Class Warriors

October 25, 2010

I am curious about the reception given to War and Peace when it was published, and about which I have found nothing so far.  A strange book.  The story sucks you in like a TV movie with multiple threads, but there is surprisingly little drama lavished on the the most melodramatic of situations. 

Andrei returns from the dead, assumed killed at Austerlitz, just as his wife is giving birth.  He loved her briefly, before becoming disgusted with her.  She is simple-minded, but innocent.  She dies.  It sounds like a soap opera, but the emotional treatment is so restrained, it seems totally believable.

Pierre is married to a gorgeous and depraved woman and finds himself fighting a duel with her lover, a notorious rake and duelist.  He has never held a pistol, but he nearly kills his adversary, just by chance.  Beginner’s luck, but his mental state leading up to the terrifying encounter is sketched cleanly and with economy – coldly. 

The Battle of Austerlitz is fought, and lost.  The chaos is indicated briefly.  The ignorance, vanity, and stupidity of most of the generals is clearly in evidence.  Young Rostov is giddy with the thrill of being under fire, and he is put out of action with a wound to his hand.  War is a game he must play, and with style, by virtue of his class position.  Naturally, he cannot help embellishing his exploits in the telling.

Andrei takes his obligations more seriously – he dreams of  conquests on the Field of Mars that rival the glory of his hero, Napoleon.  He is seriously hurt when he charges the enemy in a fit of crazed bravado born more of childish stupefaction and hysteria than raw courage.  Before he blacks out, he encounters the universal infinite…  Napoleon sees his body stretched out with the regimental flag and comments, “A good death! ”  Bonaparte himself moves on the edges of the story, the motive force of all of it – and the subject of a lengthy debunking essay in the epilogue – like a natural force of physics causing movement and displacement.  He himself is cool, calm, and totally at ease with his role as warrior.  He is nothing but that.

On the home front, news of the defeat trickles in.  The Austrians are blamed.  It is not really a defeat.  The intelligent and informed read between the lines of the officially manufactured view.  The image of The Sovereign must not be compromised.

I recall reading Nicholas and Alexandra as a boy and noting that the Tsar read War and Peace to his family in the evenings – what an unflattering portrait of the ruling class it gives.  But that was 100 years before…