“And don’t forget the Classics … “
War & Peace
By: Leo Tolstoy
Translated by: Rosemary Edmonds
Published by: Penguin Classics
This is what a very fine person told me when he read that I was attempting a book club blog. But which of the Classics? Jane Austen? The Brontes ? Daniel Defoe? Dickens (gasp)? Richardson? Thackeray? Fielding? Melville? So, I thought what about THAT book, the one we ALL know about, and have probably started at some stage in our life – Leo Tolstoy’s novel: WAR & PEACE!
The novel is set in the early 19 century when the divine right of Tsar’s is unquestioned, the aristocracy has everything, and Napoleon Bonaparte is stamping his authority everywhere in Europe and bits of Africa. Pacts are made and broken (why bother writing them in the first place?), and finally in 1812, Napoleon makes his disastrous thrust into Russia.
To read the novel, it’s useful to know the main families and a few of the other major players. Tolstoy introduces most of the main characters in the first book, so pay attention then, otherwise it’s difficult:
Here we go:
Count Bezuhov, is dying from a series of strokes very early on in the book, and the question on the lips of Moscow is: who will inherit? He leaves (no thanks to Prince Vasili Kuragin Machiavellian interventions) his illegitimate son (he has many illegitimate children) Pierre (Pyotr Kirillovich) his entire fortune.
From being a good natured, well educated, tall, socially awkward and rather isolated, stolid young man much maligned by the high society in which he circulates, his fortune turns him into the catch of Moscow. He is cunningly manipulated into marrying Hélène Kuragina who sends him on a merry runaround, only to discover he’s passionately in love with Natasha. He is a good person, mainly confused and slow to get things done, but he tries to make a difference. Pierre is the main character of the story and he takes some getting used to!
The Bolkonsy Family:
Prince Bolkonsky Snr – A reclusive, clever, arrogant & hard man who rules his lands with a firm but (for those days) fair hand, who loves his children but doesn’t bend to show it. Only on his deathbed does he recant and express his love for his daughter. His manservant deserved a medal!
His son, the proud, intellectual Prince Andrei, bored with the stifling superficiality of Russian high society joins the Russian army as an aide-de-camp during the Napoleonic Wars and proves his worth. He suffers many a crisis of conscience. After his wife’s death, and against his better judgement, he falls in love with & proposes to, the young and carefree Natasha. He really grows on you!
Andrei’s young, popular & pretty socialite wife Lise, dies while giving birth to their only child, their son, little Nikolai.
Maria, Andrei’s sweet natured, loving, strong-willed at times and totally devout sister brings up little Nikolai as her own (which is a good thing as Prince Andrei is a very hands-off Papa), and falls head over heels in love with Nikolai Rostov;
Maria’s evergreen companion Madame Bourienne, who causes no end of problems, falling for people above her station (Anatole Kuragin) who are wholly inappropriate (Anatole!) and then wheedling her way into the Prince Bolkonsky’s heart at the expense of Maria.
The Rostov Family:
Count IIya Rostov & his wife, Countess Natalia. They are a kind and caring couple who love each other dearly. Both are completely useless with money (the Count more so) always helping their friends and less fortunates, although they have vast tracts of lands and many properties. With their rapidly declining fortunes they fear for the future of their children, especially in the light of war, so getting them well married is essential.
Vera the rather humourless eldest child (she’s hilariously dour) who marries a German career officer, Berg. They have a splendid time together and are completely without feeling for anything which doesn’t directly concern, or affect them.
Count Nikolai the eldest son, a light-hearted, lovely young man, who joins the Cossacks and has many varied adventures. He has loved his cousin Sonia from childhood, but finds his love growing to for Maria Bolkonsky. Poor Sonia is penniless, while Maria is heir to the Bolkonsky fortune … who will win his hand?
Pytor, the youngest and most beloved who can’t wait to go off to war, to be a man, and fight the French. A sweet boy, cut down before he has the chance to live;
Natasha, (the main female character): her childhood sweetheart is Boris, but after the heady delights of her first ball, finds her attentions wandering elsewhere. Prince Andrei’s proposal is very exciting and she eagerly agrees, only to be swept off her giddy feet by the wicked Anatole. It causes an outrage in the “good” high society of Moscow! Deeply regretting her behaviour she attempts suicide, and becomes ill, spending many months atoning for her foolishness. At Andrei’s deathbed she realizes how much she loves him, but it is too late. Fortunately, she has another suitor waiting in the wings – the super wealthy and now, super centred Pierre!;
and the Rostov’s orphaned cousin Sonja, who loves only Nicholas and has to suffer a lot for it. She prays vehemently for Prince Andrei’s recovery, because, according to Russian Orthodox law, siblings may not marry into the same family. So if Andrei lives, Maria can’t marry Nikolai, leaving him free for her.
The Kuragins: What family they are!
Prince Vasili – a ruthless wheeler and dealer with an eye on every chance for him and his family. Verily he is a nasty piece of work!
His three children: the beautiful, amoral and sexually alluring Hélène; there are whispers about that she and her brother Anatole are lovers! She, however, with her magnificent beauty, entrances everyone, especially Pierre, who knows it’s the wrong thing to do. But the poor lad is but putty in the hands of Prince Vasili, who thwarted in his first attempt on Pierre’s inheritance, gets his daughter married to it. And Hélène certainly spices up the pages with her various pecadillos & loves! She dies in mysterious circumstances (another whisper of an abortion), fortunately, paving the way for Pierre to marry Natasha
Anatole, dashingly handsome and as amoral as his sister (you know what the whispers are), who cares nothing for the reputation of others, but is completely self absorbed and self involved. Although secretly married (because being married SO limits one!) tries to elope with Natasha shattering her reputation! He meets a perfectly dreadful end at the Battle of Borodino!
And their incredibly thick and rather ugly brother Hippolyte, who creates much humour in that he always says the wrong thing at the wrong time.
the impoverished Princess Anna Drubestkaya. A desperately devoted mother. All she can give to her beloved son, is her name, which still has sway in high places. Thanks to her machinations against Prince Vasili, Pierre inherits his fortune and, she hope, helps to secure Boris’ way forward. Boris (who once loved Natasha), joins the army and his ambition to succeed tramples friendship and love alike.
Vasily Denisov: a captain in the Russian army who befriends Nicholas Rostov and proposes to Natasha (she is a popular girl). He’s a delightful character with a charming lisp who comes back from the brink of despair to harry the retreating French army in the cunning guerilla raids.
Fyodor Dolokhov – a cold, heartless man, who is also brave and his own man in the very stratified society in which he moves, a complex and strangely compelling man. Dolokhov is soldier in the Russian army, who takes malicious delight in financially ruining Nikolai Rostov in a game of cards.
Platon Krataev – the good Russian peasant. He’s simple, cheerful, resourceful and pragmaticl and fatalistic, with wise homespun advice on every topic. He is Russia. Pierre meets up with him while they are interned in a French prisoner of war camp after the fall of Moscow and Krataev becomes, along with the prison camp experience, the turning point for Pierre.
Prince Mikhail Kutuzov :– the Commander in Chief of the Russian army in the 1812 campaign and a wise old military campaigner. A man who has seen it all, and tried as far as he could to keep his hotheaded soldiers alive while still meeting the demands and directives of the Supreme Command – the Tsar and his psychophants.
Tzar Alexander I :– well he did nothing for me! What a damp squid and the adulation and reverence he inspired, it’s quite incomprehensible! The scene where he throws biscuits to the crowds in the square was just OUT THERE!
Napoleon: Tolstoy is hard on all the military elite, and Napoleon is given no quarter! But it is fascinating reading the descriptions of life in camp and his battle preparations and Toltosy’s philosophy about war in general and men in particular.
It’s got EVERYTHING! It’s an incredibly racy book. Those publicists of old, knew how to keep their readers hooked. War & Peace was serialized when it first came out. Imagine … waiting with baited breath for the next nail-biting installment.
This is better than ANY plot devised by our TV series writers. In fact, they should read W&P to get some tips.
It’s utterly gripping: there is scandal (lots of), intrigue, sex!, love – so much love! It graphically recounts the tragedy of war, the waste of life and the battles torn out in the fields and towns of Eastern Europe & Russia. The novel depicts the poignancy and frailty of life. There is humour and ordinary every-day living in all it’s normalcy and minuteness. He paints the glories of nature and her implacability too. He warns of the precariousness of wealth, the transitory nature of titles and dues. He makes fascinating insights into well-known historical figures and yet it’s a book also for the unsung and the masses, you live completely in that world he creates.
I know you aren’t going to read it, but it is ABSOLUTELY worth it! And I’ve only SCRATCHED the surface of it’s complexities! Apologies for not being able to keep this one short!!
PS: Thank you James Westrip!