance. But her father simply cannot grasp what is happening: his mind is not what it was. As far as he is concerned, the French armies are still in Poland. Now, we get a quite extraordinary chapter where we se the world from Prince Bolkonsky’s unsteady perspective. His mind cannot settle on anything, and is constantly wandering back to the past. At long last, he takes in the letter from his son, who has written to him in conciliatory terms to heal the rift between them. And from this letter, the old man grasps with horror how close the French really are. But then, once again, his mind drifts back to the past – to the first time he had met with Tsarina Catherine and with the great Potemkin.

The Bolkonskys’ steward, Alpatych, is sent on an errand to Smolensk, some 40 miles to the west of Bald Hills. While he is there, the town comes under attack, and those who hadn’t left the city already start evacuating. There are scenes of disorder, and of panic, as the French shells and cannon-balls land all around. Alpatych is met by Andrei, who writes a note to his sister instructing her to leave for Moscow. It is significant that it is his sister to whom he now writes, and not his father: Andrei had seen the state of his father’s mind when he had last left Bald Hills. As Andrei is speaking to Alpatych, Berg, not recognizing Andrei at first, admonishes him for merely standing by while the city is being shelled. Andrei does not stoop so much as to acknowledge Berg’s presence.

After Smolensk has fallen, Andrei visits Bald Hills. The family has all left. Andrei tells Alpatych to take the peasants on the estate towards Moscow. And there is nothing more to be done. A great air of sadness hangs around the now deserted place. On returning from the estate, Andrei sees some soldiers jumping into a dirty pond. He is invited to join them. And inexplicably, Andrei feels a strange distaste for the sight – for the sheer physicality of the naked white flesh. His own flesh, too, makes him shudder in horror. All he can see in this mass of humanity is flesh that will be torn apart by cannons.

We now move briefly to the salons of Petersburg. Anna Pavolvna’s salon has become patriotic, and anti-French; Hélène’s salon is still hoping that peace can be restored. Prince Vasili has become old, and his mind, too, is starting to fail: he can no longer always remember what is the right thing to say in each salon. But as ever in these salons, nothing is sincere or deeply felt. We learn in these chapters that Kutuzov has been appointed commander-in-chief of the Russian forces.

We are given another comic interlude as one of Nikolai’s serfs, Lavrushka, is captured by the French. The great Napoleon himself speaks to him, imagining that Lavrushka does not realise to whom he is speaking. Lavrushka has realized this all along, but plays along with Napoleon’s ego, feigning horror and shock when Napoleon’s identity is revealed to him. The great man, pleased with the effect produced, lets Lavrushka go.

Princess Maria was not in Moscow as Andrei had thought. The Bolkonskys had gone only as far as Bogucharovo, Andrei’s estate. And it is here that old Prince Bolkonsky has a stroke. He lies there like a corpse, his right side paralyzed.

To remain at Bogucharovo is becoming unsafe, but the old man can hardly be moved. And Maria suddenly finds herself looking forward to what her life would be like after her father’s death. Her naturally tender mind is shocked at finding herself thinking of this.

The next morning, the old man asks for Maria. His slurred speech is not easy to understand, but she makes out what he is saying. “My soul is troubled.” He is always thinking of her, he says, and had been calling for her all last night. Now, at the gates of death, he suddenly – for the first and only time in his life – feels capable of expressing the love he feels for his daughter, the love he has always felt for her, even when he could not help himself from tormenting and humiliating her at every step. And he thanks her for everything, and asks her forgiveness.

Is this the man whose death she had wanted? Maria asks herself. The old man asks for Andrei, and on being reminded that he is with the army, recalls to himself the state of Russia, and he weeps. And the last thing he says to his daughter is: “Put on your white dress. I like it.”

By the afternoon, he is dead. And as Maria kisses her father’s dead face, she suddenly recoils. “In a flash, all the deep tenderness she had been feeling for him vanished before the horror and dread of what lay there on the bed before her.”

In and around Bogucharovo, the peasants had been used to working for absentee landlords. (Andrei’s own peasants had all been emancipated, of course.) Ignorant and uneducated as they are, and ever open to rumours, their mistrust of the aristocrats comes to the fore. Why should they help these people to get away? After all, haven’t the French promised to treat everyone well?

When it is made clear to Maria that she has to get away, she finds the peasants unwilling to co-operate. Still reeling from the shock of her father’s death, and of the unexpected tenderness he had shown her at the very end, she tries desperately to think what her father would have done. She tries her best to meet their concerns, but they’re having none of it. Even Dron, Andrei’s trusted steward, finds himself forced to side with the peasants.

It is at this point that Nikolai, who is out with the young Ilyin foraging for his men, comes across Bogucharovo. He knows exactly how to deal with the peasants: threaten them, tie them up, beat them if necessary. (That’s the way aristocrats dealt with peasants, who were, of course, essentially slaves, and who were treated at least as badly as the slaves on the American plantations.) Nikolai can do this on his own in the full knowledge that, if required, he will have the full backing of the army. And there is something about Princess Maria’s luminous eyes – now in tears – that strikes him. He inevitably sees something very romantic in all this. But he has given his word to Sonya.

Andrei, meanwhile, meets with Kutuzov. Denisov is there as well, enthusiastically proposing guerrilla action against the French troops. Kutuzov is moved to hear of the death of Prince Bolkonsky. He tells Denisov in fatherly tones that they will discuss his ideas the next day. Kutuzov is also lenient on Russian troops taking all the crops available. Never mind the looting – nothing must be left behind for the French! If retreat is inevitable, make sure as little as possible gets left behind.

Kutuzov offers Prince Andrei a position on his staff, but Andrei prefers to serve with the fighting troops. Kutuzov consents.

Meanwhile, in Moscow, society continues in its frivolity. These people, so used to French that they even think in that language, are now struggling with speaking Russian, which, they feel, they have to do for patriotic reasons. The governor of Moscow, Count Rostopchin, has forbidden anyone to leave the city: there is no reason to evacuate – the French will never reach Moscow. This convinces Pierre that the occupation of Moscow is but a matter of time.

In the streets, Pierre sees a Frenchman accused of spying being mercilessly whipped. Pierre is deeply troubled. He toys with the intention of joining the army. Hardly knowing his own intentions, he finds himself going to Mozhaisk, near Borodino, where much of the Russian army is quartered.

The battle, Tolstoy points out, was to the advantage of neither army. Yet it happened. Why? Pierre walks around, seeing the soldiers, and he wonders how many of those he sees would still be alive the next day. His own life seems to lack any meaning or direction; he scarcely knows why he has come here. To see the battle as a sort of spectator? To help out? His mind in a whirl, he does not know. He wants to take part in the battle, and is told to apply directly to Kutuzov. (Pierre is a count, after all – he would hardly be treated as an ordinary recruit.)

After having seen as much of the lay-out as he can, Pierre tries to seek out Andrei. He briefly meets with Kutuzov, and then, Dolohov, who, quite unexpectedly, apologises to Pierre for past “misunderstandings”, and hopes there is no ill-feeling between them. Pierre does not know what to say as Dolohov embraces him with tears in his eyes.

Andrei, meanwhile, muses to himself. He feels very close to death, and does not regret it. This is not because he has conquered his fear of death, but because he has lost all emotional ties that bind him to this life. And all the questions that had so tormented him appear to him as if “illuminated by a cold white light, having no shadows, without perspective, without distinction of outline”. All that he had valued – “honour and glory, the good of society, love for a woman, the Fatherland itself” – all seems meaningless now to him. And he thinks how foolish he was in having loved Natasha. (But he does not think of her by name.) Andrei is haunted by three great sorrows: his love for a woman (he still does not mention her name, not even in his thoughts); the death of his father; and the invasion of the French Army. To continue living has no attraction for Andrei.

This is a quite remarkable chapter, that somehow takes the reader as close to the reality of death as seems possible.

It is at this point that Pierre arrives. Andrei is naturally surprised, but, for the one and only time, he is not pleased to see his friend. At first, he seems disinclined to be left alone with Pierre: his friend is too much associated with various things that still pain him. Pierre notices Andrei’s displeasure on seeing him, and is unsure what to make of it. But far from feeling offended, he feels for his friend’s sake.

Andrei speaks bitterly about the French invasion. Bald Hills, that his father had looked after with such care, where he himself had grown up, is now overrun with invaders. And he can feel nothing for the invaders but hatred.

Andrei is sceptical about the “science of war”. What will win is not numbers or strategy, but the feeling that is in the men. Then, with growing passion, Andrei starts talking about war itself, and about military values. There is a deep bitterness in him. Let us stop playing at war, he says – let us stop pretending that it is honourable and glorious. It is merely murder on the greatest scale, nothing more. And yet, our societies are such, that it is the military profession we honour most: all Emperors wear military uniform, and those who have killed the most are the most honoured. Given that Andrei is himself from a proud military family, this is as close as he can come to expressing self-hatred.

“Life has become a burden to me,” Andrei finally tells his friend. “I see that I have begun to understand too much.” He advises Pierre to leave. Then, suddenly, he embraces his friend and kisses him, and starts to tell him something. But then he stops himself and turns away. In the dark, Pierre cannot see whether his face is angry or tender.

After this extraordinarily moving scene, Tolstoy takes us to Napoleon’s tent. Napoleon, the great self-deceiver, is convinced that it has been merely his will that has brought him here, and that it will be his genius that will ensure victory. A portrait of Napoleon’s infant son is brought before him: in the picture, the pretty little boy is playing with a toy globe. Napoleon, aware that whatever he does and says now will be recorded in the history books, says “Take him away – it is too early yet for him to look upon the field of battle.” And everyone is apparently impressed by the wisdom and profundity of this saying.

Tolstoy then sets out to debunk the myth of Napoleon’s military greatness. Every single one of Napoleon’s instructions was, he claims, impossible to carry out; and, naturally, none of them was executed. By the time any report comes to Napoleon on how the battle is progressing, a million and one things have already happened that make the report out of date.

We are shown the battle mainly from Pierre’s perspective. Without realising it, he is in the very place where some of the main events of the battle take place, and Pierre witnesses horrors unimaginable. He attempts to help, but merely gets in everyone’s way. Then, the cannonballs start hitting, leaving behind the dead, and the wounded writhing in agony.

The battle is simply mass slaughter. The Russian armies withstand the most devastating shelling, but without retreating. The French also suffer heavy losses. All around are death and devastation, and veritable rivers of human blood. These are some of the most grotesque scenes ever committed to paper. And Napoleon, convinced though he was of his own genius, faces for the first time the possibility of defeat, and of the unthinkable possibility that his genius may be fallible after all.

Kutuzov, knowing how little commands from on high mean on the actual battlefield, says little. Only when someone brings news of a setback does he loudly insist that he is wrong – that there is no setback. Unlike Napoleon, he knows that all he can do is to try to maintain morale.

Andrei’s regiment is kept back in reserve, but soon, even they come under fire. A shell lands near Andrei, and others shout at him to lie down and cover himself. But Andrei hesitates. “Can this be death?” he asks himself. And suddenly, in that split second before the shell goes off, he feels an overpowering love of earthly life. He suddenly loves this grass, this earth, this air….And then, the explosion happens.

As he is being carried to hospital, Andrei, half delirious with the pain, asks himself why he suddenly felt that way. “What made me so reluctant to part with life? There was something in life I did not and don’t understand.”

The scene in the military hospital is of a nightmarish intensity. An overworked doctor comes out of the tent in a blood-soaked apron, holding his cigar between his thumb and little finger so as not to stain it with blood. A detail like that nails him as a human being, and not merely a character in fiction.

As Andrei is taken in, we see again the class resentment we had noted before with the peasants in Bogucharovo: the “quality” – i.e. the upper classes – are seen to first. Andrei is barely aware of what is happening. In his semi-delirium, the events around him get mixed up with fleeting thoughts and sensations. All around is pain, and people bearing the most hideous of wounds scream in agony. Andrei finds his mind reverting to his happiest moments – especially his earliest childhood when he was being undressed and put to bed.

In the bed next to Andrei, a man is having his leg amputated. Hearing his sobs, Andrei too wants to weep, but he does not know why. He does not know whether this is because he was dying a death without glory, or whether he was sorry to part with life; or whether it is because that childhood of his would never return, or whether because he was in pain and others were in pain. But the tears he wants to weep were, he felt, “almost happy tears”.

And suddenly, he remembers who the man is next to him who was having his leg amputated. It is Anatole. Andrei remembers vaguely that Anatole was somehow connected to him, but he cannot remember how. And suddenly, an unexpected recollection presented itself to Andrei. It was Natasha the time he had seen her at that ball, “with her slender neck and arms, with her timid, happy face prepared for ecstasy”. And “his soul awoke to a love and tenderness for her which were stronger and more pulsing with life than they had ever been”. Now, he remembers who Anatole is, and all he can now feel for this man is a passionate pity and love. No longer able to restrain himself, he weeps tears of compassion for his fellow men, and for himself. “But it is too late now,” he says to himself, “I know it.”

The battle is over now. The slaughter on both sides has been devastating. Napoleon, who enjoys surveying the wounded and the dead on the battlefield, looks upon the devastation, but the horror “made no impression upon his soul”.

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

Synopsis of “War and Peace”: Book 3, Part 1

Until now, the war episodes and the peace episodes had been kept separate. Now this is no longer possible: Napoleon invades Russia, and the war is brought to those who had previously kept out of it. And the novel enters a new phase.

Tolstoy starts this part by meditating on the nature of historic action. We will get quite a few of these authorial meditations, and some readers object to it. Of course, such chapters don’t ordinarily belong to a novel, but this is no ordinary novel. We have no choice but to go wherever Tolstoy decides to take us. It is worth the effort.

When readers complain that these chapters are irrelevant, they are surely wrong. The novel so far has enquired into why the characters behave in such a way, and not any other. It is an enquiry into the roots of human behaviour. Now, we have the same enquiry, but on a much larger scale: what determines the behaviour of entire people? What determines the events of history? Historians tell us that it was because of certain economic factors; or because Napoleon willed it; or whatever. Tolstoy dismisses these. Any event is a consequence of an infinite number of infinitely small factors, and ascribing it to merely a few of these factors – as historians tend to do – was, in Tolstoy’s opinion, charlatanism. But that leaves open the question: why did hundreds of thousands of Frenchmen march across Europe to invade Russia? Surely, it was more than merely one man’s will. But what?

The Tsar is in Vilna when he hears of the French armies crossing the border. Boris, who is there at the time, notices something momentous is happening, and positions himself to hear what it is. The Tsar sends Balashev with a message for Napoleon, demanding that he withdraw his troops immediately from Russian soil.

We are now shown the French armies crossing into Russia. The scene is painted on a massive canvas. If the domestic scenes at the Rostovs’, say, were in close-up, then these are long, panoramic shots. We are given a vivid picture of hundreds of thousands of men on the move. Napoleon himself takes all the adulation of his troops in his stride, as if it were something only to be expected. It even irritates him at times, as he is trying to think. Tolstoy seems to have little respect for this man whom he saw borne on the waves of history, but who vainly imagined that it was he who was controlling the waves.

Balashev, in his journey to meet with Napoleon, first meets two of his generals – the vain Murat, and the boorish Davoust. They appear briefly, but are brought to life with unerring skill. Finally, Balashev gets to meet Napoleon in the very palace at Vilna in which the Tsar had charged him with the mission. Napoleon is not interested in listening. After all, why should a man in his position listen to anyone? Napoleon does all the talking, and carried away by his own verbosity, says whatever comes into his head. Later, Napoleon invites Balashev to dinner, quite unconscious of having behaved improperly. As far as he is concerned, the very fact that he had acted in a certain way means that that was the correct way to act.

Now, we move to Bald Hills again, and a very sombre place it is now. The old Prince’s mind is going; senility is setting in, and he wastes no opportunity to torment both his daughter and himself. Andrei, now a sort of walking zombie after the episode with Natasha, has joined the army again. He is trying to seek out Anatole, so he could provoke him into a duel and kill him. Andrei comes to stay briefly in Bald Hills. When with his father, he tries to talk – as he usually does with his father – of military strategy, but his father now has something else on his mind: his daughter, whom he cannot help tormenting. Andrei sides with his sister, and the old man flies into a rage. For the first time in his life, Andrei parts from his father on bad terms.

Before he leaves, there is a wonderful short scene between Andrei and Maria. Speaking of Mademoiselle Bourienne – who seems delighted that the senile old Prince is ludicrously paying court to her – Andrei bursts out in uncontrolled passion: “And to think that such – such trash can bring misery on people!”

There is almost a sort of telepathy between brother and sister. She knows right away that her brother is not referring merely to Mademoiselle Bourienne: she asks Andrei not to seek out Anatole Kuragin. And Andrei does not promise – he cannot. Anatole Kuragin has dishonoured him – him, Andrei Bolkonsky – and he must be punished for it.

Andrei finally reaches the Army headquarters, and we are given an account of the various factions therein. The German general Barclay de Tolly is in charge, but is not much liked: there is much xenophobia around. Andrei speaks to the Tsar, and rather than be a hanger-on at the Tsar’s court (the Tsar is leaving the Army on advice of the military staff), he asks to serve with the army at the front.

We now move to Nikolai, still with the hussars. He has heard that his sister’s engagement has been broken off, but doesn’t know of the full facts of the matter. His family keep asking him to return home. We see Nikolai and some others innocently flirting with the pretty wife of a jealous Army doctor. Under Nikolai’s command is a lad of sixteen called Ilyin, and Nikolai is attached to him like an older brother. The relationship between Nikolai and Ilyin is like the one that had previously existed between Denisov and Nikolai.

Nikolai is involved in a skirmish. He is no longer frightened of action — not because he had become used to it (that is impossible), but because he has learnt how not to think about it. On his own initiative, Nikolai charges down and captures some French soldiers. As a result, he is commended and decorated. But Nikolai is uneasy: is this really what heroism is? He remembers the frightened face of one of the French soldiers whom he has captured. And something which Nikolai cannot articulate even to himself gnaws at him.

We now move to the other Rostovs. Natasha had been dangerously ill, but is now beginning to recover physically. Emotionally, she remains depressed. We follow her to church, where services are being given for the safe deliverance of the Fatherland. And Natasha prays for everyone – the country, and also for her brother, and for Andrei. It strikes her momentarily that there is something not quite right about praying for one’s enemies, and also praying that the French be defeated; but she doesn’t allow that thought to bother her too much. She prays in the church as devoutly as anyone.

Pierre visits the Rostovs often. He has quite clearly, fallen in love with Natasha. Suddenly, the big questions concerning life – although still present – cease to torment him: instead, he finds himself musing on Natasha. Otherwise, he leads a meaningless, idle life. Having nothing better to do, he tries various contrived pieces of numerology to try to interpret the Revelation of St John, and somehow manages to convince himself that Napoleon’s destiny and his are vaguely intertwined. This is the occupation of a mind that has nothing to do.

Natasha welcomes Pierre’s visits. After the terrible episode with Andrei, it is Pierre who has shown her affection and tenderness, with not a hint of reproach. One evening, at the Rostovs’, it suddenly strikes Pierre how unfair it is for him to keep seeing Natasha: when all is said and done, he is a married man. He leaves the Rostovs’, and stops visiting.

Meanwhile Petya, much to his parents concern, insists on joining the army. He is only 15, but the patriotic fever sweeping through Moscow has hit him hard. Without telling his parents, he goes to see the Tsar, who is visiting Moscow in an effort to convince the nobles to raise troops from amongst their serfs. Petya imagines that he would be able to go straight up to the Tsar, and ask him directly to serve in the army. It doesn’t, of course, work out that way. Petya is swept along by the crowds, and is nearly crushed. And he is not even sure whether the man he does see really is the Tsar or someone else. But nothing can dampen his patriotic fervour: he is determined to join the army. Eventually, Count Rostov makes enquiries on the safest place for Petya to serve.

In the final two chapters of this long part, we are shown the nobles and the merchant classes of Moscow, who have all gathered to hear the Tsar’s patriotic appeal. The scene is one of apprehension, disorder, and patriotic fervour. The war has now entered their very homeland, and will soon be on their doorsteps.

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