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On Tolstoy's “War and Peace” (newcriterion.com)
113 points by well_i_never 18 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 93 comments

I liked this paragraph from the article:

"The novel’s wisest general, Commander-in-Chief Kutuzov, understands this fact about battle, and about life, from the start. At the council of war before Austerlitz, Kutuzov dozes off. At last he cuts the meeting short: “ ‘Gentlemen, the disposition for tomorrow—or rather for today, for it is past midnight—cannot be altered now. And before a battle, there is nothing more important . . . ’—he paused—‘than a good night’s sleep.’ ” If the world of human beings were amenable to science, then planning would be most important. But in a world governed by contingency, where immediate reactions to unexpected events matter most, one above all needs alertness."

My favorite quote. I read it as it is too late now to change anything for tomorrow rather than as planning is irrelevant.

I read it as "planning may be important, but a plan can never be perfect and is not worth sacrificing sleep for"

Great quotation; reminds me of Nassim Taleb's remarks on planning in "Antifragile".

I read the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation about 10 years ago. There were a lot of good references and footnotes.

But way into the novel, as the Russian army is about to crush the last remnants of Napoleon’s army retreating from Moscow, Field Marshall Kutuzov first tells his gathered troops to consider that the French are human too and have suffered along with them. Then, after a dramatic pause he continues:

    “But, that said, who invited them here? It’s their own doing, f… th… in the f…”, he suddenly said, raising his head.” 
But there was no footnote indicating what the redacted text was, which I found odd. I went to various other online translations and all had the phrase redacted in a similar way.

I even found an original Russian version online and even that was redacted. (I don't know a lick of Russian so it took a bit to find it.)

The original text had:

— А и то сказать, кто же их к нам звал? Поделом им, м… и… в г…. — вдруг сказал он, подняв голову.

I asked some of my Russian-speaking colleagues what this was and even they were a bit stumped but after some searching they found the redacted text was

м[ать] и[хъ] в г[узно]

Which they said was some crude old-fashioned way to say to basically screw their mother in the ass.

As Russian, can confirm that translation of the last phrase is correct and fits the context.

I recently read 'The Idiot', translated by Ignat Avsey (I enjoyed his 'Karamazov Brothers' translation), and it contained a few similar redactions with no notes as to why. I thought it was maybe just a stylistic device.

It is indeed a common literary device in 19th century Russian lit. Usually with proper names to make them more "anonymous" but contemporary readers would know exactly what was being referenced.

For example, most of the place names in Crime and Punishment are redacted, but it's so clear where everything happens there are walking tours in St Petersburg.

In my copy of Crime and Punishment it has some names (especially place names) where the end notes say it was partially redacted to get the manuscripts past censors. Not necessarily the case for every redaction though.

Even this can be pretending to pretend.

That is, the censor is some bored middle-class beaurocrat rather than a true believer. So all you need is to give the him plausible deniability so he can turn around to his bosses and say "Hey, he redacted the name, how was I to know he was talking about your mother."

It was not the case at the time. Censors were bright guys, including e.g. great writer Goncharov, or Nikitenko, who hadn't written any novels, but left very thoughtful memoires. On many occasions censors of controversial books were reporting to the tzar personally, or were tzars themselves (e.g. Nikolay I censored Pushkin).

Most 19th century was depressing and stagnant time wrt politics, so books drew immense public interest.

That said, op's example would be automatically censored by the author himself, since this language was unprintable in 1860s.

I don't know about the Dostoevsky's places, always thought it was a traditional trope - places named with the first letter are ubiquitous in Russian novels.

Edit: also, it's worth noting that much censorship was made to make books suitable for morally unstable or easily agitated demographics, like women, so sometimes the motives for a particular edit could be hard to relate from modern relativistic perspective.

Oh, I'm aware of place names and certain people beginning with just the first letter (such as 'Prince S.' in 'The Idiot'), but certain words were blanked out with stars, such as 'B*'. It happened only a handful of times in 'The Idiot', sometimes for a name a occasionally for a place. I don't recall that form of redaction ever appearing in 'The Karamazov Brothers', though.

I think he was abbreviating/f@c#ifying «морда ишака в говно» in the original Russian. The last word is a very old fashioned term for "shit" and it means "put their face in it" where face is really muzzle of an ass with similar connotation. The Polish translation I read used „pyskiem w g…” so it's more obvious ;)

I seriously doubt that - that phrase doesn't make any sense to a Russian speaker as an expletive.

P.S. That word is not old fashioned, it's used a lot in modern spoken Russian. It's quite vulgar though, much more so than the English equivalent.

Thanks! I was guessing what it could have been from the Polish translation. I was wrong and it seems translators took some liberty here.

War and Peace reminds me of David Lynch's "Dune". Aspects of it are utterly brilliant. Perhaps unsurpassed. As a whole though, it suffers from the effects of poor decisions.

Tolstoy famously said that he didn't even consider War and Peace to be a novel, but something else that sort of passes for one. Where another author with an axe to grind would tell a story that leads the reader to the desired conclusion, Tolstoy spends entire, insufferable chapters hammering home his message, sometimes in seeming contradiction to the plot. His portrayal of Napoleon in particular is comically ham-fisted, perhaps intentionally so.

One of his central points, on which he expounds endlessly, is dealt with in the first part of the article. Namely, that society and war are impossible to understand or predict. They just are. On the battlefield, it's not the army with the better strategy or equipment that prevails, but the one whose soldiers simply decide it's their time to win. It reminds me of Japan's "Shikata ga nai" (It cannot be helped) saying. While this is a valid coping mechanism for the incompetent or someone caught up in the heat of the moment, it's hardly a productive approach for those with the time to tackle tough problems. Kutuzov ends a strategy meeting on the eve of battle recognizing that it's too late for further revelations in understanding to be implemented, which is sane, but Tolstoy does indeed take things further and state such solutions are impossible to come by in the first place, which is unfounded. Complex systems can be understood. Just because they don't immediately surrender to analysis doesn't mean there is no solution. War and society are hard nuts to crack because they change based on the current understanding of them, like self-modifying code. That doesn't mean they're fundamentally impossible to understand.

This, at least, is my belief. Holding this belief made reading War and Peace a bit of a chore. Tolstoy creates wonderfully nuanced and realistic characters, but in War and Peace he hammers you over the head with his own philosophy and it's an unpleasant experience if you happen to disagree with it. The book would be better if he'd been more subtle, and could still benefit from having entire chapters (you know which ones) excised completely.

I suppose a lot of meaning and cultural context is lost in translation. I never understood how people in the West even approach these masterworks of Russian literature. They're challenging even for the natives.

That having been said, War and Peace is my favorite Russian novel by far. First time I read it I was 15, they force you to read it high school. I disliked it intensely. Second time I read it I was 40. I absolutely loved everything about it, even Tolstoy's relentless arguments in favor of his positions on historical events. To understand them, you have to understand the traditionally Russian fatalism, that still exists there even to this day. The overriding belief that things are largely predetermined, and the capacity of any single person (including Napoleon) to change anything is pretty limited. Which is not an unreasonable position to take, IMO.

There are a ton of subtle, impossible to translate details in it that you simply will not get if you read it in any language other than Russian and without the Russian cultural background. Same is true in the opposite direction: Russians will not get some of the subtleties in US classical literature. There's just far less of it, and nothing, as far as I can tell, quite of the same stature as Tolstoy or Dostoevsky.

Do you really believe that a person's comprehension of the world must be tied so irreversibly to the land they grew up on? There were some similarly condescending comments in a recent thread about the Master and Margarita. Personally I am more likely to respect someone's views on Shakespeare if they've read a lot of Shakespeare than if they were born in Stratford.

No doubt in my mind whatsoever. Books aren't just the words on the page. They also rely significantly on implied cultural contexts, meanings, things that _do not_ need to be said.

It's not condescension, it's just a simple fact. This actually becomes blindingly obvious only when you move to live in another culture/country about which you might have had some preconceived notions.

Out of curiosity, why would you consider such a thing a philosophy as opposed to something that can be demonstrated, or challenged, with evidence?

For instance the stock market is an example of a complex system that ought be trivial to create a very strong deterministic model of. Though it qualifies as complex, in reality it's quite a trivial system. Things tend to go up on good news, down on bad news, and all actors involved have mostly the same very simple motivation of increasing their returns. Real complex systems in practice are exponentially more difficult than the stock market because motivations and quantifications are far less clear. Yet in spite of its triviality and the fact that there has likely been more manpower and money dedicated to 'solving' the stock market than perhaps any other endeavor ever, we still remain completely clueless.

I'm sure your logic is to suggest that we yet lack the means of deciphering even such simple systems. Yet you are also making one extremely strong implicit statement. Systems with sufficient entropy become impossible to 'decode' to any meaningful degree. Consequently, you're arguing that there is a limited amount of entropy in complex social systems. Where is the logic for declaring this a reasonable view? I am not saying this to antagonize. The reason I'm curious is I imagine your view is quite common, yet I've never once heard it plainly stated (and I imagine most who hold such views aren't even aware they hold them). And now it's quite sparked my curiosity!

> Yet in spite of its triviality and the fact that there has likely been more manpower and money dedicated to 'solving' the stock market than perhaps any other endeavor ever, we still remain completely clueless.

It is precisely because of the effort to predict and exploit the stock market that predicting it is so difficult.


Markets Are Anti-Inductive

Let's say you see me flipping a coin. It is not necessarily a fair coin. It's a biased coin, and you don't know the bias. I flip the coin nine times, and the coin comes up "heads" each time. I flip the coin a tenth time. What is the probability that it comes up heads?

If you answered "ten-elevenths, by Laplace's Rule of Succession", you are a fine scientist in ordinary environments, but you will lose money in finance.

In finance the correct reply is, "Well... if everyone else also saw the coin coming up heads... then by now the odds are probably back to fifty-fifty."

Recently on Hacker News I saw a commenter insisting that stock prices had nowhere to go but down, because the economy was in such awful shape. If stock prices have nowhere to go but down, and everyone knows it, then trades won't clear - remember, for every seller there must be a buyer - until prices have gone down far enough that there is once again a possibility of prices going up.

According to Nigel Nicolson in "Napoleon 1812," Tolstoy's fatalistic outlook about the war (if not all of his historical detail) is actually fairly accurate. The Russians didn't fend off Napoleon by understanding the nature of the complex system in which they were embedded, but rather through sheer indecision, which had the effect of an accidental Fabian strategy: preserving their army by avoiding any catastrophic battle in which it would have been entirely destroyed. The one major action fought at Borodino — which has a near-mystical significance for Russians — was motivated mostly by political pressure (to avoid the appearance of cowardice), but probably wasn't necessary at all. It was likely that Napoleon had already doomed his army the minute he crossed the Neman, due to his refusal to grasp the sheer scale of the supply and transport problem related to marching half a million troops into Western Russia in late June. In fact, his Marshals had mostly recommended against it — but due to the caprice of one man, one million people died in a year. It's hard to argue that one could understand, predict, or mitigate this.

Nicolson goes on to point out how the Nazis — who were well aware of the example — made many of the same mistakes as Napoleon, who himself was repeating the same mistakes as Charles XII in his doomed invasion a hundred years earlier.

It's not to say that the problems of war and society are impossible to understand — but human factors such as hubris, bias, cults of personality, politics by committee, etc. usually conspire to obscure their solutions, even with the perspective of time.

Did you mean Herbert's "Dune"? Or did the movie diverge from the book?

David Lynch's "Dune" is always described as "David Lynch's 'Dune'" because he, uh, made the movie very much his own.

"On the battlefield, it's not the army with the better strategy or equipment that prevails, but the one whose soldiers simply decide it's their time to win."

whoa- things people say .. here's a chance to reconsider that line ..

Here's a chance to reread the comment. He was paraphrasing Tolstoy.

"General Pfühl attributes every loss to the failure to carry out his orders to the letter, and since such precision is never possible in battle, he can always argue that, just as he predicted". I think this is a great insight that can benefit both the left and the right wings. From the left we've heard many times how actual communism was never achieved and each failure (such as Mao China or Soviet Russia) proved the point that the theory WOULD work if done differently. But another implementation brought different contingencies again ending in casualties, but the theory WOULD work etc. etc. Sadly, we hear a lot of the same about free market, Michel Foucault in The Birth of Biopolitics argued that neo-liberal economics tend to "naturalize" the theory using the scientific discourse, so if, for example, the banks fail it's because there's still too much government control, if liberated from the welfare state mentality the supply and demand and the competitive market would come to a balance. Milton Friedman, probably one of the gurus of the free market based a lot on mathematical formulas, but it's an open question if physics or mathematics can be applied to criticize social structures and predict development?

An amusing footnote I found in Tolstoy's Confession:

The context:

>In spite of the fact that during these fifteen years I regarded writing as a trivial endeavor, I continued to write.* I had already tasted the temptations of authorship, the temptations of enormous monetary rewards and applause for worthless work, and I gave myself up to it as a means of improving my material situation and as a way of stifling any questions in my soul concerning the meaning of my life and of life in general.

The footnote:

  *It was during this period, when he "regarded writing as a trivial endeavor," 
  that Tolstoy produced War and Peace (1869).

I wonder if he was depressed when he wrote this.

just russian

I liked this quote from Tolstoy: > That saying is strikingly true not only of art but of all life. One may say that true life begins where the tiny bit begins—where what seem to us minute and infinitely small alterations take place. True life is not lived where great external changes take place—where people move about, clash, fight, and slay one another—it is lived only where these tiny, tiny, infinitesimally small changes occur.

It reminds me of some words from another, more recent, visionary: "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans."

(though some investigation shows this quote originates from before Lennon)

Please resist the temptation of the hyperbolic title (which we've changed above). Comments on the shallowest thing in an article only lead to shallow discussion.

The article contains many subtleties and interesting observations. Comments on those, or ones of your own, will make for a much better thread.

I sometimes think about Andrei and Pierre, such opposites and yet best friends. The way their fortunes seem to move in counterpoint. I've often preferred Andrei to the dreamy, idealistic Pierre, but on my most recent reading I think I finally saw why Pierre is the true hero, and not Andrei. I think it is this: Pierre was a seeker...always looking for the meaning in life. He was life-affirming, while Andrei was ironic and focused on what was artificial, life-denying. The scenes with Karataev are my favorite in the whole book. Such a joy to read. Tolstoy had such a good bead on psychology, what motivates individuals. It feels so honest.

I’d like to (or help someone else to) produce this for Standard Ebooks, but although Gutenberg has what looks like a nice transcription of the Maude translation,[1] there doesn’t seem to be any 1922/1923 scans available to proof it from[2] so it’s not happening at the moment…

[1] https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/2600

[2] https://groups.google.com/forum/#!topic/standardebooks/kBnED...

I'm currently reading a remarkable novel modeled after War and Peace: Vasily Grossman's Life and Fate


It's astonishingly good, both as literature and as an indictment of war and totalitarianism, and I'd recommend it to anyone who loves War and Peace.

Seconded; Life and Fate is a wonderful novel, and the only viable literary response to the Holocaust that I've read. Grossman's Writer at War is also excellent, and IMHO mandatory for anyone interested in WWII. His chapter on The Hell of Treblinka is without parallel.

As a russian, reading twitter '1 like - 1 fact' thread about Leo Tostoy and his wife (including how much it is her merit that the novel as we know it actually have seen the light of day) was a better read than War and Peace.


(google translate does a good job actually https://translate.google.ru/translate?sl=ru&tl=en&u=https%3A...)

I love the subheader: "The greatest of all novels". It's true

I do think though Russians do get a bit too much press for their novels, in a way that isn't, I think accorded to the French. For example dealing with events from the same period of time is Hugo's "Les Miserables" (it has a description of the battle of Waterloo lasting around 12 chapters), perhaps captures more of the variety of human experience.

Actually the battle scenes in War and Peace were written under significant influence of Stendahl's in la Chartreuse de Parme. I don't know, how the French treat their novelists, but from a Russian perspective, Stendahl's a big literature, and Hugo more of a teenage reading. I'm pretty sure Tolstoy shared this view.

Stendhal also has a description of Waterloo in his Charterhouse of Parma, but I think Hugo did a better description, besides it appears Stendhal wrote Charterhouse in a great hurry, as I recollect, he finished the whole novel in 52 days, I do find it not as finely turned out as Les Miserables.

The problem with Les Miserables is that of wide circulation of translations which are actually abridgements, I fear many readers would have missed the grandeur of the whole unabridged novel. Same seems to be the case with Count of Montecristo.

I haven’t read Les Miserables. I’m sure its great. But depicting battles scenes is not what makes W&P, W&P.

12 chapters of Waterloo for waterloo’s sake is meaningless.

Victor Hugo was born to make Tolstoy seem laconic. Tolstoy can be prolix, but Austerlitz and Borodino are critical to the action of the novel. Waterloo has a minor plot justification inn Les Miserable, but most of the twelve chapters on Waterloo are just Hugo's excuse for spinning his theories.

I'm pretty sure Hugo being a fan of Napoleon helped.

Quite. But somebody commenting mentioned Stendhal, who greatly admired Napoleon, and who managed to keep his account of Waterloo far shorter.

Good point. I don't know very well Stendhal, thank you.

Great as it is, Les Miserables is a telenovela compared to War and Peace.

> Russians do get a bit too much press for their novels

Russians get a bit too much press for most everything, from nukes to unstoppable social progress to foreign election meddling.

Curiously, but possibly related, not for https://www.google.com/search?q=largest+country+on+earth

could you please tell a bit more about social progress? I'd appreciate it.

I think it's a reference to the early days of USSR, when many in the West were gushing about the "new and better" society that it was supposedly building.

Right, unfortunately the 'novus homo sovieticus' was mostly Mrs. Busybody snitching on the neighbors. Drats.

A lot of great comments int his thread. The quotation that had the greatest impact on me was this one:

"We know that man has the faculty of becoming completely absorbed in a subject however trivial it may be, and that there is no subject so trivial that it will not grow to infinite proportions if one's entire attention is devoted to it."

Does anyone know why is Tolstoy's name usually in English anglicized as Leo? I know it's customary to do for Pope and kings, but I don't know of any other writer. Fyodor Dostoyevsky is Fyodor, not Theodore or Fred or whatever, so why has Lev become Leo? Publishers?

Basically yes, via French "Léon", according to this article: https://mosaicmagazine.com/observation/2015/03/how-lev-tolst...

I never finished this novel, but the juxtaposition of social maneuvers and war struck me early in the story.

Most people dont think War and Peace was even Tolstoys greatest novel. Anna Karenina is regarded as the greatest novel of all time by lots of authors and critics though of course there is no consensus and its sort of a silly notion.

No argument with what you're saying, but on a personal level I can't stand Anna, the character. Reminds me too much of a rather unfortunate ex, and ruins the story for me.

To me, Anna Karenina is more about Levin than anyone else since Levin is basically a fictional version of Tolstoy.

Anna Karenina is the novel I probably read the most of without finishing. After a while, it became hard to care about rich people and their affairs and varied "nervous conditions".

Only what was then "the affairs and nervous conditions" of rich people --and the rest were working wretches--, nowadays (and for the better part of last century) has been extended to the middle class, that is, to everybody.

I frequently find myself thinking the Greatest Novel Ever Written is either War and Peace or Anna Karenina, depending on which one I re-read most recently.

To me, Anna Karenina is really mostly notable for having the second-greatest opening line in all literature.

"Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way", to save others a google.

The greatest one being, of course:

"It was the best of times, it was the blurst of times."

It is a truth universally acknowledged... Jane Austen, naturally.

What's the first?

And the greatest?

"Common Lisp is a new dialect of Lisp, a successor to MacLisp, influenced strongly by Zetalisp and to some extent by Scheme and Interlisp."

There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.

Kafka. "One day, Gregor Samsa awoke to find himself transformed into a giant cockroach."

"The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel."

Definitely the greatest line I've ever read. Such extensive imagery and metaphor (well beyond just the sky), tucked into 15 words.

And teens today (or soon) would not visually know what "television tuned to a dead channel" meant...

It's almost more profound in some ways - on a lot of modern TVs, a dead channel is displayed as being a solid field of bright blue. So, it changes the way Sprawl's sky appears to each reader, but it makes the change take place in Case's head. If it's bright blue, and a person recognizes that first as related to a TV, what does that say about the way they perceive the world? Especially with how bad Case wants digital access.

"Call me Ishmael"?

A screaming comes across the sky.

Now, Everybody---

It's hard to pinpoint a "best," but I agree that this one (from Gravity's Rainbow) it quite, quite good, one I recall often.

¿En un lugar de la Mancha...?

Lesser known fact: the original title of “War and Peace” was “War: what is it good for?”, but Tolstoy’s mistress forced him to change it to the one we know today. The original title was then used in the famous Edwin Starr song. Source: Seinfeld.

That was a (lame) joke.

I understand the original title was, "War, What is it Good For?"

The claim “often regarded as the greatest of all novels” right in the opening is so hyperbolically naive and unmatched by the general level of the piece that one wonders if some marketing person added it to boost up the clicks.

Even if one adopts the mundane definition of topping all time greatest lists put together by various organizations, I still think this would apply to War and Peace, as commented here Anna Karenina probably would be a better candidate.

People who make such claims should be forced to watch the first classroom episode in Dead Poets Society till they get the idea.

JSYK, The New Criterion sometimes features outstanding criticism, but it also has an ideological bent. Both Tolstoy and Shakespeare are often labeled as “conservatives,” but that’s a reductionist treatment of them and their art transcends base politics. However, that the first sentence of TFA extols Tolstoy’s supposed conservatism is a clue to raise your ideological shields before reading further, lest you find yourself nodding along with a publication that invented the Edmund Burke Award and then bestowed it upon one of its commentators, Henry Kissinger.

Uh oh, looks like The New Criterion enforcers found me. I don’t think pointing out the well-known POV of a publication (read the wiki entry) should result in down-modding.

perhaps also not-so-curiously lacking is also any mention of orthodox christianity as part of the worldviews presented; russians as a whole are presented as being proto-communists and ultra-rationalist:

for example:

"In England, utilitarianism supported moderate liberalism, but by the 1860s Russians took it as proof of revolutionary socialism."

.. you know, umm.. except for the ones that didn't.

not to mention that marx and his 'dialectical materialism' was published from london, etc.

Tolstoy's faith (though clearly not always in agreement with the church) is here simply a 'personal' one which magically appeared in a vacuum.


it's "War and Society", not "War and Peace"

ah, whatever.

I read that article. It says there is an alternate spelling of the word "peace" in Russian which can be interpreted to mean "humanity/people" but that it was found only once in a 1913 version of the book which was identified as a typo.

lstodd 18 days ago [flagged]

If you had read the thing, you wouldn't be throwing useless links around. Since you do and thus obviosly didn't read it, why you even consider commenting here?

Did you read his link? It directly addresses your point. I will summarize and add some context, since I don't know if you read Russian. The word мир in Russian has two meanings, "peace" and something that is translated in different contexts more like "the world" or "society." These were once different words with different spellings, but during the Soviet Union, authorities decided that some letters had to be purged because they were naughty, so orthographic reforms were carried out that standardized some spellings and eliminated a few letters. So the previously distinguishable words "мир"(peace) and мір (the world/society) became orthographically indistinguishable. However, since Tolstoy published prior to the Soviet Union, you can tell what the likely intent was by how the title was spelled in pre-revolutionary publications. In almost all cases, it was spelled мир. There is just one instance when it was spelled мiр, and it seems likely that it was a misprint.

> but during the Soviet Union, authorities decided that some letters had to be purged because they were naughty

Just for reference, the grammatical reform had been designed during the tsarist times, started by the ephemeral Provisional Government, and only finished by the Soviets.

Thanks for clarifying! I was 90% just joking, but I wasn't actually aware that it had such a long history.

You're welcome! I found it interesting enough that this reform survives three widely different governments to mention it.

You can't attack another user like that here. We ban accounts that post uncivilly. Would you please be respectful from now on?


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