A Reading of War and Peace by Peter Leyland

                                                      Reading for Peace during a War

          In Goya's greatest scenes we seem to see
                                                                              the people of the world
                  exactly at the moment when
                           they first attained the title of
                                                                         'suffering humanity'

                                                                                             Lawrence Ferlinghetti (1961)

Napoleon had a bad cold just before the Battle of Borodino and that’s probably why he lost it and why Moscow was set on fire and why a lot of people died in the ensuing chaos – well that’s what Tolstoy seemed to be suggesting as I trudged through War and Peace, his 1,260 page novel about the invasion of Russia in 1812. The number of pages is relevant here because how many there are depends which translation you have as I discovered when investigating my three-volume edition, a legacy from Christopher Blake, my late father-in-law. The volumes were from a book club nicely bound and illustrated, although the print occasionally showed through the pages. I was suspicious about the edition and no translator was given but what choice did I have? We were in the midst of a long lockdown and, with no library or bookshops open I had to have another book to read. Needs must, and so Christopher’s edition of War and Peace it was.


Trudged, doesn’t sound like much fun either, I suppose, but then I often find that reading like long distance walking through muddy fields brings its own rewards. For the first hundred pages I found that it was a matter of painstakingly working out who the characters were. If you’ve read any Russian novels, you will know that characters always have two or three names and so at times it is difficult to know who-is-who, and what connection they have with each other. It took me ages for instance to realise that Peter Besoukhow was a count as every male character seemed to have ‘count’ or ‘prince’ in their title. It wasn’t until The Battle of Austerlitz, about two thirds of the way through the first volume, that I got to grips with this and started to enjoy the story.


Very simply War and Peace is about four Russian families living around St Petersburg and Moscow before, during and after the Napoleonic invasion. The first volume was really about the events leading up to Austerlitz, a great victory for the French Emperor as he now called himself, although this hardly seems to affect the central characters. They just go on living their lives in the midst of balls, banquets and concerts and seem quite unbothered by the battles going on in the distance, even though some of them are in the army and are expecting that they might at some point be called upon to go to war themselves.


I am now going to focus on one character, Natacha from the Rostow family. By the beginning of the second volume I was hopelessly in love with her just as Prince Andrew Bolkonsky was. Unfortunately, Prince Andrew has one or two problems with his courtship: first of all, he is a widower with a son, and secondly his father, Count Bolkonkonsky, thinks it’s all a bit hasty. Eventually, after a passionate scene between Natacha and Andrew in which she actually kisses him, the pair agree to wait for a year before marrying. Although their parents support this decision, for Natacha it is a bit like Sir Gawain in the famous medieval tale having to wait for a year and a day before meeting up with the Green Knight in order to have his head chopped off. And so it proves: just as Gawain during his year of waiting is famously seduced by the lady with the green girdle so Natacha is seduced by the adroit womaniser Count Anatole Kuragin at an opera that she is attending. Natacha’s head is turned; there is an exchange of letters giving rise to the rumour that although he is already married, Anatole is going to run away with her. In the end the truth comes out and Anatole flees Moscow for St Petersburg leaving Natacha bereft and in disgrace. They were pretty unforgiving towards women in those days.


Natacha has a breakdown but then gradually recovers and begins to live again as one does after a romantic mishap. By now we know that Napoleon’s armies are approaching Moscow and all the wealthy families are packing up to leave for their country estates. At this point in the novel there is a delightful scene between Natacha and her cousin, Sonia. They are in the drawing room where Sonia has been supervising the packing when it is discovered that the porcelain dishes, tapestries and carpets won’t all fit into the three packing cases. Natacha decides to step in. She orders the servants to unpack the three cases. get rid of all the old and less valuable items and squeeze everything into just two cases leaving more space in the transport wagon:


“No, no, press hard with all your weight! Press hard, Petia. Now on your side, Vassilitch!” and with one hand she wiped the perspiration from her face, while with the other she too threw all her weight upon the case.


Success is achieved and immediately following this that evening a wounded officer is brought to the house. It turns out that the officer is Natacha’s ex-lover, Prince Andrew, who has been seriously wounded at The Battle of Borodino. He has by now forgiven Anatole for seducing Natacha and Natacha for being seduced, but after a few days he ends up dying with her in attendance. The death takes about twelve harrowing pages to read and the contrast between this and the previous scene about packing the wooden chests points to the massive irony of war. 



I will pause here because at this point in my reading I came down with the most awful bout of flu. I was well into the third volume and had set myself to read at least 40 pages a day, but my plan had to be halted and I lay in bed for three days, sustained by soup and fever reducing medicaments. This prepared me in a sense for what was going to happen to Peter.


But first a slight digression - I studied Russian at school and I am the proud possessor of an O’ level certificate in the Russian language. Peter was always the character in our school textbooks, shown variously as Pyotr or Pietya, which of course I loved. I was really pleased that my father-in-law’s translation had him as Peter rather than the Pierre common in other translations which, although I knew everyone in Moscow at the time spoke French, to me didn’t seem to be very Russian.


Anyway, to return to the story: Peter is by now a soldier and he is caught up in the burning down of Moscow by the Russian populace. The city is in flames, and along with a number of others Peter is taken prisoner. During his captivity in one of those scenes which show the mark of what a great writer Tolstoy is a group of prisoners are taken to one side by the French soldiers and executed with Peter listening and watching. Rereading the scene now a fresh horror fills me as I know what is about happen and I am observing it through Peter’s senses. The prisoners begin to be shot in pairs by a firing squad. I can’t quote the whole scene but if you look at of Goya’s famous painting, The Third of May 1808, you will get the idea.


“That will give them a lesson! Those rascally incendiaries…” said a Frenchman, and Peter looked round to see who had spoken. It was a soldier, evidently trying to reconcile himself to the deed he had just done; but he did not finish his sentence, and went off with a dejected air.

The French retreat from Moscow began on 6th October 1812. Kuotouzow, the Russian general of whom Tolstoy clearly approves has refused to make peace with Napoleon and simply allows the French army holed up in Moscow to destroy itself through looting, rampaging and wounding each other. Eventually they leave in disorder: huts and kitchens are dismantled, wagons are loaded, troops and baggage trains are on the move. General Koutouzow, although urged to do so does not pursue and slaughter them but simply lets thousands of French soldiers die on the return journey from cold, privation and from skirmishes with raiding Cossacks. In one of these skirmishes cavalryman Petia Rostow, brother of Natacha is killed by a stray bullet.

We are returned now to Moscow to witness the grief of the Rostow family, particularly the mother at the news of Petia’s death. Natacha is shown to have grown in strength from the suffering she has witnessed:


Natacha had thought that life was at an end for her, till this outburst of affection for her mother had shown her that the real essence of her being, her power of loving was still alive within her; and love once revived in her soul she too came back to life.


Natacha comforts her mother and in so doing I think she becomes the book's heroine.



Meanwhile Peter Besoukhow has been rescued from the retreating French army and after suffering for months from bilious fever as a result of the physical privations he has endured he recovers his health and he too returns to Moscow to live in a wing of his house that has escaped damage. Peter, as we know, had separated from the beautiful but capricious Helen who has since died in childbirth, not his, and he is emotionally free to love again. Now I don’t know how you feel about the end of the story but in his emotionally free state he comes upon Natacha and realises that he has loved her all along. They decide to get married and move to live in St Petersburg. The old Count, Natacha’s father dies, and her elder brother, Prince Nicholas, returns for his father’s funeral, marries Prince Andrew’s sister Maria, and everyone lives happily ever after.


Apart from poor Sonia of course, the girl with no money who had always loved Nicholas, but that’s another story...



What more can I say? When we read we are interacting with writers who may be dead and whose work may be a translation but they are talking to us, telling us something about their perceptions of life. Tolstoy is an exceptionally skilled writer and I have read Anna Karenina and many of his short stories. I know he was in the military himself and had seen war close up. He also knew a lot about human beings and their emotions. In his epilogue he draws things together. By 1820 Peter and Natacha have three girls and a boy. Nicolenka, Andrew’s son thinks, “…Uncle Peter – what a splendid man he is! And my father too! Yes, I will do such things as shall please even him.”


And on that positive note the fictional aspect of the novel ends. Tolstoy spends the next fifty pages considering and discussing ideas like power and the contradictions between freedom and necessity. He is a deeply philosophical writer and at one point in the novel he ponders on the chance nature of events. As I finished the book I wondered just as Tolstoy must have done about how a common cold had upset all Napoleon’s plans for The Battle of Borodino and how everything that followed from it led to disasters for some and successes for others. Ah well, we live and learn.

                                                                                                                    Peter Leyland 25/02/21


All the names and spellings are taken from the copy of the book published by J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd. 1932


Eden Baylee said…
Hi Peter,

I've not read Tolstoy's book, seems daunting and would require some time investment, so thanks for providing a slice of the story here with your thoughts,
Griselda Heppel said…
Luckily I have read War and Peace, so enjoyed this clear recap of the wonderful story without risking spoilers! I found it a much more satisfying read than Anna Karenina. I loved the huge canvas of the Napoleonic war, and the individual dramas unfolding in the four families (in all those balls and socialising, as you say). Natacha is an enchanting romantic heroine but there are so many other strong characters dealing with difficult family relationships...

Did you ever see the outstanding BBC serialisation in the 1970s, with Anthony Hopkins as Pierre (sorry, can't help calling him that!)? It was the best thing the BBC has ever done (guess it might look dated now) and infinitely better than the more recent BBC 6 part serialisation about 2 years ago, with Lily James as Natasha and James Norton as Bolkonsky (though these actors did well). Fear I'm showing my age rather!
Peter Leyland said…
Thanks Griselda - I don't remeber the 70s one not having a TV at the time but I did see the recent one and found it distinctly unmemorable, so much so that I couldn't and didn't relate it to my current reading of the novel at all. I had this idea that during a lockdown I needed some literature to sustain me so began War and Peace and my blog article is really about how it did that.

Thanks also for your comment Eden. I don't think I'd have read it in any other circumstance than this enforced pandemic idleness!
Reb MacRath said…
Thanks for the summary, Peter. I wish the book weren't on my list of Books I'll Never Read. But there's no way not to admire Tolstoy's genius and artistry. With some books, by Dumas or Hugo, for instance, I'll settle for an abridged version. But with W&P I'm convinced that it's either nothing or all.
Kirsten Bett said…
Hi Peter, thanks for the entertaining summary. I bought War and Peace when I had just joined a book club. It might have been a Dutch translation. I thought it was good value - - it was one of four books you got for free 😁 I never read it. I did start but I never made it through those first confusing and in my then young eyes, boring, chapters. I have no idea where it went. Thank you for wrapping g it up for me. Cheers
Peter Leyland said…
Thanks Reb and Kirsten. I feel I have achieved a kind or reading Matterhorn, if that makes sense.
Thanks Peter - despite also having studied Russian at school I have never got round to War and Peace. I may be imagining this but I have a feeling I once saw a very long film of it (in 2 parts) that was made in Russian and perhaps dubbed into English. It was years and years ago when I was a student, so I may be thinking of something else! I find the prospect of keeping track of all the characters' names quite daunting, particularly now. Matterhorn is right!

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