Sunday, January 24, 2016

"War and Peace" and Mobile Phones

Heavy snow is blowing and swirling past my window this morning and I’m musing about why I consider “War and Peace” to be such a great novel.  It’s prompted, not just by the weather but also the BBC’s new television mini-series.

I’ve never read any formal literary criticism of the novel; I’ve never wanted to because the book speaks so directly to me. Here’s a famous passage, the conclusion of Prince Andrei’s experience of the Battle of Austerlitz.  Andrei has picked up a fallen Russian standard, rallied the retreating soldiers around him and is running, leading an improvised charge against the French line on foot:

            ‘What are they doing?’ thought Prince Andrei as he gazed at them. ‘Why doesn’t the red-haired gunner run away since he is unarmed? Why doesn’t the Frenchman stab him? He won’t get away before the Frenchman remembers his bayonet and stabs him…’
            And in fact another French soldier, trailing his musket, ran up to the struggling men and the fate of the red-haired gunner who had triumphantly secured the mop and still did not realize what awaited him, was about to be decided.  But Prince Andrei did not see how it ended.  It seemed to him as though one of the soldiers near him hit him on the head with the full swing of a bludgeon. It hurt a little, but the worst of it was that the pain distracted him and prevented his seeing what he had been looking at.
            ‘What’s this? Am I falling? My legs are giving way,’ thought he, and fell on his back.  He opened his eyes, hoping to see how the struggle of the Frenchmen with the gunners ended, whether the red-haired gunner had been killed or not, and whether the cannon had been captured or saved. But he saw nothing. Above him there was now nothing but the sky—the lofty sky, not clear yet still immeasurably lofty, with grey clouds gliding slowly across it. ‘How quiet, peaceful, and solemn, not at all as I ran,’ thought Prince Andrei ‘—not as we ran, shouting and fighting, not at all as the gunner and the Frenchman with frightened and angry faces struggled for the mop: 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! 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!...’

In this single passage, you see the elemental, precision of the Iliad with the genius to make it subjective and so personal.  Then, without warning, the focus, the drama of the soldiers attempting to take the gun emplacement is ironically disrupted by the wound that crumples Andrei onto his back.  We and Andrei see the sky, remote, objective, implicitly beautiful with a single, perfect adjective, “lofty,” and yet we’ve moved more deeply into Andrei’s subjective experience with absolutely credible thoughts that are the heart of so much philosophy with echoes back to Ecclesiastes.  Yet it is still told with the same concrete, direct language.  It is as surprising and breath-stealing as the best turn in a Sherlock Holmes story and absolutely believable.  There are so many surprises: plain observation leading to subjective speculation spiraling into objectivity which is actually a deeper subjectivity of philosophical speculation. 

When I think of novelists, short story writers, poets and even historians who have written with terrible, fierce insight about war, Bierce, Remarque, Owen, T. E. Lawrence, Hemingway, Powers, Klay, and so many others, I see Tolstoy in them.

But this is only one passage:  Tolstoy writes with equal insight about family life, society, the equally fierce and complex struggles that women face.  These days, we applaud novelists for their world building, and rightly, too.  But sometimes we fail to recognize the same accomplishments in older works.  Tolstoy was writing fifty years after the events he chronicles.  Russian and French society had changed and were still changing, dramatically.  Yet, he succeeds in making his world detailed and complex as Tolkien’s and as visceral as Hemingway’s.

The new BBC series appears to have little time for philosophy and rumination.  It’s main characters simply don’t appear to think as much as their counterparts in the novel. Even though the production design feels absolutely authentic, I half expect all the young people at a ball to be surreptitiously texting on their mobile phones.

(The illustration is “The Battle of Borodino” by Leonid Pasternak, the original illustrator.)

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