The day after taking doxicyclene for Lyme disease and anaplasmosis this is the text conversation between my daughter and me:
Me: I was feverish with a bizarre and pounding headache. Not normal. Felt really weird. Sweating profusely. And UNABLE TO STOP GOING OVER SCENES FROM WAR AND PEACE in my head.
Daughter: Okay. That’s terrible but the War and Peace thing you obviously know is hilarious. “unable to stop” 🙂 🙂
Me: Even as I was almost dying I was like: this is ridiculous.
Daughter: LOLOL. It’s so you though. Are you okay now?
Me: Called the doctor. My reaction was rare but serious so she prescribed a new drug.
Daughter: Oh, God. Did you tell her about the War and Peace hallucinations? Is that part a common reaction?
For most of August my daughter received texts like this:
Me: Prince Andrei may forgive Natasha but I never will. NEVER.
I’m in such a state of despair. Prince Andrei is finally dead. So terrible I’m sobbing.
Daughter: Oh my God, but didn’t we know it was coming?
Me: Yes but when it finally came it was terrible. There’s little reason to live now. My life is a desert.
Daughter: I wish we lived closer 😦
Me: Tolstoy has ruined my life. Okay. I need to calm down.
Daughter: Yes. You do. But it’s cute. . . . Mom…
Daughter: Ugh. Life has been cruel (here’s where my daughter talks about her real-life break up with a cad. I’ll keep it private).
But what is real life? Great fiction certainly blurs the lines (it doesn’t help that my nervous system has been under attack from the dreaded Lyme disease). For some there is the summer of rage, for others the summer of love, but for me this was the summer of War and Peace. My heightened sense of awareness as I feverishly followed the lives of Pierre, Natasha, Marya and Andrei made each new revelation more glorious and painful (or the book is just that glorious and painful?).
I’ll start at the end because new life begins at the end of something and that end in this case is the slow, heartbreaking death of Prince Andrei Bolkonsky. Andrei, in fact, dies many deaths before the final one which I’ll get to, but here at the end we glimpse Andrei’s son, with the same nervous and thoughtful temperament as his father, living a rather neglected life with his aunt and uncle. He is the echo of Andrei. In his brief appearance as he sits listening in rapt awe to Pierre (Andrei’s best friend), we get a picture of Andrei. Tolstoy doesn’t say much about Andrei’s absent mother but we see the lonely, shy eagerness in his son’s eyes in the presence of the only real connection he has to his deceased father. Poor Nikolenka unexpressed neediness comes out in his accidental destruction of a pen set. We hope that Pierre and Natasha will see past themselves to give the orphan boy what Prince Andrei only allowed himself to experience briefly—love.
At the start of the story we meet Andrei in a loveless, dull marriage to an annoyingly good, decidedly silly girl. Andrei’s father suffers his pregnant daughter-in-law’s silliness with barely hidden contempt. Andrei himself has trouble hiding his own contempt and confesses to Pierre on the eve of going off to war that he considers marriage a mistake.
Andrei’s father, the count, hides his great love for his children behind a self-protective wall of hostility. Andrei’s sister Marya takes the brunt of her father’s abuse but is armed with her great devotion to God. Marya begs Andrei to take a religious icon to war. Andrei is dismissive at first but we see his heart for his sister when he accepts her gift even as he doubts her faith.
“Andre, I am going to bless you with an icon, and you promise me never to take it off . . . Do you promise?”
“Of course, if it doesn’t weigh a hundred pounds and pull my neck down . . .To give you pleasure . . .” said Prince Andrei, but that same second, noticing the distressed look that came to his sister’s face at this joke, he instantly repented. “I’m very glad, truly, very glad, my friend,” he added.
“Against your will He will save you and have mercy on you and turn you to Him, because in Him alone there is truth and peace,” she said in a voice trembling with emotion, with a solemn gesture holding up in both hands before her brother an old oval icon of the Savior with a blackened face, in a silver setting, on a finely wrought silver chain.
She crossed herself, kissed the icon, and gave it to Andrei.
“Please, Andre, for me . . .”
From her big eyes shone rays of a kindly and timid light. These eyes lit up her whole, thin, sickly face and made it beautiful. Her brother wanted to take the icon, but she stopped him. Andrei understood, made the sign of the cross, and kissed the icon. His face was at the same time tender (he was touched) and mocking.
Marya’s words are prophetic. God does save Andrei but not in the way we mortals like. Andrei, without a mother and only a father unable to show love, seeks glory (not love which he doesn’t understand) as the highest good. He thinks to himself as the Russian army retreats that for glory he would give up family, friends and life. As the throng of frightened men all around race to the rear Andrei takes up the standard and moves forward.
Andrei falls and is captured but not before noting the expanse of sky above him—the emotionless, unperturbed sky which is neither impressed nor ashamed of the tiny glory a young man seeks. Andrei meets his hero Napoleon briefly at the hospital but no longer worships him and sees him for the small, mean man he is. He sees glory as small and mean as well.
What is the epitome of manhood? Andrei’s best friend, Pierre, a hulking, fumbling decent sort of fellow and bastard son to a man with a large fortune lives a life of debauchery. While Andrei is tightly wound and spiritually deep, Pierre is led by his feelings and appetite which he has trouble controlling. Andrei sees Pierre’s integrity hidden deep within his hefty frame and frivolous living. Pierre sees Andrei’s soft and pained heart beneath his creeping cynicism, hostility and irritation so similar to his father’s.
Both men search for goodness but as Christ said no one is good but God and here lies the tragedy and hope. Even in this friendship they fail each other. Pierre visits his recovered friend just returned from the war eager to tell him all about the truths he’s discovered about social justice. Andrei covers his love with contempt, belittling Pierre’s naïve ideas even as he himself is at the forefront of the movement to improve the lives of his serfs. He refuses to let Pierre have his victories. He refuses to show his weakness in agreeing with anything his friend says. How sad. How distancing. How lonely.
Yet God has other plans. Andrei travels through a forest of dead trees that mirror his mood. He meets a girl in the bloom of life and falls in love. He tries to do right to please his father and this young girl, Natasha Rostov fails the test he gives her when he asks her to wait for him as he travels to warmer climates to recuperate from his still unhealed war wounds.
Natasha and her mother fear something in Andrei. Is it the integrity and depth they are so unaccustomed to in the Rostov men? The Rostovs are foolish spendthrifts and emotionally volatile. Always at the brink of ruin, they are saved in the end by Andrei and Marya Bolkonsky.
War and Peace is large and sweeping but it’s the little moments that are so poignant and true. Andrei, with broken heart after Natasha’s affair with an awful man, goes back to war ready to die until the moment he’s injured by shrapnel. He sees the man who tricked Natasha into loving him at the hospital suffering an amputation and forgives him–forgives humanity and feels the depths of his ability to love—a love bigger than self and a love only possible as a gift from God.
Andrei dies a slow death but not before reuniting with Natasha. Yet again, humans fall so short. After Andrei dies Natasha remembers with great regret a conversation between herself and Prince Andrei. A conversation that exposes his true soul, his search and need for unconditional love:
“One thing is terrible,” he had said, “it is to bind yourself to a suffering man. That is eternal torment.” And he had looked at her—Natasha could see it now—with a searching gaze. Natasha, as always, had answered then before she had time to think of what answer she would give: “It cannot go on like this, it won’t be, you’ll get well—completely.”
She now saw him anew and lived through all she had felt then. She remembered his prolonged, sad, stern gaze at those words, and understood the meaning of the reproach and despair in that prolonged gaze.
“I agreed,” Natasha now said to herself, “that it would be terrible if he was left suffering always. I said it then only because it would be terrible for him, but he understood it differently. He thought it would be terrible for me. He still wanted to live then—he was afraid of death. And I said it to him so crudely, so stupidly then. I didn’t think that. I thought quite differently. If I had said what I thought, I would have said: let him be dying, dying all the time before my eyes, I would still be happy compared to what I am now. Now . . .There’s nothing, nobody. Did he know that? No. he didn’t know, and he’ll never know. And now it will never, never be possible to put it right.”
And again he was saying the same words to her, but now, in her imagination, Natasha answered differently. She stopped him and said: “Terrible for you, but not for me. You know that for me there is nothing in life without you, and to suffer with you is the best happiness for me.” . . . and in her imagination she said other tender, loving things to him, which she might have said then, and which she was saying now: “I love you, I love . . .”
And this love is all there really is. It’s all we seek. Tolstoy’s view of history leaves little room for free will (especially in leadership). Events happen. Deaths happen with no escape for any of us. The war is within each of us. The battle moves forward to its final conclusion, and we are carried along with great throngs of fearful masses. The sky, God, is not devoid of feeling as Prince Andrei once thought.
I quote the apostle Paul: I pray that he would give you, according to his glorious riches, strength in your inner being and power through his Spirit, and that the Messiah would make his home in your hearts through faith. Then, having been rooted and grounded in love, you will be able to understand, along with all the saints, what is wide, long, high, and deep—that is, you will know the love of the Messiah — which transcends knowledge, and will be filled with all the fullness of God.
Our world today is full of people hiding behind irritability, anxiety and fear. Every last person feels the pain of separation from others—and from God. But love is right here. We do it badly but it is here.
Tolstoy does not tell us what becomes of Andrei’s son but I hope Pierre and Natasha recognize the need he has—that echo of his father’s need. Let them love him.
***As one might imagine in a book so rich there are many themes and ideas I couldn’t possibly cover such as:
The nature of beauty
Military strategy and military life
Fate and free will (in general)
The nature of God
Love and forgiveness
The slavery of great men thought of as leaders to their fate
I’ve included links but have not read them since my desire with this endeavor is to come at these works using my own heart and brain. 🙂