Saturday, November 5, 2011

War and Peace

Awhile back I read "War and Peace." Some years earlier, I had started it, and gotten a couple chapters in, and then quit. As with a lot of people, those big, three word, eighty letter Russian names did me in! The first time around I tried to keep track of the names by flipping back and forth to a glossary I had that explained names and relationships of characters in the book.

The second (successful) time, I just read the damn thing with no guide. I would read the names as I went but not really dwell on them or the fact that I was not really clear on who was whom, confident that if I plowed ahead, it would all click. And, it did!

I would urge those of you have not read this book to just do it! I always assume that the classics of music, literature, etc., are classic for a reason. They have stood the test of time...because they are GOOD! "War and Peace" has a story line
of intertwining families and relationships worthy of the very best soap opera, all set against the backdrop of Napolean's invasion of Russia.

Now that I have given you all this lovely advise for plunging in and reading the book, I am wondering exactly how i should go about plunging in and writing about
the book - it is HUGE and EPIC!

I will not give you a blow-by-blow of the action, although Wikipedia has a good (long) one if you are interested. Instead, I will tell you what i found most interesting and what I took away from the book.

The book follows several families in the times leading up to the war, through the war, and then into the aftermath of it. My favorite family is the Rostovs, who we meet toward the beginning of
the book. And, I think that one of my favorite characters is Natasha Rostov, who is in her early teens as the story opens. The opening scenes about the family revolve around kind of an open house that the parents are having at their home in Moscow, as the kids and teens run around playing and having crushes on one another. As I write this, a quote comes to mind - the opening line of another Tolstoy book, "Anna Karenina," which - in a Tolstoy frenzy - I read right after "War and Peace" (I also read "The Cossacks," which is kind of Tolstoy-lite, if you would like to start with that one). "Anna Karenina" begins, "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

And, I believe that there is truth to this. In the opening scenes, before the war, the Rostov could be the Brady Bunch or the happy family down the street. They seem familiar, and this may be why I particularly cared about them as I read the book.

Natasha Rostov grows to be a beautiful young woman and becomes engaged to Prince Andrei. But, when her father takes her to the opera, she meets the handsome cad, Anatol. I am not going to create a 'spoiler' by telling you what happens next, but I will tell you that her cousin is worried sick that she will be "ruined."

Another aspect of the book that I found really engaging was the information about the war itself. the French army takes Smolensk. The Battle of Borodino ensues and both sides are crippled pretty badly. At this point, the Russian army backs off and the French march to Moscow, but they are weak. Read the book to see what happens next; do not skip the epilogue where Tolstoy talks in essay form about the war and about General Kutuzov. Interestingly, this essay is
one of the things that I found most memorable about the book. Tolstoy explains that the role of a commanding officer is the say 'yes' or 'no' (mostly 'no') to all of the ideas that the eager young lieutenants bring to him. He further asserts that backing off at Moscow and letting the French army play itself out - as opposed to more direct engagement - was a good war strategy on Kutuzov's part. I think that the ideas in Tolstoy's essay could be put to good use for leaders and managers in general.

In my blog about C. J. Sansom's historic fiction, I explain that a good work of this genre always puts me on a "kick" where I read more by the author and try t
o learn more about the time and place in which the book is set. "War and Peace" definitely had this impact on me. In seeking more information about the French invasion of Moscow, I came up with some interesting facts.

First, the dramatic, onion-domed cathedral that you see at the beginning of this article is the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow. It was commissioned by the czar to thank God for repelling the French. Now, this gets really interesting, Tchaikovski wrote the dedication music for the cathedral. And, the piece was the 1812 Overture! At the risk of sounding silly, I have to admit that I always assumed that the 1812 Overture had something to do with the American War of 1812 - after all, it is played quite often at Fourth of July celebrations. Nope. Wrong war of 1812.

Hit the link and really listen to the music after you read "War and Peace." It is a soundtrack for the book! You can hear the various battles, and the tides turning in the war. At the end, you can hear the church bells ring out in Moscow, and if you have read the book, it may move you to tears.

Here are some more pictures of Russian cathedrals that i am including just because I came across them during my research, and I LOVE them. I would have no trouble believing that these photos were shot in the Land of Oz...

The first cathedral is from this blog, where you can read more about it: The red one is from:

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