Prince Andrei’s Friendships

On another look, I am not wrong in seeing Prince Andrei as preferring
friendships in which he can patronize the friend. In Volume I, Part
One, VI

Prince Andrei looked at [Pierre] with kindly eyes. But in his
friendly, gentle gaze, a consciousness of his own superiority still showed.

We have just read, after a consideration of Pierre’s views, that

In the best, the friendliest and simplest relations, flattery or
praise is necessary, just as grease is necessary to keep wheels

In Volume One, Part Three, IX, when Prince Andrei is helping Boris to find a position on the staff,

Prince Andrei always became especially animated when he had to guide a young man [in this case Boris] and help him towards worldly success. Under the pretext of this help for another, which out of pride he would never accept for himself, he found himself close to the milieu which conferred success and which attracted him.

(He would never accept help, yet somehow Prince Andrei is one of Kutuzov’s adjutants, and his father is one of Kutuzov’s comrades from the wars of Catherine the Great. In fact, Kutuzov may be his uncle; his wife’s remarks in  Volume I, Part One, VI suggest this but are not clear.)

His liking for Captain Tushin is of the same sort. Both are captains
(and one has to read far into the novel to learn Prince Andrei’s
rank); yet in that “more essential subordination” which Boris has just
perceived, Prince Andrei outranks generals, let alone artillery

In Volume I, Part Two, III, we find that the officers with whom Prince Andrei serves fall into two groups: the smaller group looks up to him, and “with these people Prince Andrei was simple and pleasant”; the larger group dislikes him, but respects and even fears him. This may be part of what it is to be a Bolkonsky, since that seems to be the case with his father. Kuragins may hold them cheap, but not the rest of the world. It does not make for equal friendships.

Prince Andrei’s superiority to his contemporaries may be necessary to the book. He is the exemplar of intelligence and energy, which will be seen as deficient compared to wisdom. For those of us who take an interest in things of the mind, the renunciation of worldly goods gets a nod of approval, and may or may not make us question our lives. But Prince Andrei, in Volume IV, will be questioning the value of intelligence, erudition, wit, qualities that we at least respect and perhaps pique ourselves on.

Volume I, Part Two: Kutuzov, Bagration, Prince Andrei

Kutuzov is the wise man of War and Peace, one beyond considerations of cleverness and reasoning. Obviously he has the intelligence to articulate his skepticism of the Austrian staff’s plans, and to extricate his army when the campaign turns against the allies. But that is not really what he is there for. We see some of this in his inspection in Chapter II, in his encounter with Dolokhov:

“I ask only one thing Your Excellency,” he said in his firm, sonorous, unhurried voice. “I ask to be given a chance to wipe out my guilt and prove my devotion to the sovereign and to Russia.”

Kutzov turned away. The same smile of the eyes flashed over his face as when he had turned away from Captain Timokhin. He turned away and winced, as if wishing to express thereby that all that Dolokhov had said to him and all that he could say had long, long been known to him, that it all bored him, and that it was all by no means what was needed.

(But is that fair? Kutuzov’s previous remark calls for a reply such as Dolokhov made.)

Prince Bagration plays somewhat the same role at Schöngraben as Kutuzov will play later:

Prince Andrei listened carefully to Prince Bagration’s exchanges with the commanders and to the orders he gave, and noticed, to his surprise, that no orders were given, and that Prince Bagration only tried to pretend that all that was done by necessity, chance, or the will of a particular commander, that it was all done, if not on his orders, then in accord with his intentions. Owing to the tact shown by Prince Bagration, Prince Andrei noticed that, in spite of the chance character of events, and their independence of the commander’s will, his presence accomplished a very great deal. Commanders who rode up to Prince Bagration with troubled faces became calm, soldiers and officers greeted him merrily and became more animated in his presence, and obviously showed off their courage before him.

Yet in the next chapter, XVIII, Bagration will give positive orders that have an effect on the battle: to call down two battalions of chasseurs, and to have the troops now in the front line make room for them. We hear in the first sentence of Chapter XIX that this secures the retreat of the right flank.

Prince Andrei is still at the stage of intelligence, not wisdom. Kutuzov values his efficiency as a staff officer, and of his peers, some like, some fear, and all respect him. He “was one of the rare officers on the staff who placed his main interest in the general course of military operations”; the merits of this attitude will be called into question later in the book. Just before the fighting at Schöngraben begins, he is working out plans for the battle, “only in general terms.”

He suffers from vanity. At the moment he hears of Mack’s defeat, “he vividly pictured to himself what awaited the army, and the role he was to play in it.” In Chapter IX, on the way from Krems to Brünn, on waking “He would recall once more all the details of the victory, his calm manliness during the battle, and reassured, would doze off ….” Approaching the palace at Brünn,

He vividly pictured again all the details of the battle, not vaguely now, but in the well-defined concise account which, in his imagination, he was giving to the emperor Franz.

War and Peace repeatedly calls into question the possibility of a well-defined concise account of a battle, or of picturing all its details. The interview with the emperor goes off as such interviews apparently do at the court, with the ritual of a certain number of questions asked and answered.

We also learn in Chapter XIII that what Prince Andrei feared most in the world is “what is known as ridicule“, that is to say ridiculousness. In Chapter XI, “he (it had to be admitted) had almost been jealous over his wife” in regard to the foolish Ippolit Kuragin. Given his professed trust in his wife’s fidelity (Part One, Chapter VI), that sounds like vanity also. His feeling of humiliation in seeing the state of the retreating Russian forces is one that would not occur to a Kutuzov or Bagration.

We do see a different side of Prince Andrei, a gift for sympathy and friendship.  In Part One we saw it with Pierre. Here we see it with the quick liking he takes for Captain Tushin. Is it significant that both men are in some ways his inferiors, Pierre initially in social standing, always in will power, Tushin in social standing and perhaps rank? On the other hand, he is friends with Bilibin, his peer in social and official standing. Bilibin’s straining for epigram makes his company a little tedious to this reader; it does not seem to create in Prince Andrei the impatience that ordinary social chatter does.

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.