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Twitters on War and Peace

I want to share my students’ feedback on the novel and their reading experience. The depth of their insights, the enthusiasm, and perseverance (you need it for a 1400-page book) have truly inspired me and helped me gain a better understanding of the book.

Tolstoy is able to go in and out of his creations’ lives with simplicity and without exaggeration, whether its in relating the most common moments of their daily lives or the climaxes of their earthly existences. This is what kept me engaged.”

I never thought I could finish this book. It was a challenge to even think about signing up for this course. “War and Peace” gave me a much greater respect for Tolstoy than I had previously held (having read Anna Karenina, among others).”

The size of the book was daunting. If I had to pick only one novel that I would ever be able to read again, it would have to be War and Peace. The lectures on realism, Tolstoy’s style, and digression of Napoleon also made it very fun to read.”

Don’t be put off by the length, it’s quite possible to pick up and put down (although we were on a very rigorous schedule!) It maintains its power and vividness of scene and character however long you leave it alone. The war scenes are as gripping as the peace scenes, and there is a great deal to learn from Tolstoy, even us, even now.”

I have read the novel before this course but only vaguely remember the details. Thanks to the mini lectures on historical background, Tolstoy’s writing style and the critical analysis of characters that make this journey very enlightening. the book presents plenty of interesting philosophical and scientific (“science of history”) ideas. The chief one is undoubtedly the question “What causes and shapes historical events?”. Contrary to the popular dogma that historical events are the result of actions of single notable persons (such as Napoleon or king Alexander), Tolstoy believes that such persons don’t really cause events, but rather can only affect them in some ways once they are already in existence. He claims that what really changes history is the amalgam of human actions, built from thousands, nay, millions of small decisions, desires and ambitions of the people.”

I really enjoy reading the book and the discussion on how “peace” really has an implication on the people–how they eventually come to terms of themselves and the society, how they find peace among themselves. “War and peace” but may also mean “War and society”, since “peace” and “society” are homonyms in Russian. There are differences of opinion as to which Tolstoy actually meant when he authored the book. It is very obvious that Tolstoy places a lot of emphasis on society in the book.”

The novel is quite long, and that is the reason I found that I picked up this book in the past and then put it down (not completely grasping the naming structures and not having time I felt to give it my full attention). However, after having finally taken the time to read this great manuscript, it really is a simple story about life, love (true or not), loyalty, friendship, responsibility (real accountability or feigned) and leadership. It is also once again a story of families and their love for each other and how they are able to show their love for one another or how the love is still present; but remains emotionally hidden or ineffectual. And it is a story of how one must understand the true meaning of life and must be content in one’s own skin; before love can truly blossom and be realized.”

We’re having a little party to celebrate the completion of the chunkster in class today. Then we’ll move on to The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevksy.

Free Will and Fate in War and Peace

As the novel moves from family life to the headquarters of Napoléon, from the court of Alexander to the battlefields of Austerlitz and Borodino, it becomes obvious that War and Peace reflected Tolstoy’s view that all is predestined, but we cannot live unless we imagine that we have free will. The harshest judgment is reserved for Napoleon, who thinks he controls events, but is dreadfully mistaken. Pierre Bezukhov, who wanders on the battlefield of Borodino, and sees only the confusion, comes closer to the truth. Great men are for him ordinary human beings who are vain enough to accept responsibility for the life of society, but unable to recognize their own impotence in the cosmic flow. “No one has ever excelled Tolstoy in expressing the specific flavor, the exact quality of a feeling – the degree of its ‘oscillation’, the ebb and flow, the minute movements (which Turgenev mocked as a mere trick on his part) – the inner and outer texture and ‘feel’ of a look, a thought, a pang of sentiment, no less than of a specific situation, of an entire period, of the lives of individuals, families, communities, entire nations.” (Isaiah Berlin in ‘The Hedgehog and the Fox’, 1953)

Standards of good and bad are always changing in light of different viewpoints, says Tolstoy, and if we had an invariable standard of good and bad by which we could assess events as they take place, then the bad events could be prevented. If this were the case, no dynamics of human activity would exist. “Once admit that human life can be guided by reason,” asserts Tolstoy, “and all possibility of life is annihilated.” Tolstoy sweepingly describes the career of Napoleon as built upon a series of millions of chances: his spectacular rise to power, his invasion of Africa, his invasion and retreat from Russia, his subsequent ruin and comeback ten years later. Because of the way events unfold among all these chance happenings, Napoleon considers himself great and confers the title of greatness to whatever he does or fails to do. Yet the final aims of historical persons or nations remain unfathomable, says Tolstoy, regardless of what may be described as their aims.

Realism of Characters in War and Peace

Tolstoy’s techniques in characterization are part of the secret of his extraordinary realism, for one of the most difficult things for a novelist is to reveal the total personality of a character, as a person in real life reveals himself. The revelation of personality in real life comes about over a period of time by slow accretions, by the accumulation of much detailed information and understanding through innumerable small actions and intimacies. This is the logical, the natural way, and a close approximation of it is pursued in Tolstoy’s novels. We become acquainted with his men and women as we would become acquainted with real people whom we meet for the first time and about whom our knowledge and understanding increase as our intimacy increases over time and space.

Tolstoy does not confront us at the outset with the familiar lengthy description of a character, nor does he take refuge in the awkward flashback. We are introduced to Prince Andrew, Pierre, Natasha, or Nicholas in a customary setting, as we might be in the case of a future friend in real life. Our first impression of the external appearance is only that which we would see ourselves, conveyed by the author’s few brief descriptive sentences. We learn next to nothing of the character’s past or personality at this point. But from the reactions and remarks of others – this indirect method is a favorite of Tolstoy – and eventually through the conversation, self-examination, behavior, and actions of the character, spread out over many pages and years, our knowledge of him grows until finally we obtain a complete image. There are no startling or abrupt revelations. Each thought or emotion develops out of another. And in the case of characters with a pronounced moral and spiritual bent, like Prince Andrew and Pierre, their dissatisfaction with life is resolved, if ever, not by the author’s philosophizing, but by a combination of prolonged self-examination, reflection, and extensive experiences on the part of the characters. As Percy Lubbock affirms, these men and women never inhabit a world of their own, they seem to inhabit our world. That is, their world never strikes us as an abstract one. They stand forth fully defined with all their limitations of time, place, and circumstance. Tolstoy does not hover over the destinies of his men and women; they appear to exercise free choice in working out their fate, so that what they do seems to be psychologically necessary, even though their consciousness of freedom, in the Tolstoyan sense, is illusory. His psychological insights, like his style, create in the reader a sense of intimacy with the characters, for in his analysis of thoughts, feelings, and actions Tolstoy’s points of reference are nearly always the reality of life and not abstractions. “You can invent anything you please,” he once said of Gorky’s fiction, “but it is impossible to invent psychology. . . .”

Related Reading:
War and Peace Reading Schedule
War and Peace – Review
Napoleon and Discourse in War and Peace

Napoleon and Discourse in War and Peace

Napoleon, as a character in Tolstoy’s War and Peace, is more than once described as having “plump little hands.” Nor does he “sit well or firmly in the saddle.” He is said to be “undersized,” with “fat thighs … short legs” and a “rotund stomach.” And he holds court smelling of “Eau-de-Cologne.” The issue here is not the accuracy of Tolstoy’s description—it seems not that far off from nonfictive accounts—but its selectivity: other things that could be said of the man are not said. We are meant to understand the incongruity of a warring imperator in the body of a fat little Frenchman. Tolstoy’s Napoleon could be a powdered boulevardier putting a pinch of snuff up his nose—and that is the point. The consequences of such a disparity of form and content can be counted in dead soldiers strewn across the European continent.

It is a stratagem of the novelist no less than of the playwright to symbolize physically the moral nature of a character. And it turns out that, as Tolstoy has it, Napoleon is a preening pompous megalomaniac. In a scene in Book Three of War and Peace, the Russo-French wars having reached the crucial year of 1812, Napoleon receives an emissary from Tsar Alexander, a General Balashev, who has come with peace terms. Napoleon is enraged: doesn’t he have the numerically superior army? He, not the tsar, is the one to dictate terms. Having been dragged unwillingly into war, he will destroy all of Europe if his will is thwarted. “That is what you will have gained by alienating me!” he shouts. And then, Tolstoy writes, Napoleon “walked silently several times up and down the room, his fat shoulders twitching.”

Still later, after consoling himself by parading before adoring crowds, Napoleon invites the shaken General Balashev to dinner: “He raised his hand to the Russian’s … face,” Tolstoy writes,

and taking him by the ear pulled it gently … To have one’s ear pulled by the Emperor was considered the greatest honor and mark of favor at the French court. “Well adorer and courtier of the Tsar Alexander, why don’t you say anything?” said he, as if it was ridiculous in his presence to be the adorer and courtier of any one but himself, Napoleon.

Tolstoy did his research, but the composition is his own.

War and Peace Schedule

I have included here the partial syllabus for the summer Russian novel class. We’re to read Tolstoy’s War and Peace for the first 5 weeks of the course. It would be fun if some of you bloggers can join us.

*All readings are to be completed by the day assigned. Pages are based on the Penguin Classics edition. If you’re reading another editions, read in accord to the book assigned.

Week 1
Monday, May 19 Introduction to the Course: Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Bulgakov

Tuesday, May 20 Mini-Lecture: Russian Literature before Tolstoy

Wednesday, May 21 Reading: War and Peace, Book 1, pp. 3-114.
Mini-Lecture: The Napoleonic Wars on the Eastern Front

Thursday, May 22 Reading: War and Peace, Book 2, pp. 117-213.
Mini-Lecture: The Russian Gentry at its Apex

Week 2
Monday, May 26 Memorial Day Holiday – No Class

Tuesday, May 27 Reading: War and Peace, Book 3 & 4, pp. 217-373.

Wednesday, May 28 Mini-Lecture: Tolstoy’s Discourse Style

Thursday, May 29 Reading: War and Peace, Book 5, pp. 377-453.

Week 3
Monday, June 2 Reading: War and Peace, Book 6, pp. 457-534 & pp. 1395-1415.
Mini-Lecture: Structural Features of War and Peace

Tuesday, June 3 Reading: War and Peace, Book 7, pp. 537-588

Wednesday, June 4 Mini-Lecture: Masters and Peasants
*In-class writing assignment. Discussion of Paper #1 topics.

Thursday, June 5 Reading: War and Peace, Book 8, pp. 591-664

Week 4
Monday, June 9 Reading: War and Peace, Book 9, p. 667-757
*Proposal for Paper #1 Due

Tuesday, June 10 Reading: War and Peace, Book 10, 761-914
Mini-Lecture: Men and Women in War and Peace

Wednesday, June 11 Reading: War and Peace, Book 11, pp. 917-1034.

Thursday, June 12 Reading: War and Peace, Book 12 & 13, pp. 1037-1141.

Week 5
Monday, June 16 Reading: War and Peace, Books 14 & 15, pp. 1145-1250.

Tuesday, June 17 Reading: War and Peace, Epilogues 1 & 2, pp. 1253-1351.
Mini-Lecture: Freedom or Determinism?