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War and Peace 2013: Entry 15--Reading Fifteen

N.B.: This post will discuss only the events through the end of Book III, Part 2, Chapter 5. Unlike with The Odyssey, the eventual resolution of the story is not necessarily common knowledge, so I will make every attempt to avoid spoilers as we go. Also, there seems to be some weird chapter numbering going on with some editions of the novel, Kindle and otherwise. I've updated the reading schedule to make it clearer where the readings end and will be more than happy to answer any questions if you're confused.

And now, having kept up with the readings, as I am sure have you all (right?), I am going to try to knock out a few quick and dirty blog posts to catch us up. So forgive me if this goes astray--though I wasn't dreaming when I wrote it.

"By omitting the e, though incorrectly, Pierre got the answer he sought. L'russe Besuhof made 666. This discovery excited him."

Pierre's manipulation of his name and various epithets and titles attributable to him in order to secure for himself the same "number" as Napoleon is one of the moments of this book that tends to stick with people. Largely, I think it's because it's so oddly comic and strikes modern readers as borderline insane. Of course, this sort of odd blend of Biblical prophecy and numerology makes perfect sense to Pierre--and, to be fair, to many modern day people confronted with how on earth to interpret the Book of Revelation. Still, we must take this moment seriously, because Pierre takes it seriously. It means something to him, and it reaffirms his internal sense of having a great purpose, a theme we've seen again and again. This ridiculous manipulation of something inherently meaningless provides "external" confirmation of Pierre's belief. He will let his actions be driven by this belief--and that's what gives it power. What we believe changes what we see--and what we see inspires what we do.

This concept of the power of belief over facts recurs several times in this reading. The most obvious other example is Tolstoy's digression (How are we feeling about these, by the way?) about historians. He paints them, essentially, as holding to a theory, and either cherry picking or ignoring facts as they do or do not fit their theory. The Russians planned all along to defeat Moscow via the destruction of their ancient capital, Moscow? Well, clearly they did--there's all this evidence to support it! The fact that it's almost entirely unbelievable that Emperor Alexander and his generals would have ever willingly allowed French troops so deep into Russian territory--and concoct a plan that involved the destruction of their most iconic city--well, we'll ignore that fact. (As a parallel: around the same time, the British were invading the U.S. during the War of 1812, which involved the British capture of Washington, D.C. and the burning of the White House. Anyone who claimed, in retrospect, that this was all part of some grand American plan would be laughed out of academia--justly so. Nation states, as a whole, do not like surrendering their capitals to their enemies.)

It's not just the excitable Pierre and the blind historians who fall victim to this belief bias, however. In their own way, Natasha's doctors, constantly prescribing ineffectual medicines for what is, to my eyes, essentially the aftereffects of a bad break-up, are living out the same pattern. More tragically, old Prince Nicholas is so tied to his own beliefs about the way things are that he initially rejects contrary information, even from his own son. His aging mind has perhaps lost some of its vigor, and it takes him hours of thinking about it subconsciously to realize that he, his family, and his beloved Bald Hills are essentially directly between the French armies and their target: Moscow.

And what of Moscow? Almost all our main characters, who are usually scattered all over the countryside, are about to find themselves in the same city, for the first time in the book.

P.S.--In almost every reading, there is a moment so small and intimate that the epic nature of this work suddenly falls away and I feel deeply connected to the characters. Often, these moments involve Andrew and Mary, each of whom is my favorite character in the novel, depending on my mood. So, it shouldn't surprise that his quickly written message to his sister, scratched out in pencil on a piece of paper torn from a notebook, affected me deeply. I can see the paper in my mind, a jagged edge indicating its provenance, and with an almost illegible scrawl on it containing no greetings, no closings, no expressions of love--just a desperate plea: Go. Now. And let me know you're safe.

P.P.S.--Don't forget you can follow along on Twitter: @WandP2013, #WandP2013.


  1. I am really enjoying following the majority of the main characters throughout the novel. Mary, Andrew, Nicholas, and Pierre are especially compelling. The sequences surrounding the escape from Bald Hills were gripping.

    So far I can tolerate the authorial musings on history and war, although they do slow down the narrative. I find them the least enjoyable when Tolstoy is on a high horse berating historians or others for what he sees as wrong. I'd rather just hear what he feels is right than the denigration of other views. Sometimes it starts sounding a little strident.

    Also, being just about completely ignorant of this period of Russian history, I get a little annoyed at how he sets forth his philosophy on why the Russians lost this or that battle before he goes on to describe the battle in the context of the novel. I didn't know they were going to lose the battle. Spoilers! But of course, his intended readers would have known the history very, very well. So my fault, I suppose.

    Also, you used "effected" in the same ah, *creative* way you used it in your tweet. ;-)

  2. Fixed. :-)

    And I notice you don't include Natasha in your list of the book's most compelling characters--oversight or critical judgment?

    And we'll get to strident. Believe me. By the time I got to the end of the book my first time through, I believe Apu summed up my feelings best:

    And then comes the Second Epilogue, which...we'll get to in time.

  3. The omission of Natasha was not entirely accidental. I became less impressed with her when she didn't stay faithful to her engagement. Although, she really was very young and inexperienced and the creep (whose name I can't recall at the moment) did use all his powers of persuasion. I guess it seemed to me like she was just very immature -- and therefore not as exciting to follow in the narrative. But I'm guessing her experiences have changed her and she has learned, so we'll see where her storyline goes.

    I've now read through Chapter 34 of Part III -- the battle at Borodino is coming to its conclusion. It seems hard to believe we're only 2/3 of the way through the book -- so much has happened to these characters it seems unfathomable we still have 1/3 of the content still for them to develop in. But I'm still very much enjoying the journey.


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