Friday, October 12, 2018

War and Peace

I have just finished reading War and Peace by the Russian author Leo Tolstoy. I first read this book when I was twenty, and thought that it was the best novel that I had read. I have read many more books since then, and still think that it is one of the best books I have read (Les Miserables by Victor Hugo is one that equals it).

Tolstoy tells the story of the Napoleonic invasion of Russia. Napoleon burned Moscow, before the cold winter forced a destructive retreat. Tolstoy vividly describes the horror and futility of war.

Tolstoy’s portrayal of his numerous characters is deft. He often describes the character of person in a few subtle sentences. His is critical of high society, and exposes the artificiality of the people who were respected in the best social circles.

The book is interspersed with Tolstoy’s philosophy of history. His main point is that important people are not as influential as they think they are. Political leaders get carried away by the flow if history and do things that they did not intend to.

The generals make detailed plans in the advance of the battle, but they are usually wrong, because they do not understand the geography of the battle ground and the positioning of their forces. Once the battle starts, everything quickly changes and their plan becomes impractical. The generals are usually too far back from the battle to see what is really happening, but they continue to send messengers with new orders and instructions. Unfortunately, by the time the messenger gets to the relevant commanders, the situation has changed, and the instructions are irrelevant or impossible to implement. Often instructions were ignored, because the people on the frontline are scared, confused, or want to push their own agenda.

Tolstoy shows how the turning point in a battle is often the result of a few inconsequential people. Some cries out, “We are finished”, and everyone begins to flee. Or a soldier’s horse bolts and leads him on a charge towards the opposing infantry. In each case, many thousands of others follow and the battle is turned.

The relationships between the various members of the families at the centre of the narrative is fascinating too. They keep popping up in unexpected places, but this keeps the book interesting to the end.

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