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War and Peace – the final episode

By Nicolas Soames

10 March 2007

I have now nearly finished the story of War and Peace – with just the two epilogues to come. It has been a most remarkable listening journey for me as I had almost totally forgotten the book I had read (too early?) as a teenager. Certainly, my experience was enriched by the thoughtful and mesmeric voice of Neville Jason in our unabridged version.

Is its reputation as one of the greatest novels of Western literature justified, (and not just long?) The answer for me is an unequivocal yes, for many reasons. The major characters, and many of the minor ones, are people I seem to have met (courtesy of Jason) and come to know intimately; the historical drama against which their lives are lived I now understand far better.

And throughout there are the wise and sometimes unpalatable observations of Tolstoy himself, on human behaviour, on human need, on national pride, coloured generally with an unmistakable sympathy.

There are many moments which remain vivid for me, over and above the momentous historical events, such as the Battle of Borodino, or lost and gained love which are the stuff of the novel. Here are some highlights – without giving away the story!

One is the phenomenon of an increased irrational irascibility as the old approach their last months. I had personal experience of this just months before I came across Prince Nikolai Bolkonsky’s time of coming death, and his treatment of his daughter was movingly reminiscent. It made me understood much more of the process of an approaching end in old age – so different to the death on the battlefield.

The urge for spiritual refreshment and spiritual goals is displayed by a number of the main protagonists who deal with it in varying ways. Tolstoy’s canvas here is as wide as his historical setting, with Princess Marya pursuing a self-sacrificial route, and Prince Andrei and Pierre responding differently to spiritual crises of different kinds.

Then there is the issue of war, and the way people respond to its unbelievable horrors – and Napoleon’s Moscow campaign, in which most of his army died on the way home while the pursuing Russian army also suffered considerable casualties, was particularly horrendous.

Tolstoy makes many statements about war. He is dismissive of generals (on both sides, not just Napoleon!), admiring of appropriate courage, disbelieving in what men are told to do – and then do it. Battles are decided, he says, less by the orders of generals, than by the spirit of an army – the men themselves, who make it possible to achieve victories against the odds. God is not necessarily, he declares, on the side of the big battalions.

But I will never forget two comments which reflect the effect of war on reasonable men. Prince Andrei is a humane and essentially honest aristocrat who has no time for the toadies standing around playing politics with General Kutuzov, the Russian commander. But after his first bloody experience of battle, Prince Andrei is so shocked and disturbed that he argues vehemently that prisoners should never be taken. You kill or are killed. If this rule were followed, he said, war would only be the very last extremity. There would be no playing at war because war meant ultimate savagery.

To hear this come from the mouth of such a person as Prince Andrei was doubly shocking. I could only think that Tony Blair and his cohorts had never read Tolstoy, or they wouldn’t have sent men and women to Iraq.

The other comment showed the other side of war. Against the history of his time (Tolstoy wrote War and Peace nearly half a century after the events he describes) Tolstoy defended the actions and leadership of General Kutuzov, who was widely criticised for retreating after the Battle of Borodino and the decision to leave Moscow undefended against the advance of Napoleon.

His portrait of an old but wise general defending his homeland against the most powerful army of its day is one of the most curiously uplifting in War and Peace. And Tolstoy affirms, without question, Kutuzov’s attempts not to engage the retreating French forces in battle in an attempt to annihilate them. The French were getting out as fast as they could anyway, and he says ‘I do not want to waste one more Russian life unnecessarily.’ But his staff was baying for revenge…

My adult encounter with War and Peace read by Neville Jason has underscored my living over recent months while so much was going on with Naxos AudioBooks, with recordings from Villette to Great Expectations and a charming survey of British Birds (of which more in a few days!). But War and Peace was like a ground bass in a great Bach organ passacaglia.

Nicolas Soames

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