Tolstoy and the Master Race

December 17, 2010

I have reached the chapters of Tolstoy’s War and Peace after the Battle of Borodino.  The Russian army is retreating beyond Moscow, and the city is being left to the invading French.  Napoleon’s triumphal entry will be his undoing.  Tolstoy tells us that just as a pouring water on earth leaves no earth and no water, but only mud, just so did the flooding in of the French army leave no city, and no army.  Empty Moscow absorbed the army as sand absorbs water.  The army was destroyed as soon as it dispersed into the empty quarters of Moscow, and it became a disorganized, undisciplined, looting horde: the city burned.

Tolstoy does not blame the French for burning the city, nor does he credit ardent, or fanatical, Russian patriots.  Rather, he says that it was inevitable that Moscow would burn.  An empty city, built of wood, inhabited by an invading army, an army that casually piles furniture in squares to make bonfires – such a city was sure to disappear in flames.  Chicago did the same later in the century as a result of one cow kicking over a lantern!

In the early period of the occupation, Pierre has a fascinating encounter with a French officer commandeering the villa he is resting in.  The officer, a handsome and vain young man from a noble family, enters the house and beings surveying the rooms to make arrangements.  One of the Russian inhabitants is a gentleman acquaintance of Pierre’s who is old and mentally ill, even delusional.  The man tries to shoot the Frenchman, and Pierre instinctively protects him, wresting the gun from his friend.   He begs the officer not to punish the man who is clearly not in his right mind.

The conquering officer is magnanimous.  He declares that Pierre, who has saved his life, is now a Frenchman.  Tolstoy comments that this man could imagine nobody but a Frenchman being capable of any such heroism.  The officer is quite talkative, and even charming, while also pompous, noble (in the manner of the French we are told by Tolstoy), and completely unaware of the nature of the people around him.  He is so wrapped up in his dream of French gloire, his love of Napoleon, and his joy in the victory of which he has been a part, that he imagines that people are just what he thinks they are.

The officer resembles Tolstoy’s Napoleon in his self-absorbtion, but what struck me was that his behavior and attitudes were the same as those who would conquer France in another 130 years, the Nazis.  This invading French army saw itself as the master race, coming to distribute, in a condescending and benevolently despotic manner, the fruits of their superior and admirable civilization.  The tone of the officer’s talk prefigures speeches by pompous, arrogant, brutal Nazis declaring the benefits of the Reich that they are bringing to their victims.  Its self-satisfaction and ignorance would be its destruction.

With the benefits of 130 years of pseudo-science, the Nazis were able to refine this outlook to the point that many of those they conquered were classified as sub-human, and suitable for burning or mass slaughter.  The French were still in the throes of the Romantic Age.


Heureux de faire la connaissance de votre décolletage*.

October 17, 2010

I have been thoroughly enjoying the new translation of War and Peace by Pevear and Volokhonsky.  I read the novel first when I was about fifteen, and parts of it remain with me yet.  Memory is amazing!  I also recall avidly watching the full set of BBC episodes dramatizing the novel with Anthony Hopkins starring as the naive, but genuine Pierre Bezukhov.  The image above shows him enduring a dinner next to the woman, Helen, intended to be his wife.

Just now, I read the passage where he realizes that Helen, stunningly beautiful, but very stupid, could be his.  Really, physically his.  Never mind that he is nearsighted, bumbling, plump, filled with strange liberal ideas, and prone to being tactlessly honest.  He’s just been elevated to the nobility from the state of bastardy:  his father died and adopted him in his will, making him sole heir to a humongus fortune!  Everyone thinks it’s the perfect match, and she is…so…icily beautiful.  Look at that … at those…  Oh well, that was the fashion of the day.

An amazing piece of fiction, it draws one in immediately.  It’s strange too.  There is no plot, only history.  No real hero, although, I guess Pierre comes close.  War is shown as brutal, stupid, filled with vanity and destruction, but also heroism.  The action cuts back and forth across space like a contemporary film.  The Russian upper crust is depicted as filled with scheming, vain, shallow, money-grubbing twits.  Tolstoy spends much time describing the sad and confusing mental state of several young people aching for love, physical love too, and not understanding the circumstances and conventions surrounding it.  And events move slowly, inevitably towards that dreadful calamity.

* Happy to meet your cleavage.


The Master and Margarita

January 31, 2010

Begun by Bulgakov in the late 1920s, it was written and re-written during the 1930s, at the height of  the Stalinist repression.  A full Russian version was only published in the early 70s, thirty years after the author’s death.  It is a fantasy, a fable, an hilarious satire, a protest, a mystical reverie, and a lot more, no doubt.  It is certainly not easy to categorize.  Would such a book have achieved its notoriety if it had been written in, say, the USA?  No – part of its tremendous appeal is that it is the veritable anti-novel, the anti-dote, to the time and place in which it was written.

The story is centered on a visit by Satan to Moscow to get a Queen to preside over his annual ball, or maybe just to have some fun.  The devil is an affable fellow, rather clever and slick, and his assistants are colorful clowns.  The most amusing is an enormous black tomcat given to ironic and satirical jibes.  They wreak havoc amongst the stuffy Soviet toadies and functionaries they encounter, and they retrieve Margarita to preside over Satan’s grand ball.

Interwoven with this tale of witchcraft and demonic mischief is a story of the confrontation of Jesus and Pontius Pilate.  The story is the novel written by The Master, Margarita’s lover, but it is also an historical narrative that has separate status.  There any many hooks on which to hang allegorical and satirical interpretations, but the novel is remarkable in what it most emphatically does not do – it does not present a simple rejection of the horrible system under which its author was living.  Simply by being written, a story that treats the New Testament as something other than a fairy tale and lie, by celebrating hedonistic and individualistic pleasure, and of course, by making fun of bureaucrats, it is a such a total rejection.  There was no need to shove it into the faces of its readers.

Some contemporary Russian illustrations for the novel:


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