Saturday, February 7, 2009

“War and Peace”: Book One, Part Two: First War Scenes

Russian high school students read Война и мир (War and Peace) in the tenth grade, and many people joke that the girls read Peace and the boys read War.

With a strong preference for Peace over War, I can’t deny fitting the stereotype. But I enjoy the war scenes of War and Peace more with each reading, despite continuing difficulties following troop movements. There’s so much chaos, fog, and interaction among characters that my attention doesn’t get much chance to wander.

Tolstoy ends Book One, Part One, with Prince Nikolai Bolkonskii slamming a door. He opens Book One, Part Two, with Russian troops moving into Austria. Tolstoy’s point of view changes dramatically, moving away from inner thoughts and intimate family portraits toward statements describing the history of nations: “In October of 1805 Russian troops were occupying the villages and cities of the Austrian archduchy…”

Even more jarring for me, he occasionally uses the word “наши” (ours”) to refer to Russian troops. This shift join other elements of the novel – e.g. those neutral-sounding mentions of troop movements and close-up descriptions of characters – that Tolstoy patches together to create a narrative that demonstrates the innumerable factors, people, and perspectives that contribute to history and our lives. Tolstoy’s ability to show this jumble so beautifully, both stylistically and through plot and characters’ actions, is why War and Peace has endeared itself to me so much.

Troops are described several times as “массы” (“masses”) and at least once as ants. The individual people who makes up those living masses sometimes know their places and jobs, but they are also prone to making mistakes and forgetting to convey commands. After battle, they don’t always remember what happened – witness Prince Andrei not remembering his encounter with Tushin – or might twist the truth to make themselves look better. These, and related themes, will reappear many times.

A few other elements I especially like:

-Many armies have drummers to keep soldiers in step, but how many have spoon players? My Война и мир book, a Soviet-era edition for school kids, even includes an endnote defining the word ложечник as a wooden spoon player.

-Nikolai Rostov’s battlefield expectations, then his horrifying realization that he could be killed, despite how much his family loves him.

-Price Bagration’s intuitive leadership and calming effect on his troops.

I’m interested in other opinions… Do you have a strong preference for either War or Peace? What do you think of Tolstoy’s first battle scenes?



  1. I also found the "our" in Book 2 strange. I most enjoyed this book because of the realism that I found in it. It seemed that young men were headed into battle with thoughts only of how they would distinguish themselves. The reality of battle with its confusion and death was something that they never seemed to consider. It seems that young people always have a hard time recognizing their ow mortality until it is very close to them.

  2. Funny, I didn't find the "our" surprising at all -- Tolstoy had served in the army and was a fierce patriot despite his antiwar views. Part of his intent in writing the book was to show that "we Russians" are good and honest and hardy and win out in the end, while those foppish frogs have big ideas but are bound to come to grief.

  3. I never really thought that Tolstoy would even concede to the French that they have "big ideas," but rather pursued the idea that they (read: Napoleon) were fundamentally wrong in putting forth their civilization and leader as the pinnacle of achievement, and that furthermore the Russians were not only good and honest and hardy, but intrinsically humble, God-fearing people whose superior spirit would triumph in the end.

  4. Right, that's a better way to put it.

  5. Thanks, everyone, for the comments!

    It's interesting to read different opinions about "our." It struck me because of the sharp shift in point of view... I think it works very well for Tolstoy as a stylistic device. I couldn't agree more with you, Languagehat, that he used it to reinforce views of patriotism and the army. "Наши" also draws together all those individuals -- with the dreams, mortality, and other characteristics that all of you mention -- into one body that can have the superior spirit that Ryan mentions.

    On a related note, I enjoy the irony of Russians speaking French in the book. And I particularly love the scene in section XV of Book 1, Part 2, where Dolokhov speaks with French soldiers and then the Russian soldier Sidorov imitates him with nonsense.


  6. An a somewhat unrelated note, I've read the Constance Garnett translation of W&P (it was the only unabridged version available at Borders) and since have received as a gift the Pevear & Volokhonsky translation. Reading it, when Denisov came around, P&V describe him as "swallowing his rs" and Garnett as "not pronouncing" them. P&V then give any instance of an R in Denisov's speech as "ghr", which, after a term and a half of college-level Russian and experience with a number of people who are incapable of rolling their Rs, makes sense to me. In the original Russian, is there any orthographic indication of Denisov's impediment?

  7. Ryan,

    I'm glad you asked this question!

    Yes, there is an orthographic indication of Denisov's pronunciation of the Russian р. Instead of р, Tolstoy wrote г', so Ростов becomes Г'остов.

    Pevear and Volkonsky speak of their rendering of the letter in this interview.

    I can't find much comprehensive and/or definitive information on the use of the apostrophe in Russian. I've seen it primarily in transliteration of foreign words that contain apostrophes, such as "о'кей." It is also sometimes used around words to, for example, add a Russian ending to a foreign word: Wikipedia cites "e-mail'ом." And it has been known to turn up instead of the hard sign (ъ).

    But the apostrophe is also used, albeit rather infrequently, to show nonstandard pronunciation, such as Denisov's swallowed r. Gorky used it to show a suppressed л, too.


  8. Interesting. I swear, with every page of P&V I regret the month I spent forcing myself through Garnett's translation so I could finish it before school started. And then I got to school, and found that 2/3rds of the class hadn't finished, or even made it halfway through the abridged version. This time through, though, it feels like a different book. It's not quite so Victorian, for one thing, but there are other things about it that I can't really describe... Perhaps in a decade I'll be able to read the original Russian.