Actually, I think this chapter clears up the last one. There had been histories written and judgments passed on the uselessness of Kutuzov and here Tolstoy clears it up, by explaining what Kutuzov was doing.
It’s a well-written chapter, but I think the hardest thing I found to swallow was that if everything had gone pear-shaped for the Russians, we would have thought that Kutuzov’s uselessness was to blame. I don’t know – am I being too harsh?
Reading for Friday, 15 May
For once, I’m not really sure what to say about this chapter. It may be that when Tolstoy was writing this, Kutuzov was not really held in high regard, because most of the chapter is devoted to explaining his actions in the war.
Maybe Kutuzov wasn’t held up that highly by the historians of Tolstoy’s day? Either way, the point here is that Kutuzov was merely helping the Russians to chase the French out, without bothering to waste time on attacking them – after all, they were on the way out. However, the other generals, wanting to be able to say that they conquered this person or other, were wasting their men on minor skirmishes.
However, I like best the picture of the Russian army gradually emptying out as they pass through the Russian countryside. And, unlike the French, who drop out and either die or are taken prisoner, the Russians just fall among fellow countrymen who look after them . . .
This is a very simple chapter, but it shows how Natasha gradually recovered from her own grief (ironically, by helping her mother deal with her’s) and it also shows the increasing friendship with Princess Marya.
I really liked this chapter because coming as it does at the end of the book, it’s kind of like the healing process is beginning for Russia and bonds are starting to be formed – starting with these two women. It’s also kind of nice because, although War and Peace has had some truly random moments over the last year, Tolstoy is starting to tie some loose ends and give us a sense of closure.
It’s somewhat like a massive symphony winding to a close, where all the different themes come together and are resolved in the end – starting with this one.
And oddly enough, Petya’s death is the catalyst for Natasha emerging from her shell. As soon as she sees the grief that the rest of the family suffers, she is there at her mother’s side.
It’s quite powerful, because we realise that for Natasha to be able to understand and comfort that level of loss, it can only be because of all that she understands from her own loss of Andrei. Quite beautifully done. And in Countess Rostova, we see the same grief symptoms that Natasha showed in the previous chapter.
In the meantime, I meant to post this up a long time ago, but here is an article that shows that War and Peace is one of the books that people are most likely to have lied about reading to impress someone else. The winner is 1984.
If you’re still with us, you won’t be one of those people who lie about War and Peace. What you do with 1984 is your business.
Now we’re back into the world of Natasha and Marya. I love this description of grief by Tolstoy – not in a morbid sense because I like sad things – but because it captures the essence of the kind of questions you ask when you lose someone in a way that feels very real.
They might not be these particular questions or these particular thoughts – but they revolve around that cycle of emotions – sadness, anger, flatness. It’s all there.
The bit I like the best is where Natasha remembers Andrei saying that it would be awful to be stuck with an invalid the whole time. At the time, she agreed. But she qualifies that now – she agrees that it might be awful for Andrei – but for her, Natasha, she would much rather have an invalid dying Andrei around all the time, rather than to have no one at all.
Incredibly simple idea, profoundly moving. And, of course, all of this is shattered by still more devastating news about Petya that has finally arrived.
And after reminding us that the French weren’t all that great, Tolstoy reminds us that the Russians weren’t so bad after all, as he constructs a defence for why the Russians just let the French go.
I’ll let you read it for yourself, but it makes me wonder whether there is some sort of critical book on War and Peace that goes through and compares Tolstoy with all the historians of the period, etc.
I tried hunting around Google for one and came across this title, with no Amazon reviews (and no wonder, because it’s horrendously expensive).
I also sometimes get a bit wary about knowing too much about the creation of a great piece of art, because sometimes you can analyse all the fun out of something.
But by the same token, how much more do we enjoy the Ring Cycle nowadays because of what we know about motifs, etc? So it could be really interesting.
Anyway, this brings us to the end of Book 14. We have one Book and two Epilogues left to go . . . I’m going to have to give some thought to what I’m going to do with my blog post-Tolstoy . . .
Another very brief chapter (they’re getting shorter and shorter, aren’t they?) as Tolstoy pulls out his flamethrower to use on any remaining historians who still think Napoleon is a great man, and that the escape from Russia was all carefully orchestrated.
Finally, he lets Napoleon himself have it – just in case Napoleon thought he’d done pretty good, Tolstoy reminds us no – “great” is not some transcendent category that lies above right and wrong.
Granted, using that logic, the question I have is what makes the Russians “right” in this particular case? (Apart from the fact they were defending their homeland.) I’m not sure . . . But I can don my Russian cap for the time being and feel the rage.
After all, I’ve only got less than two months left to go and the one-year War and Peace project will all be over . . .
The disintegration continues, with the French running from the Russians, only to run into them. After so much misery for the Russians, to be honest, I’m starting to feel sorry for the French.
The final image, of Napoleon anonymously wrapped in a fur coat, escaping in a sled and deserting his army, really sums it all up . . . everything’s over.
Reading for Friday, 8 May
I think it’s time again to break out this poster:
This is pretty much a picture of what Tolstoy is describing. Look how thick the tan line is heading from left to right – that thick line represents Napoleon’s forces as they entered Moscow – strong, with lots of men.
That black line heading from right to left is Napoleon’s forces on the way back – dying off, getting smaller and more pathetic by the day.
You see it like that, and you realise how utterly Russia decimated those forces.
But Tolstoy says it best of all:
And althought they addressed each other as “majesty”, “highness”, and “mon cousin”, they all felt that they were pitiful and loathsome creatures, who had done a great wrong, for which they had now to pay the penalty. And in spite of their pretence of caring for the army, each was thinking only of himself, and how to make his escape as quickly as possible to safety.
Reading for Thursday, 7 May
There have been a few surreal chapters in War and Peace and this is up there with the weirdest of them.
A strange sort of vision of pantheism (basically, where the universe equals God), grief for Karataev, a snippet of a Polish lady and Pierre’s old geography teacher . . . all rather bizarre.
But then we are brought back to reality, where we left off a couple of chapters ago, with the death of Petya – Denisov still heartbroken, and Dolohov rather ruthlessly planning to kill the lot of them. Whether he does or not, I can’t remember . . . we’ll have to see if we find out.