Initial Contrast Between Prince Andrei and Pierre

Books could and probably have been written on the contrast between Prince Andrei and Pierre.  They are the two major male characters of War and Peace, and they are central to most of the book’s action.  They are two of the foundations supporting the whole story.  Tolstoy means us to compare them.

Pierre is easily the most socially-challenged participant at Anna Pavlovna Scherer’s soiree.  He is fat, a bit awkward, somewhat out-of-place, and far too honest in expressing his opinions.  Yet, aside from his wife, Pierre has the distinction of being the only one there whom Prince Andrei really likes.  And Prince Andrei is not being perverse or sardonic in this; the two share a real bond.  They both admire Napoleon, but Pierre freely expresses his feelings while Prince Andrei is more socially circumspect and keeps such feelings to himself.  Pierre cannot hide his thoughts and feelings while Prince Andrei is more enigmatic.

It is mildly ironic that Prince Andrei, who is socially adept, seems to hold almost everyone in contempt, or otherwise finds them irritating, while Pierre, who is socially inept and who initially irritates nearly everyone, instinctively likes everyone.  Andrei is stern and judgmental.  At the same time, people are interested in him, even drawn to him.  When Nikolai Rostov first meets Prince Andrei, “he thought spitefully of what a pleasure it would be to see this small, weak, and proud man’s fear in the face of his pistol, then he was surprised to feel that, of all the people he knew, there was no one he so wished to have for a friend as this hateful little adjutant.”  (P&V 243.)  Prince Andre has high status, therefore people respect him but may be on their guard around him because of his intelligence and general disdain.  Pierre is instinctively drawn to people and often takes an interest in them, almost like a puppy.  It is somewhat curious that two such different people should be such good friends.

As his corpulence might suggest, Pierre has a weakness for sensual pleasures.  We see this after his meeting with Prince Andrei when he joins Anatole Kuragin and his degenerate cohorts.  We see this even more vividly in his early attraction to Helene Kuragin.  When Pierre comes into unusually close contact with her at another of Anna Pavlovna’s soirees… “He sensed the warmth of her body, the smell of her perfume, and the creaking of her corset as she breathed. He saw not her marble beauty, which made one with her gown, he saw and sensed all the loveliness of her body, which was merely covered by clothes. And once he had seen it, he could not see otherwise, as we cannot return to a once-exposed deception.”  (P&V 206)  This is not perverse, or even lustful.  Rather it indicates Pierre’s natural sensitivity, perhaps even vulnerability, to sensual attractions.  And this vulnerability leads him astray and gets him into trouble.

Prince Andrei seems to have had his vulnerabilities to sensual allures as well.  But when we first meet him, these attractions no longer hold the same charm or sway.  (We must infer his former weakness for beauty since Tolstoy does not take us into this earlier phase of his life.)  He is, in this respect, more mature than Pierre.  His wife, quite pretty, good-natured, but somewhat simple, now bores him.  After Andrei and Pierre depart the soiree and meet up again at Prince Andrei’s, Andrei much prefers Pierre’s company to his wife’s.  Indeed, he is now unhappy in his marriage.  It seems as if Prince Andrei’s earlier vulnerability to sensuality has led to some, but certainly not all, of his initial discontent and unhappiness with life.  Pierre will even more dramatically trace a similar trajectory.  Their vulnerabilities to sensuality disrupt, even derail, their early paths to more meaningful lives.  Even more than with Prince Andrei, Pierre’s marriage is a mistake, even a disaster.  So on the one hand, like with many other young men, these two characters are initially led astray by their natural inclinations towards sensuality.  On the other hand, the unhappy marriage of each is perhaps what sets them both on their search for a more meaningful existence.

Pierre initially has little, if any, self control or discipline.  Having sworn at Prince Andrei’s, “on his honor”, whatever that means, that he would not go out carousing with Anatole Kuragin and company, he no sooner pulls out of the driveway than he changes his mind.  (Mildly humorous.)  More significantly, he lacks the self mastery to resist Vassily Kuragin’s manipulations, with respect to his daughter, Helene, and otherwise.  Once Kuragin had decided that Pierre would marry his daughter and had begun his campaign to accomplish his objective, the rest of high society, sensing Kuragin’s objective, cannot resist playing their parts to engineer Pierre’s marriage.  Pierre foolishly concludes that this marriage is somehow fated and inevitable.  This is a weakness in Pierre that he falsely ascribes to powers beyond his control.  It will cost him dearly.  Deep down, he knows the marriage will be a sham, yet he capitulates with little resistance.  Through weakness and temptation, he subordinates his true inclinations.  This is a foolish mistake, and immediately leads to trouble.  We see this unhappiness directly with Pierre, with his duel, and subsequent depression, and indirectly with Prince Andrei, with his general dissatisfaction with life, before he goes off to war.

By the time we meet him, Prince Andrei has overcome, or can at least easily control, his sensual temptations.  Unlike Pierre, Andrei leads an orderly life, and is far from dissolute.  Initially, Prince Andrei is considerably more mature than his friend.

Prince Andrei is part of a small family and feels strong ties to both his father and sister.  He has strong similarities to his father.  Both are stern, serious, intelligent, industrious, honest, and judgmental.  However, young Prince Bolkonsky is not to be laughed at, whereas old Prince Bokonsky often is.  (His snorting state of disconcerted excitement at the arrival of the Kuragins and the prospect of his daughter’s marriage is humorous.  For example, after the servants had taken it upon themselves to clear the road of snow in preparation for the arrival of the Kuragins, the old Prince angrily orders that the cleared snow be thrown back on the road.)  As George observed, there is fertile ground for comedy in the Bolkonsky character, but Tolstoy chooses not to treat Andrei comedically.  The old Prince is not funny, however, when he seems to behave cruelly towards his daughter.  I don’t think he is intentionally cruel.  Rather, he is sometimes dysfunctional in dealing with others, even those he loves.  Is this why they live in near isolation at Bald Hills?  Prince Andrei is far more adept in dealing with others, but finally not much warmer than his father.  Outside his immediate family, does Prince Andrei have any real friend besides Pierre? I wonder whether both Princes, despite all their energies, accomplishments, and undertakings, might be rather lonely.

Pierre has no real family.  Pierre never really knew his father well.  Is his mother ever even mentioned?  He is essentially an orphan.  (Tolstoy’s mother died when he was two, and young Leo was then raised by his father’s mother, and two aunts.)  Yet unlike the Bolkonsys, he is on quite good terms with the world, even if he is less well-equipped to deal with it.  He is not contemptuous or judgmental towards others.  Yet he is not accepted by most others in society until after he unexpectedly inherits his father’s fortune and title.

Although Pierre is naturally well-disposed towards people, he is quite unworldly.  He seems unaware and indifferent to social sensitivities at Anna Pavlovna’s soiree.  Somewhat later, and more importantly, his unworldly naiveté shows in his obliviousness and ineptitude towards his own interests as his father lies dying.  The reader hardly knows whether to admire him for being out of touch with such sordid machinations and the contemptible maneuvers that preoccupy nearly everyone else there, or to feel he is just a damned fool and needs to come down to earth and see things as they are.  He was lucky that Anna Mikhailovna was there to protect his interests, albeit for her own purposes.  It’s somewhat ironic that such an unworldly man would inherit such an immense fortune.

Pierre’s unworldly nature makes him more pliable to others.  Prince Vassily Kuragin has little trouble getting Pierre to marry his daughter.  When Vassily goes to the Bolkonsy’s to get his son Anatole engaged to Princess Marya, despite an initial kerfuffle over the prospective engagement, Marya turns him down flatly and finally.  Pierre is far more naive and pliable than a Bolkonsy.  If Pierre is too open to things, the Bolkonskys may have the opposite flaw.  They shut too much of the world out, and remain isolated.  After his marriage collapses, after his duel, when he is leaving Moscow, Pierre meets the Freemason Bazdeev.  Again, he is naively won over.  This scene may be one of the briefest conversions from atheism to Christianity in all of literature, and one with the least fanfare.  (Humorous?)  Despite his misfortunes, Pierre remains weak and pliable.  Contrast Pierre’s easy conversion with Prince Andrei’s spiritual epiphany when he is wounded at the Battle of Austerlitz.  Andrei’s is not so much a conversion as a semi-delirious awakening.  Andrei is transported from one reality into a seemingly deeper reality.  Pierre’s “conversion” hardly compares to Andrei’s experience.  Despite Pierre’s passionate interest in important questions, it is unclear what, if anything, really grounds Pierre in any reality whatsoever.  Nonetheless, Pierre is desperately and sincerely searching.

Early on, Pierre is, in some measure, a comic character.  We laugh a little at him.  And although this humor brings us closer to him, we don’t really take him seriously.  He is too much a fool.  Yet this all begins to change when his marriage collapses and he challenges Dolokhov.  What was earlier somewhat funny now becomes a source of concern, even worry.  As happens with most of us, life calls on Pierre to account for his shortcomings.  To account, Pierre must somehow transform himself.  Can he?

There is a pathetic dimension in Prince Andrei.  Although initially more hidden than either his sister’s or father’s pain, Prince Andrei is an anguished character.  (There is a pathetic aspect to all the Bolkonsys.)  His arrogance may be well founded, but it isolates him from most others.  He admits early on that he is unhappy.  Moreover, he understands the absurdity of his life, and believes that he is worthy of and even destined for something much higher.

For a while it seems that joining the military is good for Prince Andrei.  Here he is at least more engaged with life, and not just a disdainful observer.  His inner sense of superiority, however, prompt in him ridiculous fantasies of becoming the next Napoleon.  It is ironic, and at the very least inconsistent, that although disdainful of most others in the world, what Prince Andrei now most wants is the adulation of others.

Just after the Allied Council of War leading to the battle of Austerlitz, Tolstoy takes the reader into Prince Andrei’s mind.  Andrei is dreaming of glory, and of becoming a great man, like his secret hero, Napoleon.  He thinks to himself “… if I want this, want glory, want to be known to people, want to be loved by them, it’s not my fault that I want it, that it’s the only thing I want, the only thing I live for. Yes, the only thing! I’ll never tell it to anyone, but my God! what am I to If I love nothing except glory, except people’s love? Death, wounds, loss of family, nothing frightens me. And however near and dear many people are to me—my father, my sister, my wife—the dearest people to me—but, however terrible and unnatural it seems, I’d give them all now for a moment of glory, of triumph over people, for love from people I don’t know and we’ll never know, for the love of these people….”  (P&V 264-265)  No wonder Prince Andrei has lost interest with his former life, with society, his wife, even his immediate family.  He has dreams of worldly success that are overwhelming, but that almost certainly will not be fulfilled and will therefore lead to disappointment and possibly despair.  Andrei’s ambition brings him back into participation with the world and thereby to some sense of purpose and meaning.  At the same time, such inflated worldly ambition is unrealistic, and therefore, probably cannot lead to any lasting good.

Prince Andrei’s wild ambitions are not meaningless.  They prompt him to act heroically.  Prince Andrei picks up a fallen Russian standard, in the face of a general route, summons a charge, and thereby inspires others in an attempt to reestablish the broken Russian line, and fight off the French attack.  It appears his boldness in battle is effective.  Others join him.  We don’t know how successful his valorous efforts turn out to be because he shortly becomes a casualty, and Tolstoy’s coverage of this action stops there.  Nonetheless, readers must realize that on the field, Prince Andrei’s delusional aspirations for glory may well have saved General Kutuzov and many others from being captured or killed.

Prince Andrei’s heroism is, unfortunately, fleeting.  In joining the army, Prince Andrei renews his engagement with the world, and this is a step in the right direction.  However, his delusional aspirations reveal the ultimate emptiness of these new interests, at least for him.  They are reflections of vanity.  Prince Andrei’s ultimate objective from his military pursuits is adulation.  Napoleon is his ideal, his model.  Once wounded, he suddenly sees all the pettiness in his ambitions, the pointlessness of such narrow vanity in the face of the vast and mysterious reality he senses.  Even the sight of his former hero, Napoleon, is now all but inconsequential to Prince Andrei.  Whereas previously, Prince Andrei viewed most other people as largely inconsequential and absurd, while idolizing Napoleon, now it is Napoleon who is inconsequential and absurd.

Is Prince Andrei rather delirious from his injury?  Yes.  Does his injury effect his epiphany?  Certainly.  Since Andrei’s epiphany may be partially delirium, shouldn’t we disregard his strange thoughts?  Certainly not.   Insights often come when we are taken out of the customary or ordinary patterns of life.  Once Prince Andrei realizes that his life may be ending, it is natural that he might wonder about his significance in the world.  In the face of death, what meaning has there been to his existence?  He begins to understand his question, and it’s answer, as he deliriously looks into the sky.  In all eras, near death experiences often awaken people to new ways of living.  Prince Andrei’s life can never be the same after his experience at Austerlitz.

Incidentally, it is perhaps worthwhile now to point out the contrast Tolstoy draws between how Prince Andrei views Napoleon and how Nikolai Rostov views the Russian sovereign after the Battle of Austerlitz.  For quite some time, it seems, Prince Andrei had admired Napoleon, and considered him the supreme model for his own life.  Prior to the battle, Andrei wanted to become the next Napoleon, and Rostov to at least be favorably noticed by the Czar in performing some wonderful act.  Through military and patriotic fervor, Nikolai is completely enthralled in the majestic magnificence of his sovereign.  After the battle, both Andrei and Nikolai see their idols.  Alexander seems upset and indecisive.  Rostov, while courageous in battle, cannot now summon the courage to approach and assist the defeated Alexander, even though he still holds Alexander in awe.  Reality is far from what either Nikolai or Andrei had dreamed.  Napoleon, again victorious in battle, and glorying in his victory as he rides across the battlefield, now seems absurd to Prince Andrei.  The reader hardly need guess which perspective Tolstoy is in greater sympathy with, even though he portrays Napoleon rather gallantly here, and is clearly sympathetic to all the Rostovs.

Once Andrei is wounded and has his epiphany at the battle of Austerlitz, which Tolstoy describes brilliantly, he looses his absurdity.  He becomes even more real to us.  Once Pierre foolishly engages in a duel with Dolokhov, he is less a comic fool.  He also becomes even more real to us.  As readers, their engaging characters along with their previous shortcomings somehow drew us toward both young men.  Once their suffering is revealed, we become even closer to both, and their lives become more vivid to us.  Both are now damaged, and will try to recover in different ways.  In this, both are largely, but not entirely, delivered from their initial absurdity.

A bit later in the book, several years after their meeting just after Anna Pavlovna’s soiree, Pierre and Prince Andrei meet again, this time at the house Prince Andrei is making for himself.  Both have changed.  After a few awkward preliminaries, they again start to argue with each other.  They do not argue in anger, but in friendship, about important philosophical differences. Both men are eager to express themselves and hear what the other thinks.  Their argument is not like anything we have seen in so-called polite society, where postures are assumed and positions stated, but differences are not honestly addressed.  Andrei and Pierre’s argument reflects the struggle each is having coming to terms with his life.  Here we start to see the basis of their friendship.  Both are honest, passionate, and true towards the other.

As Pierre and Andre argue, Andrei claiming that one must live purely for oneself, Pierre that one must live in order to benefit others, Pierre asks “‘But how can you live for yourself alone?… What about your son, your sister, your father?’  ‘But they’re the same as myself, they’re not others’ said Prince Andrei”  (P&V 382)  Prince Andrei is right in several ways.  I think the old Prince, and even his sister, are in no small measure reflections of Tolstoy’s conception of the complete Prince Andrei.  In his father, we see Andrei’s discipline, rationality, impatience, and arrogance.  In his sister, we see Prince Andrei’s spiritual sensitivities, which are just as deep in him as his father’s proclivities.  Although these sensitivities are initially largely hidden, we see them at the Battle of Austerlitz, when once he is wounded he suddenly becomes spiritually aware.  Prince Andrei’s father and sister are almost opposites of each other in many ways.  Domineering versus meek; prideful versus humble; intellectual versus spiritual.  Yet Prince Andrei embodies them both.

Pierre imagines he has gone from living for himself to living for others, and Andrei imagines he has gone from living for the adulation of others to living strictly for himself.  Both transitions seem sincere, but neither seems like it could be the final truth for either man.  The search for both will continue.

Volume I, Part Two: Dates, Times, Faces

First, the dates: Tolstoy gives dates in the Russian calendar, and not always consistently. (The staff hears of Mack’s surrender on October 11; the same day is October 8 with the hussars.) In the western calendar:

1. August 26, Napoleon leaves Boulogne.
2. September 11, Mack invades Bavaria.
3. October 20, Mack capitulates at Ulm.
4. November 14, the French take Vienna.
5. November 16, the battle at Schöngraben.

Second, much of the action also takes place in what is now the Czech Republic, so that the place names have changed: from Brünn to Brno, from Olmutz to Olomuc, from Znaim to Znojmo.

Tolstoy describes the faces of men facing enemy fire, or about to: at the Enns,

On each face, from Denisov’s down to the buglers, there appeared around the lips and mouth one common trait of a struggle between irritation and excitement.

At Schöngraben,

… and on all faces he recognized the feeling of animation that was in his heart. “It’s begun! Here it is! Fearful and merry!” spoke the face of every soldier and officer.

In his memoir of enlisted Navy service in WW II, Alvin Kernan writes of the sharpened features of men living with tightly controlled fear, though he says it shows most on noses.


The Death of Count Bezukhov

For Anna Mikhailovna and Prince Vassily, the count has become his own estate while he is still living and even conscious. The question of how long the count will live is of professional interest to the physicians (and at a lower level the undertakers). The servants and one of the Mamontov princesses attend to his comforts. But it seems chiefly the priests, who offer him a “Blank Confession”,  communion, and Extreme Unction, who regard him at least hypothetically as a moral agent and that too may be a professional trait; Tolstoy gives us no insight into what any priest is thinking, except that one cleric in the salon does a little shop talk.

Anna Mikhailovna Drubetskoy gives an early example of relating an event not as it happened but as it should have happened according to the conventions, when she tells the Rostovs and her other friends of the count’s death. Her role in saving, and according to the older princess influencing, the will is curious. One has to regard her as an agent of justice when she prevents the fraud Prince Vassily has in mind. But is the eldest princess correct in saying that she had previously induced the count to write a new will and request permission to adopt Pierre? If so, are we to understand that she acted for abstract justice or because she regarded Pierre as an easier touch than the other prospective heirs?

I wonder, as Charles does, what Prince Vassily means by “I’m over fifty”?  The first time, spoken to the princess, he says “I know how hard it is for you to speak and think about these things [the inheritance]. It’s no easier for me; but I’m over fifty, my friend, I must be ready for anything.” This seems to refer to death and inheritance. Yet in a world nominally Christian, should the awareness of age and the approach of death encourage what the law would regard as fraud, and what the prince himself must perceive as wrong, given his discomfort?  It makes more sense to consider it as conversational device to justify the discussion. When after the count’s death, he says to Pierre “I’m over fifty, my friend . . . I’ll . . . Everything ends in death, everything. Death is terrible.”, then he does seem to feel the approach of death morally.

In rereading the pages to try to understand this, I became distracted by the number of times Prince Vassily pulled down this or that person’s hand. He is not described as short, so a downward pull on a woman’s hand, or on Pierre’s while Pierre is sitting hands on knees, would require a bow, which I think would bring his face uncomfortably close to the other party’s. In the first chapter we seem him kiss Anna Pavlovna’s hand and present her with his bald shining pate; but where is the bald pate or flat face when he is pulling down her hand or Pierre’s or the eldest princess’s?

Volume I, Part I, Chapters I through VIII

Ways of talking:

“How can one be well … when one suffers morally? Is it possible to remain at ease in our time, if one has any feeling?”, said Anna Pavlovna. “You’ll stay the whole evening, I hope?”

The last question reveals the truth. In The Life of Johnson, entry for October 19, 1769, one finds

I told him that I had dined lately at Foote’s, who shewed me a letter which he had received from Tom Davies, telling him that he had not been able to sleep from the concern which he felt on account of ‘This sad affair of Baretti,’ begging of him to try if he could suggest any thing that might be of service; and, at the same time, recommending to him an industrious young man who kept a pickle-shop. JOHNSON. ‘Ay, Sir, here you have a specimen of human sympathy; a friend hanged, and a cucumber pickled. We know not whether Baretti or the pickle-man has kept Davies from sleep; nor does he know himself.

In this case, Prince Vassily’s insincere court manners seem more to the point than the enthusiasms of Anna Pavlovna Scherer, for whom “[b]eing an enthusiast had  become her social position.”

Pierre disturbs the reception because he does not know how to speak there. He speaks both with enthusiasm and with the wrong opinions. His opinions are naive and offensive; per se they are not as ridiculous as the viscount’s story about Napoleon and Enghien. Prince Andrei has his own weakness for Napoleon, but knows how discuss him with detachment, making distinctions. Prince Andrei has the advantage of knowing how the conversations work, and the corresponding disadvantage, that they bore him.

Bondage and freedom:

Prince Vassily considers that his children are the fetters of existence; yet his only apparent concern with them is to see the sons solvent and the daughter married. Prince Andrei considers that in marriage, “like a prisoner in irons, you lose all freedom.” His bondage seems to consist in putting up with trivial conversation for some hours every week. He is not held back from joining an army then forming to march to Austria, and from all appearances he is generally the free partner in the marriage; his wife fears him, and is bound for Bald Hills and the intimidating company of his father, willy-nilly. On the other hand, Count Rostov, with apparently four children (living, of twelve his wife has borne) and a dependent niece, heavily in debt, does not seem to feel himself fettered. Incompetence in money matters helps him feel free. Pierre is freest of all, and it does him no good.


I am usually interested in how authors begin their works and why they begin as they do.  Tolstoy begins War and Peace unusually, especially for a work written in the 1860’s.  Instead of setting the scene from which the action will then follow, or describing the characters that will occupy central positions, we, the readers, are more or less plopped down in a scene of little consequence, with a couple of characters of questionable interest, Anna Pavlovna Scherer, Prince Vassily Kuragin, and a few other members and visitors to Russian high society.  We know nothing about the characters.  Indeed, and almost outrageously, most of the characters turn out to be minor.  The conversation, although quite pertinent to broad outlines of the book, is stilted, pretentious, provincial, and conducted in French. The society Tolstoy introduces here is privileged, but is also far from the most elite of the country.  These characters are wealthy but culturally alienated from much of their surrounding world. Why begin in this marginal way?  What is Tolstoy up to?

War and Peace opens at a critical time in Russian history, the time leading up to Napoleon’s epic invasion and retreat.  All the characters know something big is immanent, and that nations are set to collide, but that is not where the action begins.  Instead the readers are set into high society, and its somewhat stilted banter.  Perhaps the best way for a reader to understand what Tolstoy is doing here is to start by examining our own reactions to the first few pages.  Tolstoy is dispensing with an introduction that in the course of things would be gratuitous.  More to the point, he is immediately engaging the reader emotionally.  A painting is not preceded by an introduction.  Similarly, the opening of War and Peace just opens a world for the reader’s imagination to slip into.  But this is Tolstoy’s world, and this beginning offers us a few clues about this world’s sensibilities.

Even as characters discuss events and political perspectives from 200 years ago, it is hard to remain strictly neutral in one’s reactions to their dialogue.  Most of the societal characters are self-aggrandizing wind bags and posers, at least to some extent.  (Unlike those in similar situations today.)  It all seems somewhat artificial, even a bit phony.  (Again, unlike today.)  In short, even though the reader is mildly interested in what is going on, he or she is developing a certain suspicious attitude towards the society of the Russian aristocracy.  Few readers are probably neutral towards most of the characters which Tolstoy introduces.  And most of these characters are at least slightly absurd.  Why would Tolstoy initially foster such an attitude in his readers against the members of his own class?  (Perhaps we should return to this particular question later.)

Although the action does not begin with war or the scenes that lead to war, either politically or militarily, these matters are clearly on everyone’s mind, and Tolstoy introduces his great subject this way.  Although the political situation in the world is unstable, and change seems inevitable, everyone is at the same time pursuing their own relatively petty interests in society.  This is like a little statement of a motif in a symphony that a composer will return to many times as he develops it.  And perhaps just as importantly for thematic purposes, Tolstoy introduces war and national conflict first from the perspective of historically insignificant characters instead of through the political and military elite of the states that will collide in conflict.  So Tolstoy begins by introducing his readers to his great subject, war, peace, and history, through the real agents of transformation, the individual people, or atoms, of history.  With Tolstoy, history moves from the bottom up instead of from the top down.  It would therefore be misleading to start with Napoleon, or the Tsar, or some other such character.

So in the first few pages, Tolstoy actually accomplishes much, despite seeming to be preoccupied with trivialities.  He introduces his large concerns of war and peace, and implicitly historical development itself; he suggests an attitude towards high society, and those who seek its status; and he introduces us to a number of characters, including a few that will bring us deeper into Tolstoy’s world.  At first, it seems like a slow, even cumbersome introduction, but it is amazingly economical, especially for such a long book.  And as the reader progresses into the book, setting seamlessly transforms into action.

Modern Departures

Tolstoy’s approach to his beginning now seems modern, and is widely accepted.  That is, others now do it and it does not seem unusual.  Consider, for example Robert Altman’s film Nashville.  I loved this film when it first came out.  That was several years before I read Tolstoy.  I saw it again recently and feel that it holds up.  Its technique is pure Tolstoy.  Or consider TV’s Seinfeld.  As the show itself admitted, even boasted, it is about nothing.  But neither Nashville nor Seinfeld is really about nothing.  They are both about everything while claiming to be about nothing.  That’s how Tolstoy begins War and Peace.  

(Incidentally, Anna Karenina begins in an analogous way.  This great exploration of family happiness and personal meaning is structured around Anna’s adultery.  But the book begins with the somewhat minor affair carried on by her brother and the turmoil it introduces into his household.)

First impressions

The first and last time that I read War and Peace through was about 25 years ago; I have since picked it up to reread various sections. This time I have found the book hard to set aside. Yet I have set it aside at page 500-something for now, since I will be traveling for the next fortnight.

It occurs to me to wonder how much in those 25 years I have unconsciously quoted Tolstoy. For example, he is very good on the charm of young women and girls who are aware that they are young and attractive. This seems to me something I could easily enough have noticed independently, but reading Tolstoy makes me wonder. It is in a way like reading Alice in Wonderland or Through the Looking Glass, where Carroll’s version of dream logic is so persuasive that I have wondered whether he simply reflected the nature of dreams or whether my recollection of my own dreams has been affected by the reading. (I think the former.)

I have also noticed the inverse relation between beauty on first arrival in the War and Peace and good fortune later. The ugly ducklings sometimes turn into swans, but do in any case (if young enough) marry happily; the beauties at best marry duds.

We picked out Hadji Murad for our neighborhood book club to read last year or the year before. In re-reading that I was struck by how much it is about death: attitudes toward death by young men who don’t yet believe that they will die; the attitudes of those who expect it as an occupational hazard; the death of a Russian infantryman and Hadji Murad and his followers. War and Peace  takes a while to get to that point. Pierre is back in Moscow in 1810 or 1811 when this starts to appear.

Initial Post

Welcome. I am Charles, the host of this forum on War and Peace, and the creator and general administrator of this whole site.

With War and Peace, we begin a formidable book, “a loose and baggy monster”, to borrow the well-know epithet from Henry James. In some ways, perhaps it would have been wiser to begin with a more modest work. This monster, however, will hopefully give me the time and experience needed to help improve everyone’s experience, should I attempt another such undertaking. Besides, I very much wanted to reread War and Peace, and this way seemed a promising way to do so.

I first read War and Peace in the summer of 1979. I was twenty one, and it made a deep impression on me. I was interested in nearly everything the book touched upon. For months afterwards, I looked at things as if I were under some sort of Tolstoyan spell. As I have grown older, I have sometimes wondered whether I would again find War and Peace so compelling. Is it more a young person’s book than one that would have similar but more mature appeal to an older and somewhat more jaded reader? If I were to reread the book, would I now find structural and artistic faults instead of new meaning? While these considerations worried me somewhat, at the same time I thought that it is probably foolish to imagine that I had outgrown the charms and insights of one of history’s greatest writers. So I have been looking forward to rereading War and Peace for years now.

Some months ago, as I was tossing and turning in bed before sunrise, I turned on the radio, for a distraction, and heard an interview that got my attention.  I heard Andrew D. Kaufman discuss his book Give War and Peace a Chance.  Here is a link, so you can hear it yourself.  The part on Tolstoy only takes the first 15 minutes or so.  (Skip the rest.)  Andrew Kaufman understands Tolstoy, and provided me with added motivation to reread the book.  From Kaufman’s interview, I sensed that Tolstoy’s art can be renewed, but not outgrown. I want to reconnect with the aspects of Tolstoy’s art the Kaufman discusses. It’s a bit like missing an old and favorite piece of music that we then get the chance to hear again. I ordered Kaufman’s book, which sold for a few dollars on Amazon, and I ordered the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation of War and Peace. I hope to read Kaufman’s book as we make our way through War and Peace.

After reading War and Peace, those many years ago, I went on to read much more Tolstoy. Finally, I read Anna Kerenina, Tolstoy’s other epic masterpiece, about a year later, in 1980 or 81. I have not reread either since. Anna is clearly the more mature work. It is better structured, and has fewer excesses than the earlier work. Tolstoy had grown as an artist, and his interests had become more focused. Yet War and Peace is more passionate, with all the strengths and weaknesses of a younger mind. War and Peace is Tolstoy’s breakthrough work. Can one understand the later Tolstoy without understanding War and Peace? I think not. Many writers, such as Vladamir Nabokov, in his Lectures on Russian Literature, in their praise of Anna, almost seem to dismiss War and Peace. I understand their appreciation for Anna. However, I suspect that in their admiration for Anna’s artistic merits, they loose sight of War and Peace’s spiritual and somewhat different artistic strengths. Sure, the earlier work has its defects. The later work also lacks some of the life-affirming vitality of the earlier. So let us not be too quick to judge which is better. Instead, for the time being, let us just open ourselves to the experience Tolstoy offers us with War and Peace.