War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy

16 September 2013
Book 1
A lot is going on in various aristocratic locations in Petersburg and Moscow in 1805, and it’s nearly all horrible. There are no heroes, so the very likeable Pierre is also deeply flawed. But, so far,  the incident that reveals how red in tooth and claw these people’s lives can be involves Prince Vasili. When we meet him at the very beginning of Chapter 1, he seems to represent merely the worn-out, seen-it-all-before languor of the upper-class drone. But by the time we are approaching the death of Count Bezukhov near the end of Book 1 – Pierre is his son but, crucially, is illegitimate – the prince is spouting lines of self-serving hypocrisy out of sheer desperation.

His discussion of the will with Princess Catiche, who is Pierre’s cousin and the old man’s niece, turns into a wonderful set piece. He’s actually contemplating a blatant act of fraud: he wants to steal a codicil, whose whereabouts only she knows, that apparently names Pierre as the sole heir. Finally, after several pages spent urgently trying to make the niece understand what this means for her, he has got her to see the light. But he has to tread carefully: she likes to see herself as pious, and would be uncomfortable doing anything dishonest. So we get this: ‘“it was all done casually in a moment of anger, of illness, and was afterwards forgotten. Our duty, my dear, is to rectify his mistake, to ease his last moments by not letting him commit this injustice, and not to let him die feeling that he is rendering unhappy those who…” “Who sacrificed everything for him,” chimed in the princess.’ He’s got her, and she tells him exactly where the papers can be found.

This is the sharp end of aristocratic life as Tolstoy presents it, and Prince Vasili’s behaviour is the worst we’ve seen. But nothing these people do is admirable. Whilst he, ‘like a wound-up clock, by force of habit said things he did not even wish to be believed’, nobody – almost without exception amongst the adult characters – is ever sincere. Every minute of any social engagement is dictated by form, and judgments of character and behaviour are based solely on how comfortable everyone else in the room can be made to feel. Men are gallant, polite, and act according to formulas of correct behaviour. (There’s a running joke during the first ‘soiree’ to do with how everyone greets Anna Pavlovna’s aged aunt in precisely the same way.) Women are… what, exactly? They can be good hostesses, which means bringing people together to have a comfortable time with people they know, or they can be ornamental.

Tolstoy makes it clear that it’s all a pointless game. Starting with the soiree in the early chapters, half-a-dozen or so different episodes begin to make up a collage revealing the crumbling fabric of aristocratic life in peacetime. In fact there are episodes within episodes, so that one of the short chapters can become almost a tableau of one aspect or other of aristocratic life. One of these during the same soiree introduces us to Anna Mikhaylovna who, we later come to realise, is another character who knows exactly what needs to be done in order to survive in the jungle that is upper class life in 1805. This game isn’t pointless to the players, because theirs is a comfortable existence and the great imperative is to stay in it.

What Anna Mikhaylovna is doing is begging a favour of Prince Vasili that he doesn’t want to carry out. She wants him to pull strings to get her son Boris into the Guards, but Vasili is stalling: he’s been in the game long enough – we later find out he is 60 – to know that ‘Influence in society… is a capital which has to be economised if it is to last.’ But she’s a match for him, and eventually he relents. Is it because, as she reminds him, that ‘he had been indebted to her father for the first steps in his career’? Not really. She is ‘one of those women – mostly mothers’ who just won’t give up. She’ll go on and on at him and even, possibly, make a scene. Ah. ‘This last consideration moved him.’ Our suave, omniscient narrator can see beneath the surface of these polite exchanges and lets us know exactly how things really work. And he hasn’t finished with Anna Mikhaylovna, but I’ll come back to her later because…

…I should say a word about Pierre. He has no idea either that he’s in the game, or even that there is a game at all. (Neither he nor the reader realises the extent to which he’s in it until the end of Book 1.) He arrives at that opening soiree – and I’m beginning to realise how much mileage Tolstoy is getting out of that first five-chapter section – and he’s clueless about any of the niceties. He’s almost a Candide, having only recently returning from being educated in France, and he expects everybody to be as guileless as he is. This isn’t because he is an eternal optimist, but because he simply doesn’t understand what the super-sophisticated members of the aristocracy are like.

So of course, despite the fact that Tolstoy has made him open and likeable, he makes a bad impression at the soiree. Not that things are black and white in this universe. Later, he goes to the house of perhaps the only person at the soiree likes him, his old friend Prince Andrei Bolkonski. He promises that he won’t get into one of the ridiculous drunken escapades that he seems incapable of avoiding. So from Prince Andrei’s he goes straight home, right? As if. Tolstoy makes it clear that at the age of (I think) 20, Pierre is not yet fully formed: ‘as happens to people of weak character, he desired so passionately once more to enjoy that dissipation he was so accustomed to that he decided to go. The thought immediately occurred to him that his promise to Prince Andrei was of no account, because before he gave it he had already promised Prince Anatole to come to his gathering….’ It couldn’t be any plainer than that. And what happens? Someone has brought along a small bear which, in the early hours, he ends up tying to a policeman before throwing them both into the river. He gets himself expelled from Petersburg altogether.

We meet him again, back in Moscow at his father’s house, where his female cousins make it difficult for him to see the old Count, who is dying. Pierre simply accepts this – his acceptance of other people’s bad behaviour becomes almost a leitmotif, as he fails to recognise it for what it is – and is not discouraged from taking up a dinner invitation despite his father’s rapidly worsening condition. The dinner is given by another prominent family, but never mind them for now – beyond the fact that the young people there like him for the very openness that the adults find so beneath their sense of decorum. And it’s while he’s there that Prince Vasili begins plotting.

It’s time for the re-entry of Anna Mikhaylovna. Crucially – and it’s only later that we realise just how crucially – when Pierre is called back to the house she accompanies him. Or is she already there when he arrives home? Whatever, she’s been sticking around for a day or two, insisting on the proper religious rites for the old man and generally insinuating herself into his presence. We’ve been wondering what she’s after, and it begins to become a bit clearer. She knows what Pierre is like , and that if left to himself he would be shafted by his cousins and the other interested parties. So she practically holds his hand – becoming what the translation has as his ‘monitress’ – and leads him through the quicksands that await him.

It’s a good job she’s there, because the Prince and Catiche have manoeuvred their way into where the portfolio is kept near the dying man’s bed, and are now in possession of it. Anna M knows exactly what it is that Catiche is holding, and her way of getting it off her is presented as pure slapstick. She grasps hold of the portfolio for herself, and it becomes a tug-of-war. Catiche, never good at hiding her feelings, has already shrieked her contempt for Anna M. Now, ‘“Intriguer!” she hissed viciously, and tugged with all her might at the portfolio. But Anna Mikhaylovna went forward a step or two to keep her hold on it, and changed her grip….’ The upshot is that the portfolio, containing not only the old man’s final wishes but also a letter to the Tsar pleading that Pierre should become his legitimate heir, comes fully into Anna M’s hands. Near the end of Book 1, it is confirmed that Pierre is to become the new Count Bezukhov and one of the richest men in Russia. Goodness.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in Book 1… how long have you got? There are things that any reader of English 19th Century novels will find familiar: young men who marry for love and almost immediately regret it (Andrei); young women who are suited for nothing at all beyond making a good impression in society (Andrei’s new wife); the tone of the letters these young ladies write to one another, full of the gushing, sentimental nonsense that Jane Austen was fond of satirising as ‘sensibility’ (Julie to Maria, and her reply); the easy, unthinking way that people live beyond their means, not so much blind to the warning signs as quick to anger at any mention of them (the Rostov family who give the dinner attended by Pierre on the night of his father’s death); the overarching importance of the world’s opinion, and this little society’s faith in its own judgments; money; status; the whims of old men when writing their wills….

But this isn’t England, and there are plenty of things that nail it to its particular context. Tolstoy’s tone might be primarily satirical, but one of the main things he seems to want to demonstrate is the aristocracy’s unfitness for any purpose beyond self-perpetuation. Another theme is the absence of any serious discussion about the impending crisis: Napoleon – or ‘Buonaparte’ – is a caricature, whereas the Tsar, always referred to as ‘the Emperor’, is routinely spoken of as little short of a Messiah. Religion gets a bad press from this author, presented either as the hypocritical mouthings of people intent on some particular end – the characters involved in the farcical goings-on around the time of Count B’s death all use religion like this – or the sentimental nonsense of the immature like Maria, Andrei’s sister. The point is, I suppose, that it won’t serve any useful purpose when the chips are down, as they soon will be.

War is around the corner. It creeps up on this little society as though by stealth – Anna M’s main concern is for a more high-status army position for her son, whilst the Rostov girls are only tearful because their brother and the young men they think they are in love with are going to have to leave – but by the end of Book 1 things are becoming more serious. The final chapters are set at the country estate of Prince Nikolai Bolkonski, Andrei’s father, which he runs like a well-oiled machine. Tolstoy makes the old prince literally the last of his generation in Maria’s letter to Julie. She describes him speaking of the death of Count Bezukhov who, he says, ‘was the last representative but one of the great century, and that it is his own turn now.’

His conversations with Andrei are the first we have come across in which something like informed assessments are made about the threat that Bonaparte really poses, and of Russia’s allies and enemies. Andrei’s father seems to represent a whole past generation of soldiers, nostalgic for old certainties, endlessly going over old campaigns, and sarcastic about new-fangled ideas like ‘strategy’. He’s also a link to the army as it still exists, having got Andrei a position with a General Kutuzov, whom he knows of old.

And Book 1 ends with Andrei, full of ideas about war but with no understanding of it beyond the theoretical, leaving to go and join his regiment.

21 September
Book 2
If you thought you knew where you were at the end of Book 1, you were wrong. However accustomed we might be to novelists moving from one thread to another, leaving the experiences of one character or milieu on hold while pursuing a different one for a few chapters, I can’t think of another 19th Century novel in which, for a novella-length section, he leaves all of them behind. Or almost all. Prince Andrei reappears as though unannounced in Chapter 2, as he performs minor duties in the service of characters who are becoming established as major players in the campaign to repel Bonaparte’s advance. (General Kutuzov and the Austrian Mack, among others, are historical figures fitted seamlessly into the narrative.) Then Tolstoy plucks another character from Book 1 who had been so insignificant I’d forgotten him entirely. This is Nikolai Rostov, eldest son of the ridiculous minor Count who had come to represent the worst excesses of the aristocracy. Book 2 begins only shortly before the retreat, and Tolstoy threads the experiences of both Andrei and Rostov in and out of the wider events. These are too sprawling to be taken in at a glance, so what we get are details of the experiences of these two, and of a few other military men we mostly meet in the early chapters of this section.

Andrei had been neither particularly important in Book 1 nor particularly attractive. He had often been shown making no attempt to hide his bored dissatisfaction with his pretty young wife and, aside from his friendship with Pierre, he seems to be a typical aristocrat. But now ‘he had changed greatly…. In the expression of his face, in his movements, in his walk, scarcely a trace was left of his former affected languor and indolence.’ But, this being a Tolstoy novel, Andrei is still a flawed character. Shortly after hearing of the improvement, we get this: ‘Some, a minority… expected great things of him… and with them Prince Andrei was natural and pleasant. Others, the majority, disliked him and considered him conceited, cold, and disagreeable.’ This is soon after he has been reintroduced to us and, in fact, a lot of Book 2 is about his re-education. His life in Moscow and Petersburg had been no good for him but, Tolstoy wants us to realise, it hasn’t ruined him. By the end of it he is already seeing through the stupidities and hypocrisies of the officer class, and makes a small but important stand against them. I’ll come back to that.

Rostov’s experiences are very different. I described Pierre as being like Candide in Book 1, but Rostov is far more so. He is open and honest, and seems to expect this of everyone else because he has no understanding of what people and society are like. His attempt to deal with the blatant dishonesty of a fellow officer is a disaster – he has no notion of why his superiors take a pragmatic view that makes his accusation merely an embarrassment to them – and his idea of fighting in a war is naïve bordering on the infantile. But the two battlefield experiences of this ingénu, told in detail from right inside his point of view, are the closest that Tolstoy comes to a description of what war really feels like.

The first is when he finds himself following other soldiers on to a bridge that is about to be set on fire as part of the retreat. Like a schoolboy, he is convinced that this is all a kind of test set for him by the commander who had reprimanded him for his accusation, and it becomes a catalogue of confusion. He trips and falls, is shouted at to get off, and only seems to realise that he and the others have come under fire when a man falls next to him. He’s miles away: ‘How beautiful the sky looked; how blue, how calm, and how deep! How bright and glorious was the setting sun! With what soft glitter the waters of the distant Danube shone.’ After a long paragraph of this stuff he feels a sentimental regret: ‘Another instant and I shall never again see the sun, this water, that gorge!…’ And he believes – wrongly, as Tolstoy is keen to let us know – that his own thoughts must prove him to be a coward.

His other set-piece experience, near the end of Book 2, is just as confused, and told in the same amount of detail. Rostov’s horse is shot and his own arm is injured. Gung-ho schoolboy enthusiasm for hacking at an imagined enemy has come down to this. After hours of agonising pain, memories come to him of his bright, prosperous childhood. Almost the last thing we hear of in Book 2 is his wondering question: ‘And why did I come here?’ Unlike Andrei, all this boy has learnt is that war is rather horrid.

We don’t start with either of them, and I think at first we can be forgiven for assuming that Tolstoy’s main aim is to be satirical. We see how class and rank get in the way of almost any meaningful activity, as when a too-deferential response to an order leads to a regiment being forced to spend a whole night cleaning every last belt and button prior to an inspection. In fact, the colonel’s aim had been to show his Austrian counterpart that they were too ill-equipped and exhausted to be of assistance in the campaign, and he tells them to make themselves less smart before the Austrian arrives. There are other absurdities in the first couple of chapters: the officer who mockingly mimics his superiors, the reprimand a captain receives over the unmatching greatcoat of a private, a former officer reduced to the ranks, who had already been given permission to wear it…. Nobody dares to correct a higher-ranking officer.

We don’t know it yet, but we’ll meet these men again: Zherkhov the flippant officer and Dolokhov, the officer reduced to the ranks over ‘matters of honour’. (He was the one making bets on the evening of Pierre’s disgrace over the bear.) We also meet General Kutuzov, the one doing the inspecting, Denisov, Rostov’s gung-ho superior and, later, the satirical diplomat Bilibin, the admirable but overlooked Captain Tushin and the real-life division commander Bagration. I don’t know to what extent Tolstoy’s use of historical figures, whom he treats no differently from his invented characters, is an innovation. It’s all right by me.

We meet all these figures in the context of Russia’s often shambolic withdrawal from Austria. At first, nobody seems to have come to terms with the seriousness of the situation. Zherkhov speaks to the Austrian General Mack as though his defeat at Ulm is a joke, and more than once the Russian army are as relaxed as though on exercises, even with the French invaders in sight. And Tolstoy gives us the picture in different ways. Sometimes we get the view of a whole battlefield, as when Andrei sees the landscape opened up beneath him from a high point before the skirmish that saves them near the end of Book 2. Being Andrei, he imagines in advance the likely way the battle will be fought – which, of course, contrasts starkly with the reality we get later. Or an incident is told as a satirical anecdote, like Bilibin’s concerning the three ‘Gascons’ who trick the Russians into not setting fire to the Thabor Bridge in Vienna after they’ve crossed it. Not doing so is the worst thing the Russians could have done, but you wouldn’t know it from Bilibin’s account. There’s clearly an issue with burning bridges: the one that Rostov races on to should have been destroyed before the French could get in range to fire grapeshot at them, but the Austrian commander – permanently at odds with his Russian counterpart – had decided that to receive an order to put incendiary material in place was not the same as an order to set fire to it.

Tolstoy isn’t always so satirical… but fairly often he is. Following an off-stage victory against the French, Andrei is sent to announce it to the Austrian emperor. The adjutant he first meets seems perfectly indifferent, and Bilibin, who works at the embassy, explains why. In role as an Austrian politician he grills Andrei: ‘Come now! You with all your forces fall on the unfortunate Mortier and his one division, and even then Mortier slips through your fingers! Where’s the victory?’ Next day, when Andrei gets his audience with Emperor Francis, it’s clear that the man has no clue about anything. Ah well. But when he comes away, the courtiers who had previously been off-hand with him are now all super-polite. Clearly, Tolstoy doesn’t confine his satire to the Russians. In fact, going by his presentation of the Austrians in Book 2, he thinks they’re idiots. It comes as no surprise at all that Vienna has fallen to Bonaparte….

Next. There are superb set-piece crowd scenes as, basically, refugees become entangled with columns of marching soldiers. Andrei shows himself to be more generous than most when he offers gold pieces to a company of soldiers who have had a harrowing time, and helps a doctor’s wife in a makeshift cart whose driver is being abused by a drunken captain. This seems fairly standard behaviour: the Russian troops have no regard even for the citizens of allies, and have a growing reputation for looting. Tolstoy doesn’t tell us Andrei’s view, probably because he doesn’t need to.

And the final chapters are all to do with Bagration’s attempt to re-attach his detachment to the rest of Kutuzov’s army, fighting a difficult rearguard action. He knows they will be lucky to make it… but they do, mainly owing to the actions of one captain and his emplacement of four guns. Those of higher rank are, almost without exception, of no use at all. Bagration’s only contribution is to remain unperturbed, acting as though whatever happens is exactly how he had hoped and predicted it. Zherkov, having been sent to the gunners with orders to retreat, had been too scared to go to where things were dangerous. So the little emplacement fights on. The captain is Tushin, first introduced to us a few chapters earlier as a sergeant reprimands him in a little hut where he has taken off his shoes. He is head-and-shoulders shorter than his big-built artillery men, speaks in a high-pitched voice – and saves the day. He shows no fear, and Tolstoy takes us right inside his point of view as he makes up stories about the French guns and jokes about throwing back whatever they can fire at him. The French assume, wrongly, that the guns would not be firing without full back-up, so they stall their advance.

We see a lot of different responses to battle. There’s Tushin’s matter-of-fact bravery, Zherkov’s equally matter-of-fact cowardice, the gung-ho enthusiasm of Denisov, the arrogance of an unnamed major who is later killed, Rostov’s childish incomprehension. And there’s Andrei, growing into the role of leader. After the hasty withdrawal to safety of a sergeant sent to order back Tushin’s company, Andrei turns up and offers real help to get them out of there. But he isn’t as successful as another soldier we hear about from time to time. This is Dolokhov, the hard-drinking gambler who’s been reduced to the ranks. He seems to have cottoned on to what it’s all about, has captured both an enemy standard and enemy soldier, as though Tolstoy wants to demonstrate that good soldiering has nothing to do with fine feelings and moral uprightness.

The ambiguities carry on after the battle. Andrei listens to the little – or not so little – fictions told by different officers. Zherkov and the sergeant who hastily withdrew from Tushin’s gun emplacement tell what Andrei knows to be outright lies, and other officers make up stories about their own actions. Then Bagration, who ‘knew that all the guns [on the left flank] had been abandoned at the very beginning of the action’, begins to subject Tushin to a kind of interrogation about the loss of two of his four guns. There is a general pretence that the emplacement had been fully covered by supporting fire, and Tushin is struggling to explain himself. Andrei – he is clearly disgusted, although Tolstoy doesn’t actually use the word – describes what really happened, giving only Tushin credit for the success of the skirmish. And then he simply stands up and leaves.

What’s the first casualty of war in Tolstoy’s presentation of it? Truth, obviously. There is an early signalling of this when Rostov is forced to withdraw his accusation of theft – in other words, to tell a lie – for which he is congratulated, while the officer who had stolen Denisov’s purse takes sick-leave. Later, Tolstoy shows us the disciplinary beating of a private, whose major shouts at him: ‘It’s a shame for a soldier to steal… if he robs his fellows there is no honour in him, he’s a scoundrel.’ But the message is clear: only the lower ranks are punished.

The high-ranking officers are more interested in their careers than in true accounts of what has actually happened. One old general (I can’t remember if we ever learn his name) constantly dwells on how he ‘had served blamelessly for twenty-two years’ and doesn’t want any kind of perceived failure to blot his record at this stage. And after Andrei has left there’s a kind of embarrassment: Bagration is ‘evidently reluctant to show distrust in Bolkonski’s emphatic opinion yet not feeling able fully to credit it.’ Andrei, on the other hand, ‘felt sad and depressed. It was all so strange, so unlike what he had hoped.’

You bet.

[Later]
Death stalks these pages. I’m not only referring to the men killed during the battle that occupies most of the last third or so of Book 2. Before it, more than once, Tolstoy describes the space between the lines as a kind of abstraction representing the line between life and death: many will cross it, and many are thinking about it both before and after the first shot is fired. The night before, Andrei overhears someone speaking in philosophical terms about what comes after death, and it turns out to be Tushin, only known to him at this point as the captain caught having taken off his boots for simple, commonsense reasons. There’s something of a Russian Everyman about Tushin.

23 September
Book 3
There’s a split. The first six chapters – something over a third of Book 3 – take us back to the milieux of Book 1. Then we’re back, via a chapter that involves both Rostov and Andrei, to where the Russian and Austrian armies prepare, inadequately, to face the French. And then it’s the Battle of Austerlitz. Oh dear.

I called the life of the aristocrats red in tooth and claw, and the villain I singled out in Book 1 was Prince Vasili Kuragin. In the first two chapters of Book 3, set in Moscow and Petersburg, it feels as though Pierre is a lamb to the slaughter. And guess who’s doing the slaughtering. ‘Prince Vasili was not a man who deliberately thought out his plans. Still less did he think of injuring anyone for his own advantage….’ This is the opening of Chapter 1, and it’s clear that the reason why Vasili doesn’t consciously make plans is because it’s second nature to him. He’s got his sights on poor Pierre, and before the end of Chapter 2 the new Count Bezukhov has found himself engaged to Vasili’s daughter. Earlier we’d read of how, ‘without knowing why, [he] was having his enormous Petersburg house done up.’ A chapter further on and ‘he was married, and settled in Count Bezukhov’s large, newly furnished Petersburg house, the happy possessor, as people said, of a wife who was a celebrated beauty and of millions of money.’

Pierre is being shafted, but the tone is satirical. Tolstoy charts, in microscopic psychological detail, how Vasili’s manipulative techniques work on Pierre. It begins as soon as Pierre receives his inheritance and is struck by how everyone is suddenly – and he thinks, given his own pleasant personality, quite rightly – treating him with kindness and respect. Vasili isn’t the only one doing this, but he is the one who insinuates himself into Pierre’s financial affairs, becoming his de facto manager. He commissions projects like the renovation of the Petersburg house, tells Pierre when he tidies up financial anomalies – but not that these are sometimes for his own benefit. Most of this goes on in Moscow…

…but in Petersburg the project is to make sure that Pierre chooses the right wife. And we know who Vasili means by that, despite the fact that Pierre never had any intention of marrying Helene. She is the most celebrated beauty in their circle but, as we have seen in Book 1 and as Pierre reminds himself, ‘she’s stupid. I have myself said she is stupid.’ So how, between the end of Chapter 1 and the end of Chapter 2, does he go from deciding not to be tempted by her – that there is ‘something nasty, something wrong, in the feeling she excites in me’ – to becoming her husband?

It’s a pincer movement. On one side there are Helene’s obvious attractions, which Tolstoy describes explicitly. In her fashionably low-cut dress ‘her bust…was so close to him that his short-sighted eyes could not but perceive the living charm of her neck and shoulders.’ This is at the start of the process, and it is echoed at the end: ‘Pierre held the hand of his betrothed in silence, looking at her beautiful bosom as it rose and fell.’ On the other side there appears to Pierre to be a consensus that he and she are an item. Vasili’s friends, notably Anna Pavlovna and the Rostovs, manoeuvre them into positions in which they cannot avoid being regarded as a couple.

This goes on for weeks, until Vasili decides to bring things to a head at one of his almost nightly get-togethers designed for the purpose. Pierre has begun to pretend to himself that her non-committal answers or silences are signs of her cleverness – because, frankly, he has no alternative: ‘because of everyone, it must inevitably come about. They are all expecting it, they are so sure that it will happen that I cannot, I cannot, disappoint them.’ When Vasili congratulates him Pierre accepts the fait accompli, and does not protest that he hasn’t actually proposed.

Vasili’s next project takes him to the country estate of Andrei’s father, old Prince Bolkonski, to line up Princess Maria as a wife for his rakish son Anatole. We have seen how the 20-year-old Maria, emotionally stunted by her cloistered life with her control-freak father, is like an unhappy child. And between her confused religiosity and her father’s bone-headed stubbornness, they see off the Kuragins. Vasili hides his mortification, obviously. Anatole had been willing to sacrifice himself to the plain-looking princess, largely because she comes with an attractive French governess.

The episode becomes another satire on how unfit for purpose the upbringing of any of these young people has been. Maria has an emotional attachment to religious formulas and a lack of any understanding of what a relationship with a man might mean. She vaguely thinks she might like the idea, finds Anatole attractive in ways she doesn’t comprehend, imagines motherhood with fondness… but nah. When she sees Anatole in an embrace with the governess she reaches a decision: she wants to stay with Daddy. Her father… don’t ask. We saw his inability to engage emotionally with Andrei’s departure at the end of Book 1, and everything he does suggests he has no understanding of his own attachment to his grown-up children. He vaguely knows that he likes having Maria around, but doesn’t know why and makes her life a day-to-day grind of expectations she can’t fulfil. But he thinks it’s ok to give her permission to marry if she so chooses, although he can see exactly what the Kuragins are up to. In other words, he’s no help at all, would have allowed a loveless marriage of convenience – for what?

There are two other women in the house awaiting and then responding to the arrival of the suitor, the governess and Lise, always described as the ‘little wife’. Is Tolstoy fair-minded in his presentation of the female psyche? Or does his satirical intention get in the way of psychological truth? You decide. Anyway, after this there’s one more chapter set in the aristocratic milieux, and it focuses on the Rostovs. They’ve had a letter from Nikolai, react as you would expect to news both of his minor injury – it’s a sprained arm, in fact – and of a promotion, and… I don’t really want to think about them now. Except, perhaps, for the creepily close fondness Natasha has for her brother – which, we discover later, is mutual. It’s her name Rostov keeps coming back to as, exhausted during the battle, he drifts into sleep….

The Rostovs provide a bridge back to the main part of Book 3, the lead-up to the Battle of Austerlitz, and the battle itself. We begin by following the empty-headed Nikolai who, just as he did in Book 2, presents an ultra-naïve take on events that runs parallel to that of the (initially) equally idealistic but far more perceptive Andrei. Rostov comes close to challenging Andrei to a duel for a perceived insult – it was Rostov who had stupidly insulted Andrei – and, like the comfortable world they have left behind in Moscow and Petersburg, this one is full of men whose education has left them unfit for purpose. It’s Boris, the son that Anna Mikhaylovna was spending so much energy on helping in Book 1, who understands how things work in the army. There’s army rank… and there’s a different kind of pecking-order. As he watches an old general wait patiently for Andrei, a mere captain, finish his chat with a friend, ‘Boris clearly realized … that in the army, besides the subordination and discipline prescribed in the military code… there was another, more important, subordination.’ This, as we’ve understood from the start, is to do with class, and to do with who you know. Boris understands this implicitly and knows that he will only get a career job on the Staff through contacts like Andrei. (Andrei himself, who wouldn’t dream of using contacts to gain promotion, is happy to pull strings for the people he knows. Go figure. Rostov, of course, is only interested in the gung-ho glory of military life.) I suspect we’ll see more of Boris as he picks his way through the subtleties of networking and judicious back-scratching .

The middle chapters are full of ominous signs. Tolstoy’s readers in the late 1860s knew what a catastrophe Austerlitz represented for Russia and its allies, and he presents it as a simple inevitability. At first here’s an emphasis on parades and smartness, which Tolstoy has a lot of fun with as he takes us into Rostov’s perception of it. It’s bound up with the personality of ‘the Emperor’ as Tolstoy makes a frank comparison between Rostov’s feelings for Tsar Alexander – never named – and those of a besotted lover. This variant on the absurd cult of personality that Tolstoy is satirising runs as a thread right through Book 3. Near the end, as Rostov is sent on what is literally a fool’s errand to try to find out what the orders of the high command might be, he spots the Tsar failing to ride over a ditch. He could help him…. ‘But as a youth in love trembles, is unnerved, and dares not utter the thoughts he has dreamed of for nights… so Rostov, now that he had attained what he had longed for more than anything else in the world, did not know how to approach the Emperor.’ He watches as another soldier guides the beloved over the ditch and speaks at length with him. Aagh.

But there are worse things in the lead-up to the battle. Kutuzov is the real-life character we see most of – although occasionally Tolstoy takes us right into the presence and even the point of view of Napoleon himself when it suits him – and the old man isn’t exuding either confidence or enthusiasm. He speaks to Andrei on the day before the battle. ‘“I think the battle will be lost, and so I told Count Tolstoy and asked him to tell the Emperor. What do you think he replied? ‘But, my dear general, I am engaged with rice and cutlets, look after military matters yourself!’ Yes… That was the answer I got!”’ This little anecdote tells the reader a lot about the seriousness with which the conduct of war is treated by the bureaucracy. (I’m not sure why Tolstoy has attributed the worst atrocity to his namesake.)

Andrei, as the real-life Kutuzov’s fictional adjutant, is often Tolstoy’s way into the events before and during the battle. Around midnight on the eve of battle, the absurd Weyrother – another real-life character – spends an hour reading the orders for battle to the other staff officers. Kutuzov makes no effort to stay awake, and when other officers attempt to make important comments – like, what if the French aren’t where we think they are? – Weyrother ignores them and ploughs on. Andrei, who had wished to speak, doesn’t bother. Afterwards, he is pessimistic: ‘Tomorrow everything may be over for me! All these memories will be no more, none of them will have any meaning for me.’ But he is going to do the best he can anyway. What else can he do?

The battle takes up about the last quarter of Book 3, and it’s Tolstoy at the top of his game. How many novelistic techniques does he throw into the mix to present the shambles that is the allies’ attempt to repulse the French? One of the most important ones, I’d say, is the way he presents the partial viewpoints not only of characters we know but of companies of soldiers awaiting orders. It’s through these men, and montages of overheard snatches of their conversations, that we get a broader impression of how nobody gets a proper picture of events. Rumours spread, often to do with the cowardice or ineptitude of the allies: ‘Why have we stopped? Is the way blocked? Or have we already come up against the French?… They were in a hurry enough to start us, and now here we stand in the middle of a field without rhyme or reason. It’s all those damned Germans’ muddling! What stupid devils!’

Questions. That’s another feature of these chapters, whether asked by anonymous soldiers or characters we know. Andrei: ‘What are they about? … Why doesn’t the red-haired gunner run away as he is unarmed? Why doesn’t the Frenchman stab him?’ and later: ‘What’s this? Am I falling?’ Then Rostov, trying to make his way across a battlefield he can make no sense of, but after a retreat is clearly in progress: ‘What need to hurry? What was he now to say to the Tsar or to Kutuzov, even if they were alive and unwounded?’ Any answer he receives as to where he should go seems arbitrary: ‘Rostov considered, and then went in the direction where they said he would be killed.’

Very occasionally, Tolstoy allows the reader a tiny insight into what is going on. We read Napoleon’s proclamation to his troops, in which his strategy is made clear in a sentence: ‘while they are marching to go round me on the right they will expose a flank to me.’ And it is the reader, not any one member of the army numbering tens of thousands, who knows that the delay the soldiers complain of is caused by a very basic error: the cavalry on the left have to stop the march of the infantry to get over to where they would be better placed on the right. And all along we know that the French are not six miles away as the bone-headed Weyrother insisted they would be. When soldiers unexpectedly encounter the French in the fog they can’t believe what they are seeing… but the reader can.

So there’s a mixture: we get enough of the big picture to let us see the basic mistakes the allies’ top brass are making; and we follow individuals who have no idea what is going on, or have lurching flashes of understanding after they see things that only a moment before had seemed impossible. It feels astonishingly cinematic as Tolstoy makes jump-cuts from one location or one point of view to another – but with the additional insight that a novelist can bring into an individual’s thought processes.

We get both of these together in the moments leading up to Andrei’s injury. Kutuzov despairs – he hasn’t been in a good place since long before the battle began – when he sees crowds of Russian soldiers simply turning tail and fleeing. ‘The wound is not here, it is there!’ he says, pointing to them. ‘Stop them!’ This, Andrei thinks, is ‘the day of his Toulon’, and he attempts to turn the tide when he sees an abandoned standard. ‘Scarcely able to hold up the heavy standard, he ran forward with full confidence that the whole battalion would follow him.’ We get that combination of the cinematic and novelistic as Andrei reaches that now familiar zone in which all reason is left behind. We’ve seen it in Rostov, we’ve seen it in companies of soldiers, and now we see it in Andrei. He has some success… but then come those questions: ‘Am I falling?’

And we’re in another psychological zone, again one that is almost familiar from Rostov’s experience in Book 2 as he looked up from the ground after being shot at on the bridge. Now Andrei thinks: ‘how differently do those clouds glide across that lofty infinite sky! How was it I did not see that lofty sky before? And how happy I am to have found it at last! Yes!’ But Andrei is not Rostov, and he is taken to an altogether darker place. ‘All is vanity, all falsehood, except that infinite sky. There is nothing, nothing, but that. But even it does not exist, there is nothing but quiet and peace. Thank God!…’

So the doubting Andrei, the man who could only smile wryly when his sister gave him an icon to wear, has found religion? Well… it’s more complicated than that. As he drifts back to consciousness later, he recognises that his hero Napoleon is passing by, ‘but at that moment Napoleon seemed to him such a small, insignificant creature compared with what was passing now between himself and that lofty infinite sky with the clouds flying over it.’ Nothing has any meaning for him except the one imperative: he ‘only wished that they would help him and bring him back to life, which seemed to him so beautiful now that he had today learned to understand it so differently.’ He had ‘felt sad and depressed’ at the end of Book 2. Now, everything he had put his hopes into is entirely without meaning as he seems to enter a state of existential despair. It is soon after this that Napoleon’s own doctor declares that Andrei’s injuries are not worth treating, as he will almost certainly die. And, without letting us know whether the doctor is right, that’s where Tolstoy the inveterate novelist leaves it.

But before this, we have seen that the army is in no better place. Rostov has had his disenchanting view of the frailty of his beloved Emperor. And he’s met Boris, who has seen action, but only by accident. The Guards, ‘seeing troops before them, thought they were Austrians, and all at once discovered from the cannon balls discharged by those troops that they were themselves in the front line.’ As the stragglers retreat, we have briefly met Dolokhov, now restored to officer status, bravely – or stupidly – leading his men on to thin ice to escape the French guns. ‘The ice, that had held under those on foot, collapsed in a great mass, and some forty men who were on it dashed, some forward and some back, drowning one another.’ No comment.

28 September
Book 4
This is short, and we’re back in the horrible world of Moscow and Petersburg. Tolstoy moves us from the end of 1805 through most of 1806, book-ending the section with the Rostovs. The Count and his family, including Nikolai, haven’t learnt what has become second nature to Vasili Kuragin. Instead of his instinct for self-preservation, they rely on inherited wealth… which, broad hints in Book 1 warn us, will not last forever. It doesn’t make them any more sympathetic as a family than the Kuragins. The Count throws money around because he’s grown up with the kudos and deference it brings him. He’s the one who organises and pays for the lavish banquet in celebration of the hero of the campaign against Napoleon – wait for it – Bagration.

Tolstoy uses the event to represent all that is wrong with Russia in the early 19th Century: the mysterious men at the top of government, having assessed the situation after Austerlitz, have decided to present it as a tactical withdrawal. Blame falls on the perfidious allies and on Kutuzov, who wasn’t up to the job he’d been entrusted with. The banquet becomes a variation of the cult of personality surrounding the ‘Emperor’ as Rostov Senior commissions a fanciful ode to Bagration’s qualities and Rostov Junior proposes a lavish toast to Tsar Alexander. It’s all froth, of course, although Tolstoy lets us see this for ourselves. We know that singing the praises of a fool like Bagration will not make him any more competent when Napoleon turns his attention to Russia itself.

During the banquet Tolstoy moves us on to another thread, Pierre’s unhappy marriage. I’ve commented before on parallels between the different threads, and the bad marriage choices that people make is becoming another theme. The thorn in Pierre’s side appears to be – guess who. Dolokhov, who did not drown beneath the ice, is rumoured to be Helene’s lover, and Pierre’s jealous misery is one of the two dark psychological places Tolstoy takes us to in Book 4. (The other involves Nikolai Rostov and – guess who, again. I’ll come back to that.) Pierre is still not fully formed. His new wealth and standing have done nothing to move him on from the ‘weak character’ Tolstoy described in Book 1. Now, in his misery, he still has ‘an appearance of what is called weak character’. Ok.

Another parallel. Like Nikolai, like Andrei, he has had to survive whatever the world throws at him with no guidance from his father. (Ironically, only Anatole Kuragin seems to have had any guidance at all – but just look at the father.) Pierre has done badly so far and now he festers alone, with nobody to advise him. At the banquet he is in a stew of jealousy as Helene and Dolokhov seem to laugh at him. Dolokhov insolently snatches from Pierre a copy of the ode to Bagration, and this is the spark. He challenges Dolokhov to a duel. You can imagine the dark recesses of the mind that this takes him to. He sleeps not a wink, contemplates the stupidity of the challenge that will almost certainly lead to his own death. It’s one of the strengths of this novel – one of so many it’s hard to count them – that Tolstoy is able to take us to these recesses at moments of crisis. And he hasn’t finished with Pierre yet….

Tolstoy does a novelistic thing when he has Pierre’s shot, the first he has fired in his life, wound Dolokhov in his ‘left side’. Pierre tries to run off, appalled, but is led away to stew in a new crisis of remorse. Inevitably, he jumps to conclusions and this affects what he does next. ‘“I have killed her lover, yes, killed my wife’s lover. Yes, that was it! And why? How did I come to do it?”—“Because you married her,” answered an inner voice.’ He speaks to Helene, who seems to be as unpleasant in reality as she is in Pierre’s perception of her. He decides, if you can call it deciding, to leave her, to leave Moscow, and to give her ‘full power to control all his estates in Great Russia, which formed the larger part of his property’. What? What?

Next comes another premature presumption of death: at Bald Hills, the country estate of the Bolonski family, the old prince is mourning the death of Andrei. In fact, Tolstoy has done another novelistic thing by having had Andrei judged as one of the dying by Napoleon’s doctor. It has kept him off any lists, so we can see how his father and sister can cope. They can’t, obviously, although the pious Maria does better than her angry, emotionally strapped-up father. He has made one of his stubborn decisions, that Andrei is definitely dead, and he commissions a monument. But never mind that for now…

…because Lise, pregnant with Andrei’s first child – did I mention that? – is close to term. And then she’s in labour. And then, just as they are waiting for the doctor’s carriage – what did I say about novelistic things? – Andrei arrives instead. He’s learnt a lot since he left her all those months ago. Then, she bore the brunt of his frustration at having married her for the pretty looks that Tolstoy makes the basis of all his descriptions of her. (There’s a thing about the movement of her downy top lip he has mentioned, I’d guess, a dozen or more times in Books 1 and 4.) Now Andrei calls her ‘darling’, or whatever the equivalent word is in Russian, for what Tolstoy tells us is the first time ever. And he follows this up with ‘God is merciful….’ Hah. Not in this novel He isn’t. Whatever spiritual journey Andrei has been on – and Tolstoy hasn’t made it straightforward – he isn’t going to find any easy answers in God. The baby survives, but Lise doesn’t. Tolstoy uses one of his favourite tropes, putting into words what a look seems to express, as he describes her: ‘there in the coffin was the same face, though with closed eyes. “Ah, what have you done to me?” it still seemed to say, and Prince Andrei felt that something gave way in his soul and that he was guilty of a sin he could neither remedy nor forget.’ You bet.

I said I’d come back to the Rostovs. Aside from a moment near the end that reveals all we need to know about Rostov Senior as a father, the last chapters of Book 4 focus on the social life of the younger generation. Denisov is staying over with Nikolai in their big Moscow house and… he fancies Natasha. Nikolai, who isn’t as in love with Sonya the cousin as she is with him tells her that she’s free to take an interest in other men if she chooses. She doesn’t choose, and when Dolokhov – what? – becomes interested in her and proposes, she says she loves ‘another’. Dolokhov knows exactly who she means…

…and develops into a Godzilla-scale monster when he decides to take his revenge on Nikolai. Dolokhov defies those invited to his entertainment, or whatever it is, not to play cards with them. He does this by reminding them that he has been accused of being a card-sharp – something he doesn’t deny – and, with Nikolai in particular, suggesting that he shouldn’t play if he doesn’t feel good about it. He’s playing a simple mind-game with the born-yesterday Nikolai, whose five-rouble stakes grow ever larger until he owes the amount that Dolokhov has chosen as a target: 43,000 roubles. (43 is the sum of his age plus Sonya’s.) This is the second of the dark psychological places that Tolstoy takes us to in Book 4. We are there, inside Nikolai’s head, as he digs himself deeper and deeper into financial ruin: his allowance for the next six months had been 2,000 roubles.

He tortures himself with the idea of suicide, but goes home instead. Nothing there holds any joy for him – Tolstoy is good at showing the childish egoism of young men, as we’ve seen with Pierre before now – and, after some acute embarrassment, he asks his father for the money. It’s the sort of thing that happens to everyone, Nikolai says, to his own shame. And what does his father do? The father who has never taught him anything of value? ‘“Yes, yes,” he muttered, “it will be difficult, I fear, difficult to raise… happens to everybody! Yes, who has not done it?”’ And, eventually, he gives him the money.

Meanwhile, in another part of the house, Natasha is telling her mother that Denisov has proposed. The Countess vetoes it – perhaps the first sensible thing done in the house since the novel began – and Denisov, like Nikolai, leaves for Poland. There are developments there, apparently. There has only been one mention of Napoleon in Book 4, but war is expected.

30 September
Book 5
This novel becomes more and more impressive. Up to now, I’d thought of it being the collective Bildungsroman of three 20-something men – Pierre, Nikolai and Andrei – and, among a lot of other things, that’s what it is. But Tolstoy is bringing Boris on more and more. Previously, he has just seemed to be a glutinously ambitious young man, but now he’s becoming a satirical representative of all that is wrong with the way the Russian system operates. If the winners are men who are only good at networking and presenting a well-polished exterior, well, what about people who aren’t like that? What if you have ideals and principles but don’t know how to play the game that Boris enjoys so much? Tolstoy doesn’t ask the question because he doesn’t need to. The governing elite are all like Boris, and look where it’s got them when confronted by someone like Bonaparte.

It’s only near the end of Book 5 that we see how far Boris has come. Before that we’re following the other three, and they are all engaged in a question that would hold no interest for Boris: what should we believe in? This thread had been led by Andrei up to Book 4. Neither hero-worship nor a faith in the military have worked and, having stared into the abyss, he’s pulled back from nihilism. But he hasn’t pulled back very far. The formulas he comes out with at moments of stress – ‘Thank God’ and ‘God is merciful’ – won’t do for him, and he still hasn’t found what he’s looking for when Pierre comes to visit. But before that happens, Tolstoy takes us into Pierre’s own crisis of belief.

At the beginning of Book 5 Pierre is floundering. His sense of isolation is given a tangible form in the solitary, self-torturing winter journey he takes from Moscow to Petersburg. He still seems to think that Dolokhov is dead, and his endless self-interrogation takes him down a spiral of doubt as he tries to come to terms with what he thinks he’s done. ‘What is bad? What is good? What should one love and what hate? What does one live for? And what am I? What is life, and what is death? What power governs all?’ In case you haven’t been counting, that’s seven quick-fire questions that take him right to the edge of the same abyss Andrei has been staring into. This has been going on since the middle of Book 4, and we begin to wonder where Tolstoy can go with it.

Where he goes is into a situation straight out of a folk-tale or parable. In a resting-post, Pierre meets ‘a wrinkled old man’ who wears a death’s-head ring. This man is – what? – if we believe him, a messenger from God who has come to tell Pierre that he must mend his ways. Like characters in folk-tales, he knows all about Pierre and what he refers to as his sinfulness… and so on. Pierre falls for the line he spins, while all the reader can do is tut-tut at his gullibility. Joseph Alexeevich Bazdeev – based on a historical figure – is no messenger from God, but is a member of the Freemasons. The easy answers he seems to be offering Pierre – never mind what other reasons there might be for the existence of such a secret society of influential men – are exactly what he thinks he has been waiting for. In Petersburg he joins the lodge, is completely happy to surrender all the valuables he is carrying with him at the initiation ceremony, would give far more in alms than everybody else if there was a way to do it….

By now I’d had enough of Pierre, aka Candide, aka the lamb who would be happy to slaughter himself if you gave him the knife. But Tolstoy clearly hasn’t. A few chapters later, with Pierre flushed with his own goodness, he decides to get out of the poisonous atmosphere of Petersburg – tell you later – and go on a long tour of his estates near Kiev. He’s going to be the archetypal philanthropic landlord, and commissions schools, introduces a policy of allowing women with children not to work on the land… and so on. Tolstoy is explicit about how his managers and stewards take him for a ride, and how one steward in particular plays every trick in the book. (In contrast, so far he’s left the reader to decide on what the Masons might be up to.) The details don’t matter, because Tolstoy makes it so clear what we need to think of him and his philanthropy. ‘“ How easy it is, how little effort it needs, to do so much good,” thought Pierre….”’ Pierre only meets peasants who are prosperous anyway and not the women who now have to work harder than ever, and celebrations supposedly on his behalf are nothing of the sort: ‘the serfs continued to give in money and work all that other people’s serfs gave—that is to say, all that could be got out of them.’ Oh dear.
The chapters set in Petersburg high society are as gruesome as always. Vasili tries, in his oleaginous way, to persuade Pierre that there’s simply been a misunderstanding between him and Helene. Pierre is close to giving in… but then he isn’t, and reveals that side of himself that we only occasionally see: ‘without looking at him, and with a kind of fury that made him like his father, [he] muttered in a whisper: “Prince, I did not ask you here. Go, please go!”’ Pierre is a huge man – I’m not sure I’ve ever mentioned that – and although Vasili doesn’t leave straight away, one more quietly furious ‘Go!’ is enough for him to get the message. From then on, in order to establish his daughter as the victim, Vasili is happy to spread the rumour that Pierre is slightly mad. Anna Pavlovna claims that she was the first to have suspected it, which she did from the start. Ok.

Meanwhile Helene has her eye on someone else. (Tolstoy is establishing beyond doubt that her reputation for this sort of thing before the marriage is thoroughly deserved.) The new man is… Boris, now ‘aide-de-camp to a very important personage’. Clearly, he’s having as much success as we would have expected. Tolstoy is explicit: ‘He had become thoroughly conversant with that unwritten code… according to which an ensign might rank incomparably higher than a general.’ He spends all his money on his appearance and scans any room for whoever will be able to help him climb higher up the pole. And the following chapter ends with this: ‘During that stay in Petersburg, Boris became an intimate in the countess’s house.’ Yep.

Boris had been able to impress the company at Anna Pavlovna’s with his intimate knowledge of what is going on between the French and the Prussians, and all the talk is of Russia’s likely role in the next stage of the war. I’ll come back to that later, because it’s time to get back to Andrei and Pierre….

In terms of their beliefs, neither of them is where they will probably be by the end of the novel. For now, Pierre spouts the certainties he’s been handed on a plate, but Tolstoy has let us know that Pierre has not given up what he considers to be his worst vice, his womanising. Maybe the message is that being generous with what seems a bottomless fortune is one thing (although, like all rich men, Pierre considers it inadequate for his responsibilities), whereas changing a self-indulgent lifestyle is something else.

Meanwhile, at first, Andrei seems secure in his cynicism. He’s had it with the army, beyond being a kind of assistant to his father, pulled out of retirement to be in charge of recruitment in the region. Andrei has moved to a kind of lodge on a part of the estate that his father has made over to him, and lives as withdrawn an existence as Pierre’s before his conversion. As so often in this novel, the location reflects the man, this time with its sparseness and isolation. Not only has Andrei lived through the Battle of Austerlitz and the death of his wife, but his baby son Nikolai has recently come close to death with a fever. Pierre is shocked by the changes in him – he hasn’t met him since near the start of the novel – but, in that gauchely unthinking way of his, he is full of the changes in his own life. And, of course, he wants to bring some of the joy to his friend.

This is the set-up for something like three chapters of philosophical discussion. Andrei is not Pierre, and the latter’s simplistic arguments simply will not wash. Andrei is even able to put a name to the philosophical position that Pierre parrots: ‘“Yes, that is Herder’s theory,” said Prince Andrei, “but it is not that which can convince me, dear friend.…”’ His own views have no more originality than Pierre’s, especially the chestnut that people only do good because it makes them feel better, or for some other selfish reason – although, as we’ve seen, there’s some truth in this in Pierre’s case. But he is scrupulously polite, and does not dismiss what Pierre says. Clearly, Tolstoy wants us to see not only the weaknesses in both arguments but the value as well. And, after a discussion that takes place symbolically on a ferry across a convenient river, this happens: ‘stepping off the raft, he looked up at the sky to which Pierre had pointed, and for the first time since Austerlitz saw that high, everlasting sky he had seen while lying on that battlefield; and something that had long been slumbering, something that was best within him, suddenly awoke, joyful and youthful, in his soul.’ Well.

After fourteen chapters of civilian life come seven in the military world, all focused on Rostov. He isn’t Candide any more, or not quite; he’s Pilgrim, and he’s on a journey that takes him to some dark places. When he returns to his company his view of it could not be rosier. The regiment is his family: ‘On approaching it, Rostov felt as he had done when approaching his home in Moscow… as unalterably dear and precious as his parents’ house.’ Ok. But things soon start to go wrong. The Russian authorities don’t have the competence to feed the troops, so there’s famine among both them and the populace whose lands they occupy. It leads Denisov, rashly, to divert some provisions allocated to the infantry to the cavalry. After a contretemps at staff headquarters, in which the hot-headedness that serves him well in battle gets him into a fight, he is to be court-martialled. A minor wound lets him spend time in hospital, and this turns into another of the dark places for Rostov: when he visits, it’s a stinking pit of typhus, with corpses left where they have died….

But it isn’t the worst place, because it hasn’t undermined everything Rostov has believed in up to now. This happens at Tilsit, where the peace between Russia and France is to be ratified. Tolstoy has been showing us Boris in all his glory, as when he tells his boss he would love to get near to the ‘great man’. Who can he mean, his superior wonders. ‘“I am speaking, Prince, of the Emperor Napoleon,” he replied. The general patted him on the shoulder, with a smile. “You will go far,” he said, and took him to Tilsit with him.’ Boris can see the way the wind blows, and this is how the men in the know speak of the former ‘enemy of mankind’ now.

Rostov goes to Tilsit with a petition for a pardon that has been written by Denisov – who, for all his bluster, can see what the bureaucratic machinery of the army in these dark days will do to him otherwise. And in the two days he spends there, Rostov comes close to losing his faith. He goes to where Boris is stayin, and there are French officers there. He goes to the residence of the Emperor – the Russian one – and has one of those fantasy conversations with him after which all is well. But his petition, despite the support of a general in the Tsar’s entourage who remembers Rostov, comes to nothing. He is reduced to being a mere onlooker like everyone else. He is appalled when he sees his hero, the one who he knows could make everything right in Russia, meet Napoleon as an equal.

Tolstoy makes it clear, as Rostov finishes his second bottle of wine later, that in his mind the Tsar fills the place of God. To the amusement of the officers listening to his drunken rant, he does his best to come to terms with the cobbled-together peace: ‘If the Emperor pleases to recognise Bonaparte as Emperor and to conclude an alliance with him, it means that that is the right thing to do. If once we begin judging and arguing about everything, nothing sacred will be left! That way we shall be saying there is no God—nothing!’ He’s doing his best to keep the faith, but I wonder how long he’ll be able to remain a believer.

One last thing. For me, this novel is a satire of the decadent, poorly governed Russian society of the early years of the 19th Century. Earnest young men do their best to find the right way to live within a system that makes a nonsense of any such efforts, and rewards those like Boris who play it as a kind of self-serving game. Sometimes Tolstoy becomes so exasperated with the stupidities that litter the historical landscape of Russia and its allies that he hands over the narrative to someone else. This is Bilibin, and through his jocular tone Tolstoy is able to give free rein to his thoughts concerning some bitter truths. Bilbin has written a letter to Andrei long before the peace between Russia and France, and he turns what he knows into farce. ‘As it was considered that the Austerlitz success might have been more decisive had the commander-in-chief not been so young, all our octogenarians were reviewed and the job is offered to Kamenski. Then, having described the collapse of Prussia in the face of Napoleon’s attacks, he goes on to Kamenski’s resignation because of – wait for it – saddle-sores. ‘This is the first act. Those that follow are naturally increasingly interesting and entertaining.’ He goes on, and Andrei screws the letter up. ‘It was not what he had read that vexed him, but the fact that the life out there in which he had now no part could perturb him.’ This is when Andrei is in hermit mode, and Tolstoy is letting us know that it can’t last.

5 October
Book 6
If this novel had subtitles would this section be ‘Disillusionment’ or ‘Hope’? Both seem to characterise different aspects of Andrei’s inner life, the personal and the public. With Pierre it’s almost all bad. And we spend more time than with Natasha and the Rostovs than we’re used to, and with them… it’s another mixture. The Rostovs’ financial affairs are on ever more shaky ground, but for Natasha herself things are looking up. By the end of Book 6 she is engaged to marry Andrei.

At the start of Book 6 Andrei has been secluded in the country for two years in what his father calls his Cloister. But he keeps busy, organising his estates in ways that Pierre has no clue about – Tolstoy makes the comparison explicitly – and becoming the first landowner in Russia to free his serfs. He keeps himself so well informed that he knows more than his occasional visitors from the city. And he has a long-term project for reforms in the running of the army based on his experience of the mistakes made in the lead-up to the Battle of Austerlitz. He is only 31 and has his whole life ahead of him. As he makes his way to the country estates held in trust for his young son, near to where the Rostovs live, and surrounded by the first signs of spring all is well, yes?

As if. He sees an old oak tree on the way, gnarled and with broken branches – a reminder of Andrei’s own wound – and decides it’s over for him. ‘Yes, the oak is right, a thousand times right. Let others—the young—yield afresh to that fraud, but we know life, our life is finished!’ Of course, we know by now never to take such pronouncements seriously, and we wait for the change of mind… which, in Andrei’s case, arrives almost immediately. At the Rostovs’ where he also pays a visit, he meets Natasha. Enough said? It seems to be a given that 19th Century romantic heroes and heroines can never read their own feelings, and Andrei doesn’t recognise his as love… so it’s the oak tree that has to do the talking for him. Weeks have passed as he makes his way home, and he looks for it again. It’s now June, and the old oak, ‘quite transfigured, spreading out a canopy of sappy dark-green foliage, stood rapt and slightly trembling…. Neither gnarled fingers nor old scars nor old doubts and sorrows were any of them in evidence now. … leaves had sprouted such as one could hardly believe the old veteran could have produced. “Yes, it is the same oak,” thought Prince Andrew, and all at once he was seized by an unreasoning springtime feeling of joy and renewal.’ Yep.

He can’t believe he ever felt disillusioned about political life and decides to go to Petersburg to submit his plans for reforming the army regulations. At first he comes up against the old barriers – the minister of war, or whoever, barely acknowledges him – but then he meets the man appointed by the Tsar in 1809 to get rid of the dead wood in the bureaucracy. This is ‘the youthful Speranski’, a historical figure Andrei finds impressive from the start. But, also from the start, Tolstoy is dropping hints that Andrei is overestimating this man. He ‘expected to discover in him the perfection of human qualities,’ and that’s what he seems to have found – especially when the great man flatters him by treating him as an equal. He seems to take Andrei’s plans very seriously, easily persuades him to serve as chairman of a committee…. He is impressed by Speranski’s ‘absolute and unshakable belief in the power and authority of reason’ – and the reader waits for the bubble to burst.

It doesn’t take long. Andrei had never been easy with Speranski’s ‘cold, mirrorlike look, which did not allow one to penetrate to his soul, and his delicate white hands.’ At a dinner party at Speranski’s he is disgusted by the ordinariness of the conversation. Everything that had so impressed him about the man now sounds a false note, and he decides to leave early. He had looked into ‘those mirrorlike, impenetrable eyes, and felt that it had been ridiculous of him to have expected anything from Speranski and from any of his own activities connected with him, or ever to have attributed importance to what Speranski was doing.’ That’s the way it works in Tolstoy-land: a new enthusiasm soon turns into disillusionment.

We wonder if the same will happen with his love for Natasha. Love in this novel isn’t the same as love as presented in most of the 19th Century novels I’ve read. It’s certainly real, and seems to have transformed Andrei… but we are familiar enough with both Tolstoy and his characters to know that however sincere a decision or emotion might be now, nothing lasts forever. We’re only just into Volume 2 of a three-volume narrative, and if Andrei really is going to marry Natasha – an outcome that doesn’t seem at all certain – it will only be the beginning of the arc of their relationship, not the end.

Andrei’s emotional life forms the main thread of Book 6 but, at different times, we’re also with both Pierre and Natasha. Pierre suffers the disillusionment that we know must come following his starry-eyed introduction to the Freemasons. He sees that he is the only one who takes its rules and precepts seriously and, being an intelligent man, he starts to categorise the other members according to degrees of sincerity. The sincere believers make up such a tiny group that Pierre only gains spiritual sustenance from conversations he has with the old man who converted him, always now referred to as Joseph Alexeevich. At the other end of the spectrum come Pierre’s third and fourth categories, men who are only interested in the form of the rituals and, most troubling of all, those who join ‘merely to associate with the wealthy young Brothers who were influential through their connections or rank.’ You got it. (Inevitably, the character who joins shortly after this is Boris. It’s typical of Pierre that he is the member who sponsors Boris’s application.)

To keep himself on the right track – he is seriously worried about his own desires and motivations – Pierre writes a diary. His resolutions to – what? – be a better person are more what might be expected of an adolescent than of a man in his late 20s: ‘(1) to conquer anger by calmness and deliberation, (2) to vanquish lust by self-restraint and repulsion, (3) to withdraw from worldliness, but not avoid (a) the service of the state, (b) family duties, (c) relations with my friends, and the management of my affairs.’ It’s all nonsense, and as the diary entries progress, his rising early to read the scriptures is superseded by the opening line, more than once, of ‘Awoke late’. His uncertainty emerges in his dreams of his mentor that seem mystify more than they enlighten. The last entry ends with a cry to God for help: ‘teach me what I should do! I shall perish of my debauchery if Thou utterly desertest me!’ Oh dear.

Tolstoy never makes it explicit, but Pierre’s sense of loss is equal and opposite to the trajectory of Helene’s meteoric and far-fetched rise. She is now Petersburg’s leading hostess for gatherings of the city’s intellectual elite, and has unaccountably gained a reputation as the cleverest woman in the city. Pierre can’t believe it… and neither can this reader. It’s ok as a satire on the gullibility of the third-rate culture represented by these people, I suppose, and it places Pierre in the role of well-meaning buffoon, but that’s enough about both of them for now.

Next: the Rostovs. What is there to say about this whole family of Candides? From the start, they have been without any of the cynicism of the Kuragins, and I remember the almost childlike delight of the old Count in Book 1 where we meet him giving one of his lavish dinners. It was also in Book 1 that Tolstoy began to drop dark hints that their lifestyle was more than they could afford and now, some years later, the debts are getting worse. The Count simply doesn’t know how to rein in his spending, and there’s a description of the hangers-on who more or less live in the family home for free. He decides that a government post will help to pay for some of it, and you can believe that if you want to. When they move to Petersburg, they find themselves regarded as rather provincial so, inevitably, we see the Count trying to spend his way into favour.

There’s a set-piece conversation between the Count and Berg, one of Nikolai’s military friends. Berg is as single-mindedly ambitious as Boris, but almost comically blatant about it. He is perfectly happy to explain how he calculates his route from promotion to promotion – he is dismissive of the childlike, ambition-free Nikolai – and how he needs to think about his future income. He needs an heiress, and decides that Vera Rostov will do. The Count, in that way of his, can’t bring himself to have the discussion with his future son-in-law about a dowry, so the businesslike Berg asks for it. He specifies an amount – 80,000 roubles – that the Count can’t offer immediately. Berg would be happy with 20,000 now plus an IOU for 60,000, but the Count couldn’t possibly agree to that. He offers 20,000 now and 80,000 later, despite having already having sold the estates he had notionally earmarked for his children’s futures. Oh dear. For me, this conversation colours the reader’s perception of every moment spent with the Rostovs from now on: whatever their lives are like now, we know that things can’t go on like this forever.

(Tolstoy hasn’t finished with the Bergs. Later, after they are married, he presents them as comic monsters as they proudly vie with one another to show off their prizes to the guests at their first dinner. In fact, Berg has assembled his guest-list as he has assembled everything else in their big new house, based on what he sees everybody else having. The Bergs are the nearest that Tolstoy has come to the satirical absurdities of characters in Dickens.)

soon, we’re with Natasha. We get to her via Boris, who has decided that he doesn’t want to hitch himself to a waning star. We’re back in the jungle-like world of survival that Boris’s mother and Prince Vasili introduced us to in the early chapters of the novel: he is as determined as Berg to marry well, but sets his sights much higher than the Rostovs. The childhood promises that he and Natasha made to one another – I think she was thirteen at the time – could be an embarrassment, so he decides to sort it out by visiting her at home… where he is immediately captivated by the woman she has turned into. He gets into the habit of visiting, each time failing to carry out his intention of making it clear that there is no obligation on either side. Unexpectedly, there’s some parental control at this point. Berg’s gold-digging success isn’t going to be repeated, because – wait for it – the old Countess realises that Boris is too poor for Natasha. It seems that one of the parents at least is learning the rules of the ugly game – and coming to realise that they aren’t as rich as they used to be.

We stay with Natasha for the extraordinary set piece of her first ‘grand ball’. It’s Tolstoy getting us fully into the consciousness of a sixteen-year-old girl, and… what? Tolstoy has never been a sixteen-year-old girl any more than I have, and yet he presents what seems to be an utterly convincing picture. During a long chapter, he spends as much energy presenting her point of view, her entire consciousness, as he is used to spending on his three young men. We see her limitations, her girlishness – I can’t remember how many times Tolstoy reminds us that she is still only a child – and the warm nature, utterly open to new experiences, that makes her attractiveness to Andrei seem perfectly plausible. Soon he is making bets with himself: ‘“If she goes to her cousin first and then to another lady, she will be my wife,”’ said Prince Andrei to himself, quite to his own surprise.’ The reader, of course, isn’t surprised at all.

Like Andrei, Natasha doesn’t recognise the extraordinary torrent of emotions going through her as love. This being a Tolstoy novel, maybe it isn’t exactly love…. Natasha, for all her attractiveness as a character, is only sixteen and ruled by her emotions. Of course she’s in love, she decides, whatever else could it be? When Andrei makes his feelings clear to her – he doesn’t immediately propose but, she thinks, he might as well have done – she accepts gratefully.

But the next weeks are full of omens. Andrei, quite rightly (you might say), will do nothing without his father’s consent, and he goes to see him at the country estate. The old prince, becoming more and more irritable in his old age, decides he is so close to death he wants to live out the rest of his life without any more upheavals. He forces Andrei to agree to a year’s delay before marrying and Andrei, taken aback at first, begins to think of reasons why it isn’t such a bad idea. She is only sixteen, after all…. Meanwhile, back at the Rostovs’, Natasha wonders where Andrei is and why he hasn’t made any contact with her. Every day she expects him, and is disappointed. Days turn into weeks, and she ‘wandered from room to room like a shadow, idle and listless; she wept secretly at night….’ This can’t go on, and she speaks to her mother. ‘“I don’t at all want to get married. And I am afraid of him; I have now become quite calm, quite calm.” The day after this conversation Natasha put on the old dress which she knew had the peculiar property of conducing to cheerfulness…’ – and, this being a novel, this is the moment when Andrei arrives to make his formal proposal. So she rejects him, yes? Hah. Sometimes I imagine Tolstoy as Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Lord, what fools these mortals be.

7 October
Book 7
Uniquely, this section stays entirely with one family. We are with the Rostovs, mostly in and around their country estate at Otradnoe, and it feels like total immersion. It’s written mainly from the points of view of Nikolai and Natasha, and I read it as a kind of valediction. It’s the Rostovs entirely in their element, with much less of that ironic distance that Tolstoy usually puts between the reader and the members of this family. It’s as though he’s set himself the task of opening up for us exactly what makes them tick, inside the lifestyle and the experiences that it brings that they have grown up with. It’s expensive, it relies on the unthinking subjugation of generations of serfs, and in this presentation of it it’s marvellous. I think Tolstoy genuinely wants us to know what it feels like to regard this degree of privilege as a birthright, part of the natural order of things. Long before the end of Book 7, we know. Before now, we’ve been made very aware of the limitations of both Nikolai and Natasha, and with the upbringing they have had, how could it have been any different?

At the beginning of Book 7, Nikolai is still in the army, still finding it as comfortable as home, and still living the life of an overgrown boy. He hasn’t used his leave to visit his family for something like two years, because he hasn’t needed to. But a letter from his mother makes him return: there are money issues – they are never far away with the Count in charge – and it is hoped that he will have more success in dealing with the manager, Mitenka. But the reader knows that the manager isn’t the problem, and that Nikolai’s one attempt to sort things out is bound to end in failure: ‘“Robber!… Ungrateful wretch!… I’ll hack the dog to pieces! I’m not my father!… Robbing us!…” and so on.’ Moments later ‘Mitenka flew headlong down the six steps and ran away into the shrubbery.’ A fat lot of good this does the Rostovs. By the end of the day Mitenka is reinstated, Nikolai is not asked to deal with him again, and money worries continue to hover in the background.

After this, over several chapters, we get one of those experiences that are so self-defining for the Rostovs. It’s a day of hunting, and Tolstoy turns it into set piece. We start in the Rostovs’ house, when Nikolai wants to go out alone with his hunt-master, but within a few pages we’re deep inside an experience as vividly realised as any of the battle scenes earlier in the novel. If you’ve never been hunting or, for that matter, don’t approve of hunting (I don’t), that has no relevance here. This is what I meant when I referred to the Rostovs in their element. The horses, the wolf-hounds, the companions, the rival hunters from other estates, the thrill of it… it’s an aspect of their lives more self-defining than, say, any dance or musical soiree.

It doesn’t mean that Tolstoy has temporarily lost his critical faculties. Nikolai’s offhand manner with his inferiors, the hunt-master’s licence to be on equal terms that is on a strictly short-term basis – and those casual references to the cost of things. Not only do Nikolai and his rivals feel it necessary to mention the value, in the thousands of roubles, of their magnificent borzois; there are offhand remarks about paying a whole village of serfs for the privilege. This is the old-school aristocratic complacency that we know isn’t going to last. At ‘Uncle’s’ house at the end of the day there are other bucolic delights, but also a reminder of endings from the old man: ‘This, you see, is how I am finishing my days… Death will come…. Nothing will remain. Then why harm anyone?’ (I’m reminded of the use of this phrase elsewhere in the novel, as though not harming anyone is the height of human achievement. Pierre uses it in his darker moods.)

The Countess is the only one to have any sense of urgency about money. She resorts to the same strategy as everyone else: looks about for advantageous marriages for her children. She wasn’t consulted over the disastrous marriage settlement offered to Berg, but we remember her vetoing Boris as a match for Natasha. And now she has a marvellous conversation with Nikolai that shows how hopeless her project is. She speaks to him about paying a call on Julie Karagina, the richest (and plainest) heiress available; she’s already been in touch with the parents. But he wants to keep hold of his old-school notions about nobility: ‘suppose I loved a girl who has no fortune, would you expect me to sacrifice my feelings and my honour for the sake of money?’ The Countess’s tearful response to this makes it clear that the answer is yes. Nikolai, wanting be the loyal son, says the right thing: ‘I will give my life, anything, to put you at ease…. I would sacrifice anything for you—even my feelings.’ Except it isn’t the right thing, because it makes his mother feel callous. And he doesn’t mean it anyway. ‘“I can always sacrifice my feelings for my family’s welfare,” he said to himself, “but I can’t coerce my feelings. If I love Sonya, that feeling is for me stronger and higher than all else.”’

Ah, those feelings for Sonya. They have meant little or nothing to him for years as he has led his carefree bachelor life in the army. But now, still in the glittering fantasy world of Otradnoe, he decides he loves her. We’ve reached Christmas, and it’s another set piece, full of the kinds of childish delights you’d expect. The day culminates not only in the arrival of mummers, but in the decision by Nikolai, Natasha and Sonya to join them in disguise. Ok, but not exciting enough yet, even as the disguises offer licence to behave with fewer inhibitions than usual. They decide to take the sleighs to another country estate nearby, and the dashing ride there seems to take Nikolai, this grown man, outside ordinary adult existence: ‘Nikolai looked around him. They were still surrounded by the magic plain bathed in moonlight and spangled with stars.’ If it’s cinematic, the style becomes pure Disney: ‘here was a fairy forest with black moving shadows, and a glitter of diamonds and a flight of marble steps and the silver roofs of fairy buildings.’ What chance has he got to think like a sensible adult?

By the end of the visit, following superstitious anecdotes and spooky games, He is besotted by the new, uninhibited Sonya he’s never seen before. Her disguise is that of a moustachioed ‘Circassian’, and when they kiss, there’s something about that smell of burnt cork…. ‘Sonya kissed him full on the lips, and disengaging her little hands pressed them to his cheeks. “Sonya!… Nicholas…!” was all they said.’ And don’t ask me to disentangle the significance of disguises in this episode beyond their disinhibiting effect. What I do know is that when the Countess discovers what Nikolai intends to marry Sonya she becomes as incapable of rational thought as Nikolai himself. She spits out an ultimatum, that ‘she would never receive that intriguer as her daughter. Exploding at the word intriguer, Nicholas, raising his voice, told his mother he had never expected her to try to force him to sell his feelings, but if that were so, he would say for the last time….’ Luckily, Natasha arrives in the room to pull them back from ‘the brink of a rupture’. But, as ever, their real difficulties remain unresolved.

Meanwhile, as he has reminded us throughout the Otradnoe chapters, Natasha is feeling the absence of Andrei. He’s decided that a good way to pass the year’s delay to the wedding will be to leave Russia entirely. His health, never good since his wound, would benefit, and Natasha is very young…. Believe all that if you want to, but Natasha is lost in a miasma of what I can only read as sexual frustration. Just before Christmas, ‘at the end of the fourth month of their separation, she began to have fits of depression which she could not master. She felt sorry for herself: sorry that she was being wasted all this time and of no use to anyone—while she felt herself so capable of loving and being loved.’ One of the spooky games at Christmas involves looking into a series of self-reflecting mirrors, where she is told she should be able to see him. She doesn’t, but the ever kindly Sonya pretends that she does. She sees him lying down, she says. ‘“Is he ill?” asked Natasha, her frightened eyes fixed on her friend….’ No, he isn’t ill, says Sonya, but it’s enough for Natasha. She spends the night ‘open-eyed and motionless, gazing at the moonlight through the frosty windowpanes.’ Not a good sign.

11 October
Book 8
In Natasha, Tolstoy seems to be pushing the boundaries of what an author can do to immerse the reader in the consciousness of a single character. It’s a project he started during her preparations for the grand ball in Book 6, continues through her experiences at Otradnoe in Book 7, and takes to a kind of apotheosis in Book 8. There have been seductions in fiction before now, but I can’t remember one in which the experience of one of the young girls who ‘lose their heads’ (to use Anatole’s cynical phrase) is described in such detail that the reader almost lives it with her. It’s another extraordinary set piece in a novel full of new things.

But the first five chapters of Book 8 have nothing directly to do with Natasha, or any of the Rostovs. First we get a kind of progress check on Pierre, who seems to have almost given up hope of ever finding what he is looking for. He considers himself, years before he reaches the age when such a thing normally happens, as having turned into one of what he calls the ‘gentlemen-in-waiting’, men living out their days in Moscow and filling their time with harmless activities. He remembers his own idealism with a kind of nostalgia, wondering at the fact that only seven years ago he despised such men. His only hope is that unlike those other men he is still asking the big questions – ‘What for? Why?’ – even though he now knows not to expect any answers. His own projects – ‘benefit performances, poor pictures, statues, benevolent societies, gypsy choirs, schools, subscription dinners, sprees, Freemasons, churches, and books’ – are nothing but time-fillers to him in this pessimistic mood. Like Andrei at the beginning of Book 6, he feels his life is over. He escapes from the truth through distractions, most notably heavy drinking and incessant, almost obsessive reading. It clearly doesn’t matter what he reads, so Tolstoy doesn’t tell us. Ok.

But there’s plenty to like about Pierre. A couple of chapters later he’s been to dinner at old Prince Bolonski’s house in Moscow – another of those architectural representations of the man who owns it, in its 18th Century style that makes it like a museum – and finding it hard to keep up with the politics under discussion. (It involves the Tsar and Napoleon, no longer on good terms.) But he speaks to Maria about Boris, who has insinuated himself on to the guest-list, and is satirical about why young men like him come to Moscow. Pierre gets it absolutely right: Boris is there to marry either Julie Karagina or Maria, adapting his approach according to the tastes of the young women.

Pierre is satirical about ‘melancholy’, currently all the rage among the rich. Later, we see Boris’s ridiculous attempt to get into melancholy mode, and it’s hilarious. Under a drawing of the tree he makes for Julie – she’s in the grip of what Tolstoy shows is incontrovertibly no more than a fad – he writes the lines: ‘Rustic trees, your dark branches shed gloom and melancholy upon me.’ His lines under a drawing of a tomb are equally trite…. But, in a chapter in which Tolstoy has fun at the expense of both him and his mother, the equally cynical Anna Mikhaylovna, we see that Boris does what he feels he has to. He has already imagined being the owner of the estates that this plain, red-necked heiress brings with her, and he proposes. This is a man whose rich emotional life we know all about; beneath the satire, what Tolstoy presents us with is as cynical, and troubling, as anything we’ve seen on the political stage.

In her conversation with Pierre, we also see how hard it is for Maria to explain what is happening to her father. Readers recognise the symptoms of dementia that are turning him into a tyrant whose whims are deeply hurtful and damaging. Now he is treating Mme Bourienne better than his daughter – he has been threatening to marry the Frenchwoman since Andrei told him of his own decision to marry in Book 6 – and has told Maria to find somewhere else to live. She begins to confess how unhappy she is, but pulls back. Pierre sympathises, but seems to take her at her word when she withdraws her complaint. In subsequent chapters she does what she can not to blame her father, blaming his ‘illness’ instead. She does her best to be a good Christian, but she’s complex, and we’ll hear more from her later.

The Rostovs arrive in Moscow to stay with Marya Dmitrievna so that the Count can sell one of his properties. She is the famous ‘dragon’ introduced in Book 1, well known in Moscow society for her frankness and common sense. So Natasha an Sonya are in safe hands while their mother stays at Otradnoe recovering from an illness. Hah. They will also be able to go and see Natasha’s prospective father-in-law where, both the Count and Natasha are certain, they will be able to win him over. Hah, again. The visit confirms the uselessness of Rostov Senior: when the old Prince won’t see them, he can’t wait to leave Natasha alone with Maria on a pretext. Even Natasha is ashamed of him, and her meeting with Maria is a disaster. Tolstoy makes their mutual dislike – or, rather, Maria’s understandable prejudice against the fashionable, good-looking girl who is going to take away her brother – completely plausible. Natasha isn’t used to people’s dislike, and she is mortified. Meanwhile, Tolstoy has dropped a broad hint about parental involvement in this girl’s life. His laissez-faire attitude is as bad as old Prince Bolonski’s tyranny.

The next six chapters, the seduction, are told almost entirely from Natasha’s point of view. It starts with the opera, which begins as a comic set piece as Tolstoy describes its cardboard scenery and overweight singers as they appear to someone who isn’t buying into the fantasy at any level. I was reminded of Craig Raine and the ‘Martian School’ of poets in Britain in the late 1970s, who describe things normally taken for granted as though seen for the first time by a being who has no clue what they are. This is Natasha – and, while the descriptions can be read as a satire on an art-form that Tolstoy clearly considers absurd, at another level it gives a clear picture of how far away Natasha is from the sophisticated urban life she is thrown into. From this point until almost the end of Book 8, she hasn’t a clue about what is going on. (Tolstoy is always referring to how she is ‘unable either to understand what had happened or what she felt.’)

The parallels between the fakery of the opera – the appearance of the Devil near the end makes me wonder if it might be Mozart’s Don Giovanni – and the performance given by Anatole Kuragin for Natasha’s benefit are too close to be accidental. He appears to Natasha for the first time by making himself highly visible in the opera-house, and near the end of his campaign to seduce her he presents as his own a letter actually written for him by Dolokhov, his accomplice in Moscow. Unlike the opera, his act takes her in completely. But while the reader can make the comparison, the fact that his actions are presented to us as Natasha sees them makes the deception completely plausible. She is utterly confused by what he is doing, because – because what? She has never had any experience of such cynical behaviour and, more seriously, nobody ever seems to have warned her about such a possibility. We’re back with bad parenting.

Anatole’s campaign is swift and merciless. Natasha has no idea what to make of this handsome man who won’t take his eyes off her throughout the opera. Significantly, she doesn’t feel good about it beyond feeling flattered by the attention. Helene – who, of course, is also a Kuragin – invites both of them into her box next to the Rostovs, and Natasha is overwhelmed. ‘She did not know how it was that within five minutes she had come to feel herself terribly near to this man.’ But Helene makes it seem ok. Natasha doesn’t see that this statuesque, highly respected woman is as thoughtlessly corrupt as her brother – and of course, Helene doesn’t set out to pimp for him. But that’s what ends up happening, and it feels like a version of Dangerous Liaisons, with Anatole as Valmont. Before the end of the evening ‘she felt with horror that no barrier lay between him and her’ – and she only remembers that she is engaged to Andrei when she gets home.

Occasionally, Tolstoy gives us a glimpse into the minds of Helene and Anatole. If we believe what Helene tells herself – and we don’t have to believe any such thing – all she is looking for is a little ‘amusement’. This why she has persuaded the Count to let Natasha come to her house for a poetry recital the following evening at which, of course, Anatole will be another guest. As for him… unlike Valmont in Dangerous Liaisons, he doesn’t appear to realise that he is corrupting an innocent. ‘He was instinctively and thoroughly convinced that… he had never in his life done anything base. He was incapable of considering how his actions might affect others or what the consequences of this or that action of his might be.’ There’s the rub. His lack of any understanding of the devastating effect of his actions on others seems to be genuine – or it seems to him that it is genuine. He sincerely believes that he couldn’t behave any differently.

But that isn’t going to help Natasha, and events move on quickly. By the end of the poetry soiree she considers herself helplessly in love with him, and she is as willing as he is to tell herself that she can’t help any of what has happened. And as for rational thought, you can forget it. ‘She loved Prince Andrei—she remembered distinctly how deeply she loved him. But she also loved Anatole, of that there was no doubt. “Else how could all this have happened?” she thought. “If, after that, I could return his smile when saying good-bye, if I was able to let it come to that, it means that I loved him from the first. It means that he is kind, noble, and splendid, and I could not help loving him.”’ What is so impressive is how Tolstoy has shown her being led, step by step, from confusion to a kind of certainty by a man who considers himself a ‘connoisseur’. As we keep being reminded, she is ‘completely borne away into this strange senseless world—so remote from her old world—a world in which it was impossible to know what was good or bad, reasonable or senseless.’

Special pleading – ‘I couldn’t help it’, as with Anatole – or self-deception? Doesn’t Natasha always know that there’s something not right about her and Anatole? You decide, because that’s seems to be what Tolstoy wants you to do.

But whatever you or I decide, the world is going to make up its own mind. Natasha receives two letters on the same day – only two days have elapsed since the night at the opera – and between them they persuade her to throw in everything and run off with Anatole. The first letter is a sincere but unconvincing attempt by Maria to assure Natasha that she and her father only want to love the woman who will make Andrei happy. The other is the letter that Dolokhov has written for Anatole. Natasha is galvanised by it. She finishes the reply to Maria that she had given up on, telling her that they can all be friends, because she will not be marrying Andrei after all.

But in literature, there’s a long history of letters becoming key props. Sonya finds Anatole’s letter as Natasha sleeps peacefully. Surely not…? Surely, this letter has come out of the blue with no encouragement from Natasha? Surely Natasha couldn’t have…? The row she has with Natasha when she realises what the letter represents becomes a confrontation between conventional morality and the fantasy world that Anatole has created for Natasha, the world ‘in which it was impossible to know what was good or bad.’ She knows, and we know that she knows – but we can understand why she pretends otherwise.

Anyway. For two chapters, Tolstoy changes gear so completely we’re almost in another novel, and we don’t get inside Natasha’s head again for the rest of Book 8. Those two chapters are pure melodrama, with Anatole and Dolokhov the archetypal villains. The second sentence refers to ‘the plan for Natalie Rostova’s abduction’, so we know exactly where we are. Dolokhov, who has his own agenda – he uses Anatole as his entrée into the kind of society that can supply him with new victims for his gambling racket – has arranged everything for the helpless Anatole: plan of action, de-frocked priest and witnesses for a sham wedding, money… and their favourite troika driver. Tolstoy introduces us to this character, Balaga, for no reason other than to let him reminisce about past escapades. These have involved the deaths of other road users, and encounters such as ‘giving a painful lash on the neck to some peasant who, more dead than alive, was already hurrying out of his way. “Real gentlemen!” he considered them.’ Oh yes.

Early on in the chapter it sounds as though Dolokhov is suffering pangs of conscience as he tries to persuade Anatole not to go through with the plan. In fact his qualms are entirely practical. The terms of their friendship clearly dictate that he has to give Anatole this kind of help… but he is seriously worried about losing his most important contact. “I helped you, but all the same I must tell you the truth; it is a dangerous business, and if you think about it—a stupid business. Well, you’ll carry her off—all right! Will they let it stop at that? It will come out that you’re already married. Why, they’ll have you in the criminal court….” But not only is he speaking to an entirely amoral man; he’s speaking to someone who genuinely cannot see beyond the present moment. ‘“Eh?” repeated Anatole, sincerely perplexed by a thought of the future. “What then?… Then, I don’t know…. But why talk nonsense!”’

The Anatole chapters feel like a different novel because beyond this exchange everything is driven by plot. Like the battle scenes nearly half a novel ago, it becomes cinematic, as their conversations explain the plan to get to the house where the Rostovs are staying. We follow them as they set out and, just as in a film, we are as surprised as they are that the plan has been rumbled. Dolokhov begins to realise this when Anatole is invited to come into the house as a porter is trying to lock the gate behind them – and they only just manage to escape. Cut.

And we are straight into the painful aftermath. Not for Anatole, despite Pierre’s doomed attempt to remonstrate with him. (Tell you later.) The pain is all for Natasha, her family, and Andrei. The one – the only one – who lets Natasha know what her behaviour looks like is Marya Dmitrievna, the woman who had promised the Count that the girls would be as safe as though ‘in Chancery’ during his absence of a couple of days selling his property. Because yes, reader, the most attractive girl in Moscow is there with neither parent – not that it makes much difference when the Count is on the scene. At one moment of crisis Natasha wishes she could get some advice from her mother, perhaps because she has come to realise that her father is no use at all. He accompanies her to Helene’s soiree, and makes a point of not letting her out of his sight, but he notices nothing. And he would be far too embarrassed ever to have had a conversation warning her about the behaviour of some young men….

Before the attempted abduction, Sonya has told Marya Dmitrievna what she knows. After she has foiled it, the older woman sounds like the voice of conventional morality. Natasha is a ‘shameless good-for-nothing’, her behaviour ‘disgusting, abominable… In my house… horrid girl, hussy! I’m only sorry for her father!’ Readers of English novels recognise a trope here: the situation is almost identical to Lydia’s elopement in Pride and Prejudice, as is the threat of being ostracised that the family faces. But in this case there is no Mrs Bennet to pretend that everything is fine, and soon rumours of what has happened to ‘Rostova’ are all over Moscow.

Meanwhile, Natasha herself is in a state of what can only be described as shock. Only very occasionally does Tolstoy let us know why she appears calm and why, at first, there are no tears. Mostly we are presented with Marya Dmitrievna’s view, or her father’s – he isn’t told the full story – or, eventually, Pierre’s. He is the one we follow for most of the rest of Book 8, as he finds and confronts Anatole – only to apologise for his furious threats, then as he speaks to the far from dissatisfied Maria, and as he confirms to Natasha that Anatole married a girl in Poland some time ago.

The two most important conversations he has are with Andrei and Natasha. Andrei is, unsurprisingly, in cold, proud mode. His father and Maria have got what they wanted and he does something that Pierre recognises: keeps his mind occupied with things that have nothing to do with the personal. (Through his talk about the latest scandal in Petersburg, Tolstoy is able to make a point about the fickleness of political success. Speranski is in disgrace, and everyone – except Andrei – who once approved of his policies now condemns them.)

As for Natasha… Natasha has liked Pierre since she was a young girl, as we know from Book 1, and she asks for him to call. He already knows everything, and about her attempt to poison herself – she becomes terrified and ‘antidotes’ are administered – but is shocked by her thinness and surprised that she seems ‘not at all shamefaced.’ But, eventually, she speaks honestly to him. It seems to be the first time, and there is a touching openness about her for which he feels nothing but pity. He wants to show her kindness, so he kisses her hand and speaks friendly words to her. ‘“Don’t speak to me like that. I am not worth it!” exclaimed Natasha and turned to leave the room, but Pierre held her hand. He knew he had something more to say to her. But when he said it he was amazed at his own words. “Stop, stop! You have your whole life before you,” he said to her. “Before me? No! All is over for me,” she replied with shame and self-abasement….’

What happens next seems to herald the next stage in Pierre’s development as a character. ‘“All over?” he repeated. “If I were not myself, but the handsomest, cleverest, and best man in the world, and were free, I would this moment ask on my knees for your hand and your love!”’ The effect on Natasha is to make her shed tears of gratitude. The effect on him is to make him go home and look up at the famous comet of 1812. ‘It seemed to Pierre that this comet fully responded to what was passing in his own softened and uplifted soul, now blossoming into a new life.’ Which is where Book 8 ends.

There’s more to be written about Pierre, Nikolai and Andrei and what they are able to see in the sky at moments of personal crisis. But not just now.

15 November
Book 9
The first time the year 1812 is mentioned in the novel is in the final paragraph of Book 8, in the reference to ‘the enormous and brilliant comet of 1812—the comet which was said to portend all kinds of woes and the end of the world.’ Following this, the date heading for Book 9 is the same portentous year, almost as resonant to 21st Century readers as for those in Russia in the late 1860s. We’re at the mid-point of the novel, and in the long chapter that takes us into the second half Tolstoy muses on the idiocy of war in general and that of 1812 in particular: ‘the forces of Western Europe crossed the Russian frontier and war began; that is, an event took place opposed to human reason and to human nature. Millions of men perpetrated against one another … innumerable crimes, frauds, treacheries, thefts, forgeries, issues of false money, burglaries, incendiarisms, and murders….’ At the end of the chapter, in which he has been suavely satirical about those who seek rational ‘causes’ for the war, he compares them to people who seek to explain the fall of an apple from a tree. ‘Nothing is the cause…. Every act of theirs, which appears to them an act of their own will, is in an historical sense involuntary and is related to the whole course of history and predestined from eternity.’

The first seven chapters are concerned with demonstrating this, and the tone is satirical. The only familiar character we meet, aside from the real-life generals, is Boris. It’s through his judicious, self-serving eavesdropping that we discover the escalation of hostilities during a typically nonsensical gala evening prepared for the Tsar at Vilna, near the border. Boris is still resolutely climbing the same greasy pole as ever, and all he is concerned about is that this new insider knowledge raises his stock higher than that of his rivals. They are jockeying for status as promotion as diligently as Boris, and Tolstoy will come back to them later….

The news is that Napoleon, on the very day of the gala and despite all treaties and understandings, has crossed the Niemen into Russian territory. It isn’t news to the reader, because the previous chapter included the ridiculous episode of a Polish general, wishing to impress Napoleon, wasting the lives of 40 of his cavalrymen by having them swim the river instead of using the nearby ford. By the time the general looks back, expecting to bask in Napoleon’s approval, the great man has lost interest. But he makes the silly man a companion of the Legion d’Honneur anyway.

The rest of this opening sequence of Book 9 – and the closing sequence, now I come to think of it – is mainly to do with how easy it is for Napoleon to run rings around the Russians. There’s a long episode in which the Tsar sends an envoy, Balashev, with a letter to deliver to him. The four days that Balashev spends having to be civil to rude subordinates and ride around on a baggage wagon are a sequence of humiliations. They culminate in an interview with the great man in the very office the Tsar had been using in Vilna when he sent Balashev on his mission. Oh dear.

We get a far more detailed insight into Tolstoy’s version of Napoleon than we have previously. Amid frequent references to his smallness, and the whiteness of his hands – Tolstoy loves details like these – we see a man who isn’t as in control of his own decisions as he thinks he is. At the beginning of his interview with Balashev, which almost immediately becomes utterly one-sided, he hadn’t intended to insult the Tsar and make preparations for war inevitable. But that’s what he does, and accepts it in his own mind because he takes it for granted that nothing he does or says can be wrong. In Tolstoy’s presentation of him, he’s a very clever, but very spoilt child. We’re sure he believes it when he interrupts Balashev: ‘I know everything! I know everything.’ And we get another detail: the uncontrollable twitching of his left leg. This is the man who has managed to paralyse the whole of Russia with the notion that they are dealing with a genius.

For the rest of Book 9 we are usually with one or other of the four main characters – Andrei, Nikolai, Natasha and Pierre – and the war is usually the main theme. We follow Andrei on a fruitless pursuit of Anatole Kuragin, briefly to Turkey and then closer to where the action is. It’s from his standpoint that Tolstoy can continue to reflect sardonically on the uselessness of Russian preparations for war. We get the absurd German military theoretician Pfuel, characterised by ridiculous tufts of hair that defy his comb. He is the archetype, as content with failure as with success if he can demonstrate that his plans were not adhered to. And there is the Tsar, whose continual presence with his followers is a major problem Like him, his advisers are there in an undefined capacity, and nobody knows whether to treat their advice as coded messages from the Tsar. They can form no coherent response, and Tolstoy satirises this by dividing those involved in decision-making into eight different groups, or camps. The first, as it happens, are the theoreticians; the eighth, ‘which in its enormous numbers was to the others as ninety-nine to one, consisted of men who desired … as much advantage and pleasure for themselves as possible.’

There is a ninth group emerging, made up of experienced men – Tolstoy seems to want us to treat this one seriously – who think the problem stems ‘chiefly from the Emperor’s presence in the army with his military court’. We’ve seen enough of the Borises of this little world and their jockeying for position and favour to know exactly what they mean. The upshot is that the Tsar is persuaded that his real place is in the city, where he can lead the people in their drive to get rid of the French.

And meanwhile we’ve had an insight into Andrei’s state of mind: he could ‘no longer think the thoughts that had first come to him as he lay gazing at the sky on the field of Austerlitz…. He was now concerned only with the nearest practical matters unrelated to his past interests, and he seized on these….’ He works hard, gets himself put in charge of a regiment and, on a short visit to see his father, falls out with him. So it goes – and, as usual, Maria is caught in the middle.

Next comes Nikolai, who now considers himself the worldly-wise campaigner. (He even has a protégé who looks up to him in just the same way that he looked up to Denisov seven years previously.) We see the haphazard, easy-going life of the regiment and Nikolai’s sardonic disbelief of a tale of heroism that somebody is telling in the makeshift ‘tavern’ where they are having a drink. Early next morning they finally make their way towards the front, and we’re with Nikolai as he accidentally gets himself awarded a medal for an exploit that has no heroism in it. All he had done was to lead his men, almost on instinct, towards some French horsemen. He had ‘gazed at what was happening before him as at a hunt. He felt instinctively that if the hussars struck at the French dragoons now, the latter could not withstand them.’ He’s right, and they capture a few of them. But all he is left with is a sense of – of what? – ‘an unpleasant feeling of depression in his heart. Something vague and confused, which he could not at all account for, had come over him with the capture of that officer and the blow he had dealt him.’ And that’s how Tolstoy leaves him.

Natasha, meanwhile, has been making the kind of recovery from her humiliating experience that any sensible person would expect. Tolstoy satirises another profession, the doctors. He makes it clear that they are no more than an expensive placebo for the upper classes, and it’s difficult not to make comparisons with the military as presented in this section of the novel. The Rostovs’ favourite doctor has been prescribing treatments and medications which, at best, are mildly harmful, but is quick to take the credit when she returns almost to her usual self. As she recovers she seeks consolation, like so many others in this novel, in religion. (It seems to be women who go for unquestioning devotion in this novel. Pierre is the only man who has tried it, and it’s highly problematic for him. It’s much simpler for Maria Kuragina, Maria Agrippina and now Natasha – although I suspect that the commitment of the latest new adherent won’t last long.)

During her purported illness she asks for Pierre, and Tolstoy continues the thread that began when she was at her lowest point: his feelings for her. She thinks his declaration of love at that time was merely the kindliness that defines him in her eyes but, like Boris before him, he can’t get her out of his mind. What’s an honourable man to do? When things begin to be unbearable one evening at the Rostovs’ he pretends he has to leave early. Natasha insists on knowing why, but suddenly she stops. ‘They looked at each other with dismayed and embarrassed faces. He tried to smile but could not: his smile expressed suffering, and he silently kissed her hand and went out.’

He decides he mustn’t pay any more visits to the Rostovs’. Ok.

But we’re with Pierre for most of the rest of Book 9. As ever, he is looking for some meaning in his life. For a time that comet, the one that made him feel that ‘something new was appearing on his own horizon’, had seemed to refer to Natasha. But now he seeks some other meaning. He has discovered numerology through an analysis he has been shown of the phrase ‘L’Empereur Napoleon’, whose letters add up to the fateful number 666. With some effort, he comes up with the same result using a garbled version of his own name – ‘L’russe Besuhof’. Clearly, he is marked by destiny. And clearly, although Tolstoy has made Pierre one of the most likeable characters in the novel, he is also happy to have him behave like an idiot.

Through Pierre, Tolstoy takes us through the less than impressive debate that go on with regard to the war. The Tsar is back in the city, purportedly to drum up support. Pierre is present at the extraordinary meeting of the nobility, and he alienates almost everybody by making a fairly pointless speech which he regrets very soon afterwards. The debate is marked by the same kind of muddled or contradictory thinking that hampers the army’s top brass, and in the end they pass a resolution to do what had seemed to be a given from the beginning: each will send one per cent of their serfs to fight, a gesture the Tsar praises extravagantly. It makes the nobles feel good, so that they can return to the comforts of home more complacently than ever.

Before this we have seen more nonsense surrounding the Tsar. We see his arrival in the city through the eyes of the youngest Rostov, the fifteen-year-old Petya. He is a younger version of Nikolai and, against the wishes of both parents, is determined to join the army. He decides to petition the Tsar, and Tolstoy makes a big thing of the childishness of his efforts to get close. At one point the crush becomes so bad that Petya faints… and he realises that the best he can hope for is simply to get a view of the Tsar. He sees several men and, inevitably, chooses the wrong one as a focus for his adulation. And after the Tsar has entered a building he waits behind with a large crowd until – gasp – the great man appears on the balcony with a biscuit. A piece falls, a man leaps to retrieve it – and the Tsar has a plateful brought so that he can distribute them. Petya struggles with an old woman for one of them and, having ‘pushed her hand away with his knee’, is successful. He shouts ‘Hurrah’, again.

Next day, his father makes arrangements for him to join up.

20 November
Book 10, Chapters 1-18…
…that is, to a few days before the Battle of Borodino. So far, Book 10 has been about the chaos of the retreat before the advancing French and about fiddling while Russia burns. Several times – at old Prince Bolonski’s estate at Bald Hills, in Smolensk, in Petersburg, on Andrei’s estate – it seems that nobody believes the French can possibly be so close or has the imagination to understand what it means when they are. At the start of Book 10 it’s the old prince who represents this mind-set in its extreme form. With his mental faculties becoming more and more uncertain, he seems to believe that he is still in the war of 1807 despite the information contained in a letter from Andrei. He speaks of the Niemen as though Napoleon hasn’t even crossed it.

Maria, becoming more and more worried, sends her father’s factotum Alpatych to Smolensk to gauge the true picture, and we see the mind-set at work in the general population there. There’s the sound of gunfire in the distance, but nobody can tell him anything until he gets to the governor’s house. The governor, in a panic to leave, gives Alpatych the paper containing the instructions he had been acting upon: ‘I assure you that the town of Smolensk is not in the slightest danger…’ and so on. All around, people are leaving and the cost of hiring a cart is leaping up. But the innkeeper and others of his class insist they will stay. He, and others, don’t even make a move to evade the cannonballs that begin first to whistle over their heads and then to land nearby. And then they do, especially after the innkeeper’s cook has her thigh broken by flying metal. The last that Alpatych sees of the innkeeper is as he threatens to burn down his own property to keep it out of French hands. Together with all the talk of unharvested crops and general looting, it’s a sign of things to come.

Fast forward a few chapters, and we get a sardonic interlude that reveals how the advance impinges on salon life in Petersburg. It doesn’t impinge at all because, as Tolstoy makes explicit, ‘one may discriminate between those in which substance prevails and those in which form prevails. To the latter … we may allot Petersburg life.’ What you believe depends on whether you are a member of Anna Pavlovna’s set or Helene’s, and we see Prince Vasili having to extricate himself from a faux pas when he forgets which he is attending one evening. As we watch, we see him seamlessly altering his stated opinion of the new man in charge – it’s old Kutuzov – and avoiding any embarrassment. (Only the wet-behind-the-ears ‘man of great merit’ points out the change, but he can be ignored. So that’s all right.) But Tolstoy’s meaning is clear: none of them is any more capable of understanding the developing situation than old Prince Bolonski.

Fast forward a few more chapters, and we have the situation at Bald Hills. The estate is in the path of the advancing French, and Andrei has written to his father that they must leave for Moscow 40 miles to the east. The old prince, inevitably, ignores the advice, but they do eventually move deeper into the country to Andrei’s estate. Things are made complicated here by the ‘steppe peasants’ who live there, a backward-thinking bunch who seem incapable of logical reasoning. They treat every new thing with suspicion, refuse to believe that anyone has their best interests at heart… and so on. I don’t know to what extent Tolstoy wants the reader to take his presentation of them literally, but they become simply another stratum of the population who can’t cope with the unfolding events. During the stand-off the old prince dies – I’ll come back to that – and it’s only the arrival of retreating Russian army that saves Maria. I’ll come back to that as well, because the man who rescues her, and is most impressed by her radiant gratitude, is Nikolai Rostov.

Interspersed with these chapters in which Tolstoy is keen to show us the effect on the populace are others written in that suave authorial voice we recognise from the opening of Book 9. It’s the style of the opening of Book 10 as well, as he invites the reader to join in his assessment of the historical inevitability of everything that has happened so far. The men at the top ‘knew what they were doing and did it of their own free will, but they all were involuntary tools of history, carrying on a work concealed from them but comprehensible to us.’ So there. In a later chapter, as Napoleon’s advance towards Moscow seems equally inevitable, Tolstoy is particularly satirical about the French historian who attributes the events to the free will of the participants, or to the skill of the Russian top brass in luring Napoleon beyond his own capabilities. ‘Here besides the law of retrospection, which regards all the past as a preparation for events that subsequently occur, the law of reciprocity comes in, confusing the whole matter.’ The historian, he says, is like a chess player who, spotting an early mistake, attributes all subsequent failures to it. They should be novelists, I suppose. Novelists can show us great men making decisions they didn’t mean to make, as Napoleon did in his interview with Balashev in Book 9.

What else does this novelist show us? Much more of Maria Bolonskia, for a start. Her father has always represented the past, and he fades away and dies as the retreating Russians get closer to where he had hoped to be safe. As he has become more unreasonable, Tolstoy has shown Maria becoming more determined to forgive. Right up to the end, when she feels a terrible guilt because she had hoped for his death to come sooner rather than later, Tolstoy is never satirical about her Christianity in the way he is about Natasha’s. Not that it helps her in the new world order: she tries to do the right thing by the peasants on Andrei’s estate, offering them all the ‘landlord’s grain’ to persuade them to leave their cottages and go to Moscow. It doesn’t work. She is just as open with Mme Bourienne, who falls from the prince’s favour before his the strokes that eventually kill him. And, of course, she is equally so with her rescuer, Nikolai – to the extent that he finds himself contemplating a life with her, one which would lead to an end to all his family’s money worries. But what to do about Sonya?

There hasn’t been a great deal for Nikolai to do in Book 10, for obvious reasons. Tolstoy tells us that soldiers aren’t terribly concerned about the big picture, so long as their billets are comfortable and their lives aren’t made too difficult in any move they make. Nikolai can’t help but perceive his rescue of Maria as a romantic escapade… and Maria finds herself wondering whether fate has had a hand in the meeting. (Her religion, now I come to think of it, doesn’t prevent her from being as superstitious as everyone else in the backwater where she’s spent her life.) If Andrei had married Natasha, Orthodox law would forbid her to marry her new sister-in-law’ brother….

Aside from Maria, the character we’ve spent most time with is Andrei. He is as cynical about battle-plans and war strategy as Tolstoy is about the free will of leaders, so he feels he has little to offer his new boss in terms of advice. The new boss is Kutuzov, now ‘his Serene Highness’ and in charge of the whole army following the endless disagreements that came out of joint command. (There’s a letter, sent by one general about the incompetence of another, that Tolstoy quotes verbatim. Its vehemence is staggering.) Andrei likes Kutuzov’s laid-back approach, remembers him falling asleep during the tedious plans explained on the eve of the battle of Austerlitz. He tells his boss he wants to return to his regiment – did I mention he was in command of one now? – where he is liked by the men if not necessarily all the officers. He is pleased when Kutuzov remembers his exploit with the standard at Austerlitz, and gets his way. To him, Kutuzov’s old age and reliance on proverbial wisdom is more impressive than all the expert advice he keeps getting.

But it’s Pierre that Tolstoy focuses on in the lead up to the battle of Borodino. He is in Moscow, and his acquaintances tease him about leading the regiment he’s paid for into battle. Otherwise, half-way through Book 10, the mood in Moscow seems hardly any more serious than in Petersburg. ‘With the enemy’s approach to Moscow, the Moscovites’ view of their situation did not grow more serious but on the contrary became even more frivolous….’ People like Julie – who, we have been told, rarely gets visits from Boris now – and the endlessly flippant Shinshin pay each other silly forfeits for speaking French, and treat the governor’s rousing broadsheets as a kind of joke.

Pierre isn’t comfortable with all this drollery. He hears that Maria has had to move to Moscow, witnesses the public flogging of two men he takes to be French, and feels he must do something. Despite his earlier jokes about his own unsuitability as a soldier – ‘I should make too good a target for the French, and I am afraid I should hardly be able to climb onto a horse’ – he decides to join his regiment. Tolstoy makes it difficult for us to take his ‘sacrifice’ terribly seriously: it’s the latest of a string of enthusiasms. ‘He was not occupied with the question of what to sacrifice for; the fact of sacrificing in itself afforded him a new and joyous sensation.’ But it gets us to where the action will be.

22 November
Book 10, Chapters 19-39
This is an astonishing section. 100 pages or so after I was marvelling at Tolstoy’s ability to get us inside the mind of a sixteen-year-old girl, I’m now entirely carried along by his presentation of what war is really like. As I write this, we are approaching the commemorations marking the centenary of the outbreak of WW1, and it’s commonly believed that nobody really understood before then the pointlessness of it all. Hmm. I suppose people tend to forget.

During his interludes of historical musing Tolstoy steps not only out of the narrative, but out of the novel’s time-frame. This first happens at the beginning of Book 9, and before the end of Book 10 he’s already referring not only to Napoleon’s disastrous retreat from Moscow – he hasn’t even reached Moscow yet in the chronological narrative – but to his reflections on the Battle of Borodino in the memoir he writes on St Helena. Tolstoy’s main theme continues to be the historical inevitability of events, and he isn’t content merely to tell us about it, although he does that a lot; near the end of the battle he shows us too. There’s stalemate between the two sides, and Napoleon knows that another 200-cannon assault on the Russians would serve no useful purpose. But he does it anyway, because there is nothing else to do, ‘because he thought it was expected of him.’ He is no more in control of events, a point that Tolstoy makes explicitly, than the humblest foot-soldier. Yep. Got it.

Once we get to the plain at Borodino there is so much going on I was tempted to re-read it all to try and get a fix on it. But I suspect Tolstoy doesn’t want us to get any more of a fix on it than does Pierre – or anybody else, including Napoleon. There’s one episode during which Tolstoy makes it absolutely clear that no commander can have information that is up-to-date enough for him to make any useful judgment based on it. As for the reader… we arrive at the site of the battle with Pierre and we’re with him a lot at first as he fails to understand a word of what anybody tells him. Or we’re with Napoleon who, over the course of the battle, goes from the confidence that fifteen years of success has brought him to a clear understanding that he is able to get things terribly wrong. It’s when Napoleon has just given the pointless order to fire the 200 cannon that Tolstoy steps out of the narrative again, to pass judgment on him. ‘And not for that day and hour alone were the mind and conscience darkened of this man on whom the responsibility for what was happening lay…. Never to the end of his life could he understand goodness, beauty, or truth.’ It’s his fate, if we believe this author, to spend the rest of his life in the hell fashioned out of his own inhumanity.

But the most memorable parts of Tolstoy’s description of the battle are when we are with Pierre. On the eve of the battle he cuts an absurd figure in his tailed coat and white hat. He rides badly and constantly gets in the way even before the battle begins. For a while he is tolerated as ‘our gentleman’, a kind of mascot, but on the day of the battle he is simply not wanted. I’m not sure if Tolstoy is making a point about outsiders who concern themselves with what are entirely military matters…. I think it’s more likely that he wants to use the viewpoint of a man for whom everything is lost in confusion. When he blunders on to a redoubt in the thick of the fighting, ‘Pierre paid no special attention to it. He did not know that it would become more memorable to him than any other spot on the plain of Borodino.’ Of course he didn’t.

Pierre comes to personify the attitude to war of the upper-class citizenry, gung-ho because he knows nothing. He watches the artillerymen admiringly, and ‘for a long time did not notice the killed and wounded, though many fell near him. He looked about him with a smile which did not leave his face.’ But, as the truth of what is happening dawns – there is a particularly sad description of an officer, still almost a boy, who simply bends in the middle and sits down motionless on the ground when hit – Pierre isn’t smiling any more. He is thrown to the ground by the force of exploding ammunition-wagons, witnesses close at hand the effects of the bombardments, sees crowds of wounded who, ‘with faces distorted by suffering, walked, crawled, and were carried on stretchers from the battery.’ And it’s at this point that Tolstoy makes clear the abyss that stands between war and so-called civilised behaviour: ‘Now they will stop it, now they will be horrified at what they have done!’ thinks Pierre. Hah. There has always been the air of a Candide about Pierre, and Tolstoy has done all he can with him in this chapter.

The other main character who appears, but only just before the battle and near the end, is Andrei. When we last saw him, having just left Kutuzov in Chapter 16, he was optimistic, ‘reassured as to the general course of affairs and as to the man to whom it had been entrusted.’ It doesn’t last. On the eve of battle he is feeling as ‘agitated and irritable as he had done seven years before at Austerlitz.’ Having spent some time contemplating the certainty of his own death, he turns his attention to the ‘three great sorrows of his life… his love for a woman, his father’s death, and the French invasion which had overrun half Russia.’ Pierre, who stumbles upon him (almost literally), could not be less welcome: ‘he reminded him of all the painful moments of his last visit to Moscow.’ And don’t get Andrei started on the general conduct of the war and those pesky battle plans… oh, too late. He overhears a German strategist, and he’s off. Caught up in the retreat were ‘my father, son, and sister, at Bald Hills. That’s all the same to him! That’s what I was saying to you—those German gentlemen won’t win the battle tomorrow but will only make all the mess they can….’ And so on.

We hear nothing of him during the battle, until nearly the end. His regiment is in reserve, waiting around for eight hours and having their numbers constantly reduced under enemy fire. Could it get any worse? Of course it could. A fizzing shell lands near Andrei, and he’s back to the previous day’s dark thoughts: ‘“Can this be death?” thought Prince Andrei, looking with a quite new, envious glance at the grass, the wormwood, and the streamlet of smoke that curled up from the rotating black ball. “I cannot, I do not wish to die. I love life—I love this grass, this earth, this air….” He thought this, and at the same time remembered that people were looking at him.’ You bet – and nobody is surprised when the shell explodes.

As at Austerlitz, everyone around judges his wounds to be fatal. ‘What is it?’ say nearby officers. ‘The stomach? That means death!’ Which, along with the head-shaking of the surgeon when he sees the wounds, is hardly going to cheer him up. Except, reader, that’s exactly what happens. ‘He remembered the meadow, the wormwood, the field, the whirling black ball, and his sudden rush of passionate love of life.’ He isn’t dead yet, and the turmoil of his thoughts doesn’t end there. By coincidence, he recognises the groaning amputee next to him as – wait for it – Anatole Kuragin. In the maze of his own thoughts all he can remember, in a kind of ecstasy, is some connection with a happier time. It takes him in a surprising direction. ‘Compassion, love of our brothers, for those who love us and for those who hate us, love of our enemies; yes, that love which God preached on earth and which Princess Mary taught me and I did not understand—that is what made me sorry to part with life, that is what remained for me had I lived. But now it is too late. I know it!’ Well, we’ll see.

23 November
Book 11, Chapters 1-18
This first half of Book 11 is to do with the evacuation of Moscow, beginning with a new metaphor concerning the evaluation of historical truth. Tolstoy, in what is surely a satirical pastiche of a particular style of erudition, decides to make it mathematical. He uses the paradox of Achilles and the tortoise (nowadays always referred to as Zeno’s paradox, but not called that here) to demonstrate how an attempt to divide and divide continuous motion into ever smaller sections simply doesn’t get you to the truth. What you need is – well, what do you need? ‘Only when we have admitted the conception of the infinitely small, and the resulting geometrical progression with a common ratio of one tenth, and have found the sum of this progression to infinity, do we reach a solution of the problem.’ We know where Tolstoy is going with this. ‘In seeking the laws of historical movement just the same thing happens. The movement of humanity, arising as it does from innumerable arbitrary human wills, is continuous.’ QED: historical inevitability.

There’s what is in effect a council of war, and Tolstoy lists six different positions taken by the generals and their advisers concerning the retreat that is in fact inevitable. (The last rather endearingly, is ‘talking absolute nonsense.’) Nothing anybody can say – including Benningsen and his embarrassing ‘Are we to abandon Russia’s ancient and sacred capital without a struggle? – is going to alter the fact that Moscow simply cannot be defended. Kutuzov has already spent some time wrestling with the idea of when this became certain: ‘When was it decided? Can it have been yesterday when I ordered Platov to retreat, or was it the evening before, when I had a nap and told Bennigsen to issue orders? Or was it earlier still?’ Now all he can do is order the retreat of his army beyond Moscow. So it goes.

For a lot of the evacuation we’re with the Rostovs. I don’t think it’s an accident that everything they do – the Count, the Countess and Natasha – is as inevitable as anything on the war front. The Count, who has dithered so long he never did manage to sell that property of his near Moscow, is as ineffectual as he always is. All they have to do is get their valuables packed and on to the carts they have in plentiful supply. Hah. They are so behindhand that wounded soldiers begin to arrive in large numbers. It’s Natasha who makes it a fait accompli that they should take some into their own house, just as it becomes a fait accompli that they unload almost all their valuables from the carts in order to take loads of wounded men with them when they leave. We’ve been watching the Rostovs in all their ridiculous glory, the Countess retiring to her room with a headache after trying to get the Count to think about the value of what they have, Natasha leaving it all to her maidservant until she’s enthused first with the idea of filling three particular boxes with the most precious things, and then with the plight of the soldiers. Meanwhile Sonya, as ever, is the only one who works diligently and tirelessly. Tolstoy, in reminding us of Nikolai’s new interest in Maria Bolonskaya, has reminded us how single-minded the Countess is: in Sonya’s presence she has rejoiced at the possibility of a match….

And there are other elements in Tolstoy’s twisted take on the 19th Century rom-com. Among the crowds of wounded soldiers arriving is a covered carriage said to be carrying a mortally wounded officer, and the reader guesses long before the characters that this is Andrei. When Sonya finds out and tells the countess, they keep it from Natasha, even though he is later in the convoy leaving Moscow with the Rostovs. The person Natasha does see, hurrying through the street, is Pierre, badly disguised in a coachman’s coat. Natasha, in all innocence, asks him to climb up and ride with them. Pierre, of course, has to refuse. And there’s a lot more to his confused state of mind than merely seeing Natasha again after all this time. As often happens, Tolstoy uses the sighting to switch the thread of the narrative on to him.

Pierre, not for the first time, is a lost and wandering soul. We’ve seen him earlier, before the Rostovs’ section, making his way back from the battlefield and having one of those mystifying dreams in which Bazdeev, his old mentor, is still alive. Now he’s back in Moscow. ‘He felt that everything was now at an end, all was in confusion and crumbling to pieces.’ He manages to avoid most of the people who have come to his house with pressing business by escaping through back doors, a method he uses again not long before the Rostovs see him in the street. Chaos reigns all around him, and as those who are able to leave prepare to do so, he comes to a decision: ‘Of all the affairs awaiting Pierre that day the sorting of Joseph Bazdeev’s books and papers appeared to him the most necessary.’ Bazdeev’s house is a mausoleum haunted by his mad old brother, which seems appropriate enough just now. Eventually, having rested his head on his arms and stayed in that position until the servants rouse him, he makes the decision to act. He calls for ‘peasant clothes and a pistol’, and stays at the house for two nights (I think) until a coachman’s coat can be got for him. I think he’s on his way to get a pistol when the Rostovs see him.

Meanwhile the governor, Rostopchin, has been giving such contradictory orders and advice that Tolstoy has offered the reader a list of them that reads like a joke. One of the key orders has been to send any able-bodied man who cares to listen to take weapons to the Three Hills outside Moscow, in order to set up a last-ditch defence. It’s nonsense, obviously, but that seems to be where Pierre is going.

And there’s a personal matter to be dealt with that Pierre doesn’t even know about. Early on, between the battlefield and Moscow sections, we’ve had one of those satirical interludes in Petersburg. Specifically, Tolstoy turns his attention to the unspeakable Helene and the equally unspeakable Catholic church. She has two highly desirable suitors, and needs a divorce. At the same time, the Catholic church would be very happy to receive the patronage of a rich convert…. There’s a wonderful twisted logic to her Catholic mentor’s argument as he proves to her, or to himself – or whoever – that her marriage was a sham. ‘Ignorant of the import of what you were undertaking, you made a vow of conjugal fidelity to a man who on his part, by entering the married state without faith in the religious significance of marriage, committed an act of sacrilege.’ And we have another of Tolstoy’s inevitabilities: if Helene has it in her head that she can get a divorce through these people, then she can.

Pierre, of course, hasn’t been receiving visitors – and one of those left waiting is the man sent by Helene to tell him that she requires a divorce. The way that Tolstoy manages to keep at the front of the reader’s mind both he cataclysmic political events and the tortured personal lives of his characters is remarkable.

25 November
Book 11, Chapters 19-34
It seems to me that Tolstoy fractures his narratives even more than usual in Book 11. The chapters are shorter and we rarely stay with any strand for very long – the Rostovs’ slow departure being an exception, and somehow appropriate for a household in which nobody is capable of engagement with the rushing pace of history. There seems to be more back-tracking, so that if a character meets another we then go back to discover how the other got there. This happens when the Rostovs see Pierre in his coachman’s coat, and when, near the end of Book 11, Natasha’s first visit to the wounded Andrei is quickly followed by a description of his painful, and painfully slow recovery and how the meeting seems to him. At the level of the historical events, Tolstoy has been doing this since before the Battle of Borodino. I doubt that he invented the technique of revisiting and back-tracking, but his use of it seem a deliberate device to disorientate the reader. It’s an extension of what was happening with Pierre on the battlefield: Tolstoy doesn’t want us to get any more of fix on what is going on than the characters do. And any sense of forward progress is definitely compromised.

Even the big historical picture is broken up. We are only very occasionally with Napoleon, for instance when it becomes clear to him that the emptying of Moscow means there won’t be the theatrically satisfying moment of a formal handing over, no submissive delegation from the city. Later, after he has made his unopposed progress into the Kremlin, he sits there ‘gloomily’ in a short descriptive passage that feels like an aside. The history, as Tolstoy only occasionally reiterates now, is all decided. What he can do is focus on revealing little moments, like Napoleon’s sense of emptiness or the unspeakable Rostopchin’s urgent need to find somebody to blame. I don’t know why Tolstoy has it in for the governor, but he builds an ugly little chapter around him and his decision to throw a pathetic-seeming convict on to the mercy of a mob. Tolstoy has him pretending that the pale, frightened-looking Vereshchagin ‘is the scoundrel by whose doing Moscow is perishing.’ By giving him to the crowd – ‘Deal with him as you think fit! I hand him over to you’ – he is effectively committing murder.

It becomes an object lesson in the idea of moral responsibility. Rostopchin, of course, accepts no blame. Neither does the mob, even after the poor man is dead, when it all becomes somebody else’s fault. ‘Each one came up, glanced at what had been done, and with horror, reproach, and astonishment pushed back again. “O Lord! The people are like wild beasts!”’ The people saying this are the people who did it. Meanwhile Rostopchin might be able to scurry away from the scene of the crime, congratulating himself on pacifying a mob he himself had created… but he can’t escape the truth of what he has done. He finds himself haunted by the memory of the convict’s appeal for mercy. Try as he might to justify the unjustifiable, ‘the terrible memory would… dwell in his heart ever more cruelly and painfully to the end of his life.’

But historical events are pushed more and more into the background as Book 11 progresses. There’s one moment in which the fires visible from the village the Rostovs reach – they slow down their own progress by constantly sending servants back for something else they feel they can’t possibly leave behind – are brought in as a kind of distraction for one of the characters. Sonya has told Natasha that Andrei is travelling with them and that his wounds may be mortal. As soon as she hears, Natasha can think of nothing else, and Sonya feels she needs to make amends: ‘Look, Natasha, how dreadfully it is burning!’ She’s wasting her breath. ‘What’s burning? Oh yes, Moscow.’ She turns to face them but ‘that it was evident that she could not see anything.’

Getting Andrei and Natasha together again seems to be part of a bigger project on Tolstoy’s part. The way they seem to be sharing a single state of mind when they meet – each of them has been thinking about the other in unquestioningly loving terms – is as audacious a twist as any he has perpetrated in bringing them together. Natasha learns what we already know – that the wounded Andrei is with them, and lying in a room a few doors away from her during their second stop-over on the road – and goes to find him in the night. As she approaches we get this: ‘It seemed to her that something heavy was beating rhythmically against all the walls of the room: it was her own heart, sinking with alarm and terror and overflowing with love.’ She imagines that he has appalling, disfiguring injuries, but… ‘she saw Prince Andrew clearly… and such as she had always seen him. He was the same as ever….’

After some back-tracking, during which Tolstoy comes as close as anything I’ve ever read to describing exactly what it feels like to phase in and out of delirium, we get the same encounter from Andrei’s point of view. After a section in which, in my translation, the word ‘love’ appears nineteen times in ten lines, he finally realises that the vision before him really is the person he has been thinking about since Borodino. ‘Natasha, that same living Natasha whom of all people he most longed to love with this new pure divine love that had been revealed to him, was kneeling before him.’ So that’s all right.

The project – have you guessed what it is yet? – involves Pierre as well. Since his de facto renunciation of any designs on Natasha, love isn’t something that he’s been turning his attention to. As ever, he doesn’t know what he wants yet in any part of his life, and has decided that political action is what is going to mark him out. He hasn’t forgotten the half-baked cabalistic connection between his own name and that of Napoleon, and his mission seems clear: he has to assassinate the French Emperor. But, in a sequence of chapters running alongside those relating to Andrei and Natasha, things get in the way. We’ve already had the ridiculous attempt at disguise, and what we get next approaches farce.

A French officer and his men arrive where he’s staying at Bazdeev’s house, and… Pierre saves the officer’s life when the mad brother tries to shoot him. The officer, Ramballe, is a pantomime Frenchman, cannot believe that Pierre isn’t French himself and, during a drunken evening which has Pierre’s murderous resolve draining away from him, he does what Frenchmen do. He talks about love. His stories are the stuff of melodrama, but they set Pierre thinking about the loves in his own life. And slowly, Pierre comes to decide that there has only ever been one. Natasha. He tells Ramballe that ‘he dared not think of her because he loved her too well, placing her far above everything in the world, and especially therefore above himself.’ He even goes on to describe how she had been betrothed to his best friend, and a lot of other things that Ramballe isn’t following at all. They go outside and there, in the night sky, is ‘that bright comet which was connected in Pierre’s heart with his love.’ Ah. The comet.

Does Pierre know what he wants? Hah. His next chapters are concerned with another farce, to do with what even he realises is only the pretence of an attempt on Napoleon’s life. He is caught up in the chaos of a Moscow beset by fires, and only finds the depression he’s been suffering from for days lifting when a mother pleads with him to find her lost daughter. His simple humane action seems to transform him, especially when he finds her: ‘Breathless with joy, Pierre ran to the little girl and was going to take her in his arms.’ But this is Pierre and, as ever, things don’t go according to plan: ‘the sickly, scrofulous-looking child, unattractively like her mother, began to yell and run away.’ It’s farce again, and it gets worse. He can’t find the girl’s mother, gets caught up in an ugly scene in which French soldiers are stealing clothes and jewellery from some Armemians. He completely loses control, can later remember nothing of his furious reaction… and gets arrested by French troops attempting to restore some order. The dagger he is carrying – the pistol had been too big to hide – is enough to get him accused of arson. He is led away, bound and heavily guarded.

28 November
Book 12
For the first time since before the Battle of Borodino, Tolstoy’s attention is less on the big historical picture than on the effects on his characters’ lives. Pierre faces a charade of a trial and possibly execution. The Rostovs, after losing everything in the abandonment of Moscow and the subsequent fires, face ruin. And Andrei… I’m still lost in wonder at the final chapter, in which Tolstoy pushes another boundary. Having shown us the reactions of those around him as they watch Andrei’s inexorable retreat from life, there’s a switch in the point of view; I’m left with the strong impression that this really is what death might feel like to the dying man. And it isn’t often that a main character – the only other whose fortunes we have been following as closely is Pierre – does not live through something like the last fifth of the novel.

This isn’t where the relatively short Book 12 begins. We’re back in the same milieu as in the opening of the novel all those years ago – and it really does feel like years – at one of Anna Pavlovna’s soirees in Petersburg. And nothing has changed. She has volunteered Prince Vasili, with his famously mellifluous voice, to read aloud for the assembled guests. It’s a highly-regarded letter from someone to someone else – it really doesn’t matter who – and its presentation here is typical of the society we’re in. ‘The art of his reading was supposed to lie in rolling out the words, quite independently of their meaning….’ You bet. And there’s big topic of conversation – no, not the French, or the abandonment of Moscow, but Helene. The Petersburg sophisticates give one another knowing looks as they discuss her ‘angina pectoris’, blamed on the ‘inconvenience resulting from marrying two husbands at the same time.’ Is it a sexually transmitted disease? Pregnancy? Whatever, it isn’t her usual doctors who treat her, but an Italian. Later, almost as an aside, we hear that she’s dead – joining her brother Anatole, whose death we’ve already heard about in another aside. So it goes.

We’re in a similar milieu when Tolstoy reintroduces Nikolai for the first time since his rescue of Princess Maria in Book 10. He missed the Battle of Borodino, so he’s devastated, yes? Not at all: ‘he learned that he was being sent to Voronezh to buy remounts for his division, not only without regret at being prevented from taking part in the coming battle, but with the greatest pleasure.’ He is able to cut a dash that combines the metropolitan with the military in this provincial city, and years of practice enable him to flirt outrageously with any woman he chooses, including those who might happen to be married. The husband of one of these is looking particularly glum about it when Nikolai is steered away by his aunt, the local governor’s wife…

…and it’s almost a symbolic moment. Nikolai is too naïve, or privileged, or self-centred ever to understand the real rules of this society, but to the reader it feels like familiar territory. His aunt takes him to somebody else’s aunt, and between them they express to Nikolai in the most moralistic terms exactly where his duty lies. He has got to marry her niece, Maria Bolonskaya. What I love about this episode is the collision between two equal and opposite forces in the absurd bubble that is the Russian aristocracy. Nikolai has always taken literally its high-sounding principles of honour, particularly with respect to love: ‘Mamma has long wanted me to marry an heiress, but the very idea of marrying for money is repugnant to me.’ His mother, as we remember from Book 7, tried and failed to make him see the necessity of a sensible match, so his aunt has her work cut out. She seizes on what she takes as his silly attachment to Sonya: ‘You know Sonya has nothing and you yourself say your Papa’s affairs are in a very bad way. And what about your mother? It would kill her, that’s one thing. And what sort of life would it be for Sonya—if she’s a girl with a heart? Your mother in despair, and you all ruined…. No, my dear, you and Sonya ought to understand that.’

In fact, what’s going on is more subtle than I’ve suggested. Nikolai, always presented as morally immature compared to Pierre and Andrei, has been regretting his promises to Sonya ever since his rescue of Maria, and he now sees a way out of his difficulty. Marrying Maria instead of Sonya wouldn’t be a betrayal, but its opposite: the avoidance of a life of hardship for Sonya and destitution for his family. Sonya, as his aunt points out, would never be able to live with herself if her wishes were the ruin of the family who gave her everything. It’s another example of Tolstoy showing the little ways we have of presenting to ourselves as morally right the very things we want to do.

Nikolai has met Maria again, and it is easy for her to make him feel good about himself. She doesn’t have to pretend that he is the first man she has ever loved, and that there will never be anybody else for her, because it’s true. Her feelings give her more confidence than she had at the time of his rescue of her, and Tolstoy reminds us of that little thing she does with her eyes (mentioned as her only attractive feature the first time she’s introduced to the reader in Book 1) that is enough to convince him that she is lovable. Nikolai’s promise to Sonya was a long time ago, and was part of that fantastical Christmas when nothing seemed real…. But he doesn’t feel he could face Sonya with such an idea. Being the coward he is, he prays for a miracle – which arrives next morning. ‘What he had just been praying for with confidence that God would hear him had come to pass…. [A] quite voluntary letter from Sonya freed him from the knot that fettered him and from which there had seemed no escape.’

If this seems too good to be true, well, it is. She has really written the letter, following a change of tactics on the part of Countess Rostova who, for a long time, has ‘let no occasion slip of making humiliating or cruel allusions to Sonya’. Now the countess throws herself on Sonya’s mercy. She ‘tearfully implored her to sacrifice herself and repay all that the family had done for her by breaking off her engagement.’ Sonya is such a nice girl she agrees, yes? Not a bit of it. Tolstoy unpacks her motives mercilessly, drawing the reader’s attention to the fact that her main reason for being such a diligent and considerate presence in the Rostov household is to make herself attractive to the man she is now supposed to give up. She doesn’t actually promise to do such a thing, but sends the letter anyway – because she has been ‘seized by a joyful and superstitious feeling that God did not intend her to be separated from Nikolai’. She is sure that Natasha’s untiring care for Andrei will bring them together again, and that they will marry – meaning that her brother, Nikolai, will be prohibited in church law from marrying Andrei’s sister. It’s a side of Sonya we haven’t seen before, although perhaps there were clues on that Christmas Day. Perhaps.

But that’s enough of the Rostovs for now, because Pierre is setting out on his most trying spiritual journey yet. In those occasional chapters in which Tolstoy pronounces on grand historical themes, the atrocities of war are described in such cool, almost anthropological terms that they must be designed to shock. Book 9 has that extraordinary opening chapter that doesn’t read like a novel at all: ‘the forces of Western Europe crossed the Russian frontier and war began; that is, an event took place opposed to human reason and to human nature. Millions of men perpetrated against one another … innumerable crimes, frauds, treacheries’ and the rest. We’ve already witnessed plenty of the effects of that ‘event’ on different characters, not least Andrei who now lies close to death. But in Book 12 Pierre, always questioning the meaning of his own existence, is brought face to face with – with what? – with whatever it is that takes men over during wartime.

Nothing at Borodino or in Moscow afterwards has prepared him for how personal it all becomes. He is tried, along with other suspects, for the crime of arson and most of the others are shot. He knows why he is spared, and it comes down to a single moment when he is trying to persuade Davout, the supervising officer, that he really is Count Bezukhov: ‘“Monseigneur!” exclaimed Pierre, not in an offended but in a pleading voice…. Davout looked up and gazed intently at him. For some seconds they looked at one another, and that look saved Pierre. Apart from conditions of war and law, that look established human relations between the two men.’ That’s all it takes, although Pierre doesn’t realise it yet. Tolstoy continues: ‘At that moment an immense number of things passed dimly through both their minds, and they realized that they were both children of humanity and were brothers.’

But Pierre still has to be tried, is still marched to where the firing-squad will shoot the prisoners two by two – and, crucially, witnesses the horror of the event from the points of view both of the executed men and the soldiers dragooned into the sorry business. In Tolstoy’s hands the killings become a war crime, as each prisoner is described as an individual whose life has been cut short in the most barbarous way. There is nothing like this in battle, no cold-blooded executions resulting from one soldier arbitrarily sitting in judgment over another, and ‘those terrible murders committed by men who did not wish to commit them’ take Pierre to the brink of despair. It’s ‘as if the mainspring of his life, on which everything depended and which made everything appear alive, had suddenly been wrenched out and everything had collapsed into a heap of meaningless rubbish… his faith in the right ordering of the universe, in humanity, in his own soul, and in God, had been destroyed.’

Ok. But what did I say all that time ago about the decisions of Tolstoy’s main characters never lasting long? Just as Pierre loses all faith in humanity along comes someone to restore it. This is Platon Karataev, a fellow-prisoner and the humblest of career foot-soldiers. I can’t decide whether he’s more like a figure from one of Breughel’s big paintings of a peasant fair or the Eric Idle character in Monty Python’s Life of Brian. He gets on with whatever life throws at him, mends his worn-out clothes and has decided that ‘things happen not as we plan but as God judges’. Later, ‘though it was too dark for Pierre to see, he felt that a suppressed smile of kindliness puckered the soldier’s lips.’ Days pass, and ‘to Pierre he always remained what he had seemed that first night: an unfathomable, rounded, eternal personification of the spirit of simplicity and truth.’ In fact, he seems to have reached a state of Zen-like tranquillity that Pierre can’t help envying. ‘His words and actions flowed from him as evenly, inevitably, and spontaneously as fragrance exhales from a flower.’ Somehow we know that in the company of this man, Pierre is going to be all right…

… so he can be left alone as the final section of Book 12 takes us back on the road with the Rostovs. In fact they are staying for a while at Yaroslavl, 150 or so miles north-east of Moscow, and Maria decides that she will be able to visit Andrei there. It’s a dangerous two-week journey, against all advice, which she undertakes not only to see her brother for what might be the last time, but so that little Nikolai will be able to see the father he has hardly ever met. It struck me that just as we’ve been witnessing the waning of Sonya’s spiritual star, if such a thing can be said to exist, now we are witnessing the rise of Maria’s. And her selfless act helps to bring about a transformation in the relationship between her and Natasha, a non-starter before now.

The point of contact, of course, is the love they both feel for Andrei, and the effect is instantaneous. Maria ‘saw Natasha coming in, almost running—that Natasha whom she had liked so little at their meeting in Moscow long since…. But hardly had the princess looked at Natasha’s face before she realized that here was a real comrade in her grief, and consequently a friend. She ran to meet her, embraced her, and began to cry on her shoulder.’ It’s a combination of the fact that there is ‘in Natasha’s heart no thought of herself’ and that Maria, ‘with her acute sensibility, understood all this at the first glance.’

Tolstoy then shows us this in action. Natasha doesn’t want to say that Andrei is near death, and she doesn’t need to: ‘suddenly, Natasha’s lips twitched, ugly wrinkles gathered round her mouth, and covering her face with her hands she burst into sobs…. Princess Maria understood.’ Soon, as they approach Andrei’s door, Natasha tries to prepare Maria for what is to come: ‘“two days ago this suddenly happened,” said Natasha, struggling with her sobs.’ And when Maria sees him, she knows exactly ‘what Natasha had meant…. She understood … that he had suddenly softened and that this softening and gentleness were signs of approaching death.’ You bet.

3 December
Book 13
For a reader of novels, as opposed to a student of history, Book 13 might be the least engaging so far. Of the nineteen chapters, Tolstoy only spends a four-chapter section with one of his own characters. The rest is really a series of essays designed to shake up the historical consensus view in the way that has already become familiar to us. It becomes tedious for the reader – this reader, anyway – because the battles that Tolstoy fights with contemporary historians were won and lost so long ago. I don’t know how his views fit into 19th Century developments in historiography, so all I can do is plough through and garner what I can. (The fictional character who makes an appearance is Pierre, who might finally have found what he’s looking for. Might have. I’ll come back to him.)

It’s part of the process of the dulling-down of the narrative that Tolstoy more or less abandons his technique of treating historical figures as characters in a novel. We no longer get those insights into the workings of these men’s minds that only the omniscient narrator can provide; I suppose Tolstoy has decided that he is only going to be taken seriously if he abandons such speculations. So instead of the rather entertaining sense we’ve been getting of the common humanity of these supposedly great men, we get – what? – historical and historiographical argument.

He starts with a critique of other historians’ interpretations of Russian strategy. He objects to the idea that there was any grand strategic design at all, insisting on – guess – the inevitability of the Russians’ actions. Tolstoy doesn’t pretend that decisions aren’t made. Instead, he argues for the incremental stages by which decisions are reached. He satirises the endless reorganisations of the staff and the interminable disputes between them: ‘Very serious consideration was given to the question whether it would be better to put A in B’s place and B in D’s, or on the contrary to put D in A’s place, and so on…. ‘ Soon ‘A was undermining B, D was undermining C, and so on in all possible combinations and permutations.’ Of course, when things go right everyone takes the credit, and when things go wrong it is everyone else’s fault. It’s knockabout stuff.

He gets to the so-called Battle of Tarutino in which, he insists, nothing that took place was part of the original plan. It became an opportunistic raid – which, inevitably, was messed up before the desired outcome of General Murat’s capture could be achieved. Tolstoy deplores other historians’ presentation of this series of accidents as a turning-point, or a significant victory because of the number of guns captured or whatever. The early part of Book 13 is all like this, as Tolstoy the evangelical revisionist deplores more or less every historical account ever written about the Great Patriotic War. (Sigh.)

He turns his attention to Napoleon, now established in Moscow and getting it all wrong. The tone is mainly sarcastic: ‘Napoleon, that greatest of all geniuses, who the historians declare had control of the army… used his power to select the most foolish and ruinous of all the courses open to him.’ The short Chapter 8, which introduces this section, contains nine uses of the word ‘genius’, four of them in the penultimate paragraph. I’m reminded, again, of Monty Python’s Life of Brian – as striking in its revisionism as Tolstoy’s novel, and less repetitive. In Monty Python terms Napoleon is no genius, he’s a very naughty boy.

Tolstoy quotes verbatim Napoleon’s proclamations to the Muscovites, and the promises he makes. Inevitably – and I must stop using that word – it’s all a failure. Tolstoy goes through the list of promises one by one and describes not only how they fail but why they must. Ok. And there are more serious failures. Tolstoy uses one of those similes he’s so fond of in his description of how the French soldiers disappear into disarray and looting. They simply cease to be an army. While this is going on, Napoleon could have been procuring winter clothing for the army from what was available and provisioning them with enough food to last until spring… but he doesn’t do either of these. Had he done so, he would not have needed to embark on the disastrous retreat as winter arrives. A very naughty boy.

Time for those four chapters with someone we really know. Pierre [see contents] The effect of spending four weeks in the company of ordinary men and living on sparse prison rations has transformed him. Platon Karataev, in the unknowing simplicity of whatever he says and does, continues to be an accidental guru for him. This section opens with an episode in which Karataev essentially forgives a French soldier for being pointlessly possessive about some leftover cloth he has no use for. The old soldier carries on epitomising Christian values, and soon Pierre is reaching a better place: ‘without thinking about it he had found that peace and inner harmony only through the horror of death, through privation, and through what he recognized in Karataev.’

Tolstoy uses this short time with Pierre to get the French out of Moscow and on to the long road home. Nobody quite seems to know why they are bothering to take the prisoners on what is essentially a retreat, and this becomes another element in the revisionist version. It’s brought down to a single incident that affects Pierre deeply: the inevitable death on the road of a sick prisoner Pierre had regarded as a friend. Pierre pleads for some sympathy, but the rattling drums are horribly insistent: ‘and Pierre understood that this mysterious force completely controlled these men and that it was now useless to say any more.’

Four weeks pass altogether and, despite the horrors, it’s all good for Pierre. He’s fitter, leaner – although still a huge man – and, as if on cue, there’s something about the sky that seems to encapsulate his hard-won sense of well-being. There’s a full moon, as portentous by implication – Tolstoy doesn’t need to say a word about it – as the comet at the start of the year. The section ends on an optimistic last sight of him for now: ‘Pierre glanced up at the sky and the twinkling stars in its faraway depths. “And all that is me, all that is within me, and it is all I!” he thought. “And they caught all that and put it into a shed boarded up with planks!” He smiled, and went and lay down to sleep beside his companions.’

But there’s more history to come, and more revisionism. Tolstoy focuses on what he calls a little cogwheel in the vast machine – someone must have done a count of the similes and metaphors in the historical analysis in this book – and how it’s precisely these important little parts of the machine that historians fail to focus on. He is referring to Dokhturov, ‘thought to be and… spoken of as undecided and undiscerning—but whom we find commanding wherever the position was most difficult all through the Russo-French wars from Austerlitz to the year 1813.’ And what does the typical historian do? He focuses on ‘a shaving that has fallen into it by chance and is interfering with its action’, unable to conceive that ‘the small connecting cogwheel which revolves quietly is one of the most essential parts of the machine, and not the shaving which merely harms and hinders the working.’ Ok.

And he does something similar for Kutuzov, unpopular among historians for his cautious management of the rest of the war. When he hears the Napoleon has left Moscow he understands that it will be his task to restrain hot-headed generals from provoking pointless battles that will cost thousands of Russian lives. The simile is of the French army as a wounded beast which, Kutuzov understands, needs no further beatings encourage it to make its escape. There’s a moment of tension when it looks as though the sleeping officers will not convey a message to Kutuzov quickly enough, and that a decision will be made by a general seeking glory, but the moment passes. (A typical example of what happens when the army is left to its own devices occurs when a group of Cossacks come within striking distance of being able to capture Napoleon himself… but are distracted by the temptation to capture booty instead.) Later, another simile has a third of the French army simply melting away into the landscape like a snowball. In Tolstoy’s presentation of it, there is nothing at all glamorous in this so called war.

8 December
Book 14
The rather engaging central chapters of this section, spent with some familiar fictional characters caught up in the action, are framed by a lot more of Tolstoy’s musings on military history. Specifically, because that’s where he is in the novel’s chronology, he continues to describe the ongoing disaster of the French retreat and how the Russians attempt to manage it. It’s not exactly tedious, and there are some wonderful moments in the sections of fictional writing… but I wonder what on earth does Tolstoy thinks he’s doing.

The first two chapters give a general picture. Tolstoy can’t really describe the conduct of specific battles or skirmishes because things aren’t really like that any more, as he explains in one of those metaphors of his. It’s of duellists using rapiers, one of whom decides to use a cudgel instead when he recognises the danger he’s in. (It’s the French, of course, who continue to try to use the rapier while the Russians pick up the cudgel.) But he’s still really most interested in historiography: ‘those who try to explain the matter according to the rules of fencing are the historians who have described the event’ – because, presumably, any way of describing the conflict based on real events is beyond them. ‘After the burning of Smolensk a war began which did not follow any previous traditions of war…’ and one of the new trends is the use of guerrilla techniques. The Russians didn’t invent these, because they had first been tried out against Napoleon in Spain, but it doesn’t stop Napoleon complaining to Alexander and Kutuzov about this blatant breaking of the rules ‘—as if there were any rules for killing people.’ In Tolstoy’s presentation, the French Emperor continues to deserve only ridicule.

Things move on in the fictional corner of this world. Petya, allowed to join the army at the end of Book 10 when the Count runs out of ways to try and stop him, turns up unannounced in an episode featuring Denisov, Nikolai’s former captain. Tolstoy is illustrating his version of the ad hoc conduct of the Russian pursuit of the French, as Denisov joins Dolokhov, of all people, in planning a guerrilla attack on a French baggage convoy. Certain generals are also interested in the convoy, and one tries to order Denisov to accompany him. No chance, when there are mavericks like Dolokhov and the uber-capable partisan Tikhon to work with – and an ‘esaul’, a Cossack captain who oozes composed self-command and competence. While Denisov is bedraggled and sorry-looking in the incessant rain, the esaul is ‘as comfortable and as much at ease as always’ and, as always, is ‘at one with his horse.’

Petya’s enthusiasm is a childish version of Tolstoy’s frank admiration of this almost instinctive military competence. He is the ensign carrying the general’s message, and he stays with Denisov. Bad move, despite Denisov’s determination to keep the boy out of danger… because, following an audacious set-piece reconnaissance ride in which Dolokhov has himself and the boy posing as Frenchmen, it stops being an adventure and starts being a war again. We see most of the action from Petya’s point of view, in a way that has become completely familiar from chapters we’ve spent with the main male characters. Petya is a reminder of Nikolai at the time of his first disastrous encounter with the French all those years ago, and for five or six chapters he’s a kind of honorary main character. And then, after he is seen with his arms waving as he slides from his horse, he hits the wet ground: ‘his arms and legs jerked rapidly though his head was quite motionless. A bullet had pierced his skull.’ So it goes. And it’s as graphic a description of the arbitrary nature of death in battle as we’ve had in the whole novel.

Next. ‘Among the Russian prisoners rescued by Denisov and Dolokhov was Pierre Bezukhov…’ and we stay with him for four chapters. Tolstoy winds back to the prisoners’ ever more arduous forced march, during which Pierre has been making discoveries about what does and doesn’t constitute happiness. All through the novel he has not been finding what he’s looking for… but, perhaps, now he has. Perhaps. Central to his thoughts, inevitably, is Platon Karataev. He tells the story of a rich merchant, falsely accused of murder. He is tried, found guilty, flogged, his nostrils are torn off, ‘“all in due form” as Karataev put it…’ and condemned to hard labour in Siberia. Years pass… and we can see where this story is going when, having been asked about his crime, he replies ‘I, my dear brothers, am being punished for my own and other men’s sins. But I have not killed anyone….’ The real culprit admits his own guilt soon after, and the merchant, now an old man, bears him no ill-will. The story reaches the Tsar and the old man is to receive a pardon. The paper arrives at the prison, ‘but God had already forgiven him—he was dead!’ Ok. And ‘Pierre’s soul was dimly but joyfully filled not by the story itself but by its mysterious significance: by the rapturous joy that lit up Karataev’s face as he told it.’ We’re back with simple faith of this man – which, amidst all this hardship, seems to work for Pierre.

After this parable of how death is its own reward for the true believer, Tolstoy takes it somewhere slightly different. We already know about the way the French get rid of prisoners who fall ill or can’t keep up with the march, and they have their eye on Karataev. Tolstoy decides to have his execution happen off-stage, in such a way that Pierre can pretend it hasn’t really happened. ‘From behind, where Karataev had been sitting, came the sound of a shot. Pierre heard it plainly, but at that moment he remembered’ – remembered what? That he was doing an important mental calculation about distances travelled that he can’t possibly leave off. It’s one of those moments that sounds terrifyingly plausible…

…and it’s only in a dream in the next chapter that Karataev gets his due. A former geography teacher of Pierre’s uses a magical globe of the earth to demonstrate that everything and everyone strives to be a part of everything else through death. ‘And it grows, merges, disappears from the surface, sinks to the depths, and again emerges. There now, Karataev has spread out and disappeared. Do you understand, my child?’ Well, sort of. After Pierre is rudely woken up, other confused thoughts and reveries obscure any proper realisation that Karataev is dead. And… we’re suddenly at the point where they are rescued by Denisov’s men.

For the rest of Book 14 we’re inside whatever history book it is that Tolstoy thinks he’s writing. His constant revising of what he clearly sees as historical misrepresentations of what took place – errors arising mainly because historians base their judgments on versions written by generals with their own axes to grind – becomes predictable and repetitive. He uses the now possibly overextended metaphor of the ‘beast’ to illustrate his own particular piece of the revisionist project: rescuing Kutuzov from the unfair criticism of two generations of historians. As he’s told us in Book 13 – I’m not boring you, am I? – it would have been pointless to follow the generals in their desire for a glorious place in history even had it been practicable. Fighting the French now would be like – wait for it – beating the cow that trampled your corn. It wouldn’t bring the corn back, and besides, the threat of the whip is far more effective than beating the animal over the head. Yep, Tolstoy, got it. And I feel like I’m the one who’s been beaten over the head.

12 December
Book 15
Instead of fictional events framed by historiography as in Book 14, this time it’s the other way around. To start with we’re back with Maria Bolonskaya and the Rostovs more or less where we left them at the end of Book 12, and at the end we’re with Pierre again, now recovering from his ordeal and tying up some loose ends in the plot. In between, Tolstoy continues to do what he can to reappraise Russian strategy in general and salvage Kutuzov’s reputation in particular. I’ll come back to that.

This novel continues to leave me astonished. I can’t remember how many times, within the conventions and constraints of the novel form as it existed in the mid-19th Century, Tolstoy has taken the reader into realms which, by comparison, other novelists seem only to observe from the outside. What it feels like to be close to death, what it feels like to be utterly assured of one’s place as the master of huge tracts of land and the lifestyle that goes with it, what it feels like to be an adolescent girl subject to all the temptations a serial seducer can throw at her…. And now we get the process not only of grieving but of eventual recovery. Chapter 1 subtly describes how the grief shared by Natasha and Maria consolidates their friendship. Everything outside them, from ‘a carriage passing rapidly in the street [to] a summons to dinner’ is anathema. ‘Only when alone together were they free from such outrage and pain.’ The first chapter is all like this as, in particular, Natasha prods gingerly at the nature of her own grief. And then comes news of Petya’s death. Ah.

Tolstoy takes it somewhere else now. Whilst never glossing over Natasha’s egotism, he is nevertheless able to show how her grief and recovery are, somehow, more appropriate than her mother’s. It is she who must nurse the countess, who cannot even bring herself to believe the news of her son’s death until the third night. It is she whose tireless ability to talk to her mother for three weeks and more enables her to come through it. But the countess, before news of the death, is ‘a fresh and vigorous woman of fifty, but a month later she left her room a listless old woman.’ By this time, weeks or months of acting first as a nurse for Andrei and for her mother has left Natasha exhausted and so thin that her health is of concern to Maria and Sonya.

Tolstoy has worked hard to get the reader on Natasha’s side, has demonstrated her ability to tick a lot of the right boxes in her role as heroine following her problematic history. Now he manages to make her recovery a credible consequence of character traits we’re entirely familiar with from her earlier incarnation as the seeker of life’s pleasures. A walk upstairs that leaves her not quite so breathless leads her to go back down and try again, ‘observing the result’. A call to her maid leads to another, ‘in the deep chest tones in which she had been wont to sing, and listened attentively to herself.’ This is close to the end of the chapters relating to her and Maria, and soon she is ready to take part in life again: ‘The wound had begun to heal from within.’ In January 1813 she and Maria leave for an extended visit to the Bolonsky residence in Moscow.

Aside from a chapter in which Tolstoy briefly sketches a kind of recolonisation of Moscow following the departure of the French, the last eight chapters are all to do with Pierre. And, in that way that novelists have of making things happen, his inevitable coming together with Natasha. Back in Moscow following his release, he is seen by most people as more likeable. He seems to be a more simple soul, guided by a non-judgmental love of his fellow men and an equally straightforward, though largely unspoken, faith in God. And he is no longer in a constant state of anxiety about his affairs, which seem fairly straightforward to him. Now, he doesn’t endlessly fret over what to do if, for instance, someone asks him for a loan; a newly discovered internal ‘judge’ enables him to decide. And he no longer simply goes along with what his advisers and steward want him to do. Why should he rebuild his estate or his houses?

He hears that Maria is staying at the Bolonsky house, and pays a visit. For several paragraphs Tolstoy has him not recognise the amiable companion who comes to meet him with Maria. It’s Natasha, obviously, and when Maria eventually makes this clear, he is overcome: ‘something near to him, long forgotten and more than sweet, looked at him from those attentive eyes.’ He ends up speaking with both of them far into the night, and Tolstoy makes it life-changing for both Pierre and Natasha. He tells them more about his life as a prisoner than he has ever told – including the fact that he would go through it all again for what he has learnt – and she tells him fully about her own experience of Andrei’s death.

What’s happening is that Tolstoy is making their mutual love acceptable to the reader. Maria is there as a sometimes judgmental observer – she is jealous for her brother when Natasha seems so easily moved to love another man – and they feel the need to justify their behaviour to her. But it enables Tolstoy to force them each into long, self-doubting discussions with Maria in which their motives are shown to be both blameless and highly plausible. Pierre’s own uncertainty leads him to be persuaded that he should go on a previously planned extended visit to Petersburg, where he throws himself into a ‘frenzy’ of activity. He is strengthened by a memory of Natasha’s farewell which, being Pierre, he can’t help but find ambiguous… But he’s ok with it really. “‘I shall look forward very much to your return.” Oh, how happy I am! What is happening to me? How happy I am!’ he says to himself.

His happiness suffuses him throughout the visit to Petersburg and beyond. During a period of what ‘in afterlife’ he regards as a period of insanity, he finds it impossible to think of anything else as having any importance, that other people’s concerns have no meaning. But it doesn’t make him selfish, it makes him love everyone. Even Prince Vasili, proud of some new honours in a way that Pierre now finds inexplicable, ‘seemed to him a pathetic, kindly old man much to be pitied.’ Crucially, however, his future self does not patronise this insanity: ‘when he was in doubt or inwardly at variance, he referred to the views he had held at this time of his madness and they always proved correct.’

Before ending Book 15, Tolstoy rewinds to the moment when Natasha speaks to Maria after the latter’s conversation with Pierre before the Petersburg trip, and then to the days after his departure: ‘To her own surprise a power of life and hope of happiness rose to the surface and demanded satisfaction. From that evening she seemed to have forgotten all that had happened to her.’ She is as changed as Pierre himself, and we know it’s going to be all right.

23 December
First Epilogue
At first I wondered why this was called an epilogue, and not simply Book 16. Sure, it begins with four chapters of what have now become Tolstoy’s regular essays on history and historians, but soon we are picking up the story of the Rostovs again, with confirmation of an offhand remark in Book 15 that ‘they are said to be utterly ruined.’ But a couple of chapters further on, the time-frame changes. Following the death of the old Count and a period of financial desperation, Nikolai has married and is able to lead a settled life. Tolstoy moves quickly on with the worthwhile work he is able to do on the estate, and suddenly seven years have passed, there are children, and Nikolai is respected by his workers in a way that had seemed impossible when he was the hot-headed soldier. At the end of Chapter 7 Tolstoy fast-forwards through his whole life: ‘His means increased rapidly; serfs from neighbouring estates came to beg him to buy them, and long after his death the memory of his administration was devoutly preserved among the serfs. “He was a master… the peasants’ affairs first and then his own. Of course he was not to be trifled with either—in a word, he was a real master!”’

Why does Tolstoy do that? It’s only a brief glimpse of the future, because in the next chapter he’s back where he left Nikolai and his family, seven years into his marriage in 1820. The rest of this first Epilogue covers a few months in the winter of that year, while Pierre and Natasha are on a long-term visit…. But that glimpse into the far future is a reminder that these characters’ lives are over. Their political preoccupations – I’ll come back to the latest bee in Pierre’s bonnet, following a visit to Petersburg – and the disputes these can lead to… well, are they any more than a historical footnote to Tolstoy’s readers in the 1860s? I’m asking because I’m not sure. Except…

…during the final chapters of this First Epilogue another character, on the cusp of adulthood, is listening to what the adults are talking about. This is Nikolai Bolkonski, Andrei’s only son, now aged fifteen. Having been brought up by his highly spiritual aunt, Maria, he doesn’t easily fit into the blokeish world of her husband, the older Nikolai. It’s Pierre he idolises, whenever these long visits allow him the contact he craves. During the discussion, which is all about Pierre’s attempt to galvanise his Petersburg associates into action against the current political stalemate, young Nikolai hovers in the background. He is in such an ecstasy of nervous concentration he doesn’t realise that he is breaking the pens and sealing wax on his stepfather’s desk….

It’s an oddly symbolic moment and, after a few more pages spent with the adults, it’s young Nikolai that the reader is with for the final few paragraphs of the novel. (I’m not counting the Second Epilogue because Tolstoy doesn’t refer to any of the characters in it.) He goes to bed in an excitable state and, as is the way in this novel, has an extraordinary dream that wakes him up in a sweat. He and Pierre are at the head of a formless army, and the man who stands in their way is… the older Nikolai, representing the will of the reactionary militarist Arakcheev. (It is this man’s influence that Pierre is seeking to challenge in Petersburg.) Young Nikolai turns to Pierre… who isn’t there. But his father is: ‘his father had neither shape nor form, but he existed, and when little Nicholai perceived him he grew faint with love.’ This is what terrifies him, but Nikolai knows that Andrei ‘approved of me and of Uncle Pierre.’

After he reassures his old tutor that he isn’t feeling ill, Nikolai comes to a decision about his life: ‘Uncle Pierre! Oh, what a wonderful man he is! And my father? Oh, Father, Father! Yes, I will do something with which even he would be satisfied….’ The novel ends on that dot dot dot dot. Tolstoy wants us to know that the ideas of his most important characters are not locked into a dead past after all, because Nikolai is young enough to be still living at the time of the novel’s publication. His future – by way of the many upheavals in Russia in the intervening years, including the Decembrist uprising that Nikolai might well be ready for in 1825 – is the readers’ present.

Ok. But before that moment there are other things that Tolstoy wants to do in the First Epilogue. What I find most interesting is something I’ve never read before in 19th Century fiction: the strange place reached by couples after years of marriage. There have been other such couples, obviously, portrayed by Austen, George Eliot, Dickens and the rest. But if described in the main body of the novel they are secondary characters whose inner lives are never entered into… or, at the end of the novel, we might get a quick sketch of the later lives of the main protagonists which tells us nothing at all. Only Tolstoy takes us from the first moment of attraction, along the inevitably rocky path to marriage and into a time far beyond the happy endings of most novels. The marriages of Pierre and Natasha, and of Nikolai and Maria have each become a mechanism that operates in spite of its bizarre construction.

Neither couple can quite work out how the marriage of the other can possibly work. That’s Tolstoy’s point. The workings of marriages after this number of years are impenetrable to outsiders and, before the finale of Nikolai’s dream, Tolstoy spends the last two chapters of the First Epilogue showing exactly this. He begins with Nikolai and Maria. He doesn’t merely tell the reader how each defers completely to the other on certain matters – she to him on everything relating to the running of the estate, he to her on all matters of morality – but shows it in action. And their comments reveal deeper truths, as we see when Nikolai describes the way Natasha backed Pierre up in the heated discussion they’ve just had: ‘“Natasha is absurd. How she rules over him! And yet there need only be a discussion and she has no words of her own but only repeats his sayings…” added Nikolai, yielding to that irresistible inclination which tempts us to judge those nearest and dearest to us. He forgot that what he was saying about Natasha could have been applied word for word to himself in relation to his wife.’

There are plenty of other insights into how things work in marriage-land. We follow Maria’s train of thought as Nikolai sounds off about something she has no intention of listening to. Then ‘Natasha and Pierre, left alone, also began to talk as only a husband and wife can talk, that is, with extraordinary clearness and rapidity, understanding and expressing each other’s thoughts in ways contrary to all rules of logic, without premises, deductions, or conclusions….’ Having told us about this, Tolstoy shows it in action for the rest of the final chapter before young Nikolai’s dream. We have the ritual of Natasha’s show of jealous annoyance after Pierre stays away too long in Petersburg followed, as it clearly always is, by the counter-ritual of his criticism of every woman he met there, of ‘how intolerable it had been for him to meet ladies at dinners and balls in Petersburg. “I have quite lost the knack of talking to ladies…. It was simply dull.”’

What comes next is a kind of marital give-and-take. It doesn’t really matter what they talk about, so long as there are opportunities for agreement and mutual support. After Natasha has mentioned the naughtiness of Nikolai’s son Mitya he says that the boy takes after the father. She knows why he mentions the similarity: ‘the recollection of his dispute with his brother-in-law was unpleasant and he wanted to know what Natasha thought of it. “Nicholas has the weakness of never agreeing with anything not generally accepted. But I understand that you value what opens up a fresh line,” she said, repeating words Pierre had once uttered. “No, the chief point is that to Nicholas ideas and discussions are an amusement—almost a pastime,” said Pierre….’ In other words, they are back on the safest possible ground. A spat concerning her jealousy is resolved as, ‘evidently anxious to disperse the cloud that had come over them’, Natasha changes the subject to the safe one of how like his little son Pierre is. What could be more agreeable?

[The Second Epilogue is all history and historiography, and Tolstoy does not mention any of the novel’s fictional characters. I can’t bring myself to write about it.]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s