Truth and Lies in Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace

By Bell, Fraser | Queen's Quarterly, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

Truth and Lies in Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace


Bell, Fraser, Queen's Quarterly


Instead of gaining possession of men's freedom, you gave them greater freedom than ever. Or did you forget that a tranquil mind and even death is dearer to man than the free choice in the knowledge of good and evil?

The Grand Inquisitor, The Brothers Karamazov

Fyodor Dostoyevsky

WHEN the young Count Leo Tolstoy was visiting Paris in 1857, he paid a visit to Les Invalides to see Napoleon's tomb. As he examined the base of the sarcophagus with its engraved list of French victories -- Rivoli, Jena, Marengo -- he came across the words La Moskva and flew into a terrible rage. As all Russian patriots knew, the battle fought 45 years before, outside of Moscow, was called Borodino, and it had been a Russian victory, not a French one. Aside from the fact that he had been fighting the French only two years before in the Crimea, that he had served during the siege of Sevastopol in the deadly Fourth Redoubt, and that he had witnessed the Russian army being humiliated by its old enemy, Tolstoy was further affronted that yet another Bonapartist was on the throne of France: the dead emperor's nephew, Napoleon III. But it was the first Napoleon who brought out the near-apoplectic anger in the former artillery officer.

However, a few years later when he sat down to write his novel War and Peace, the anger had been replaced by contempt; the splenetic tone of the notebooks has been transformed into the lucid, steely edged voice of the omniscient narrator. Tolstoy's intention was not just to set down a story about the Rostovs or the Bolkonskis for the amusement of the Petersburg haut monde. His central aim was to attack the official and self-serving mythical version of men and their works; he is forever seeking the gleam of "inner truth," which he believes is always obscured by official bulletins, by the chatter in the salons, by orthodox history. More than that, the "idea" of the Great Man, the classical Homeric Hero, as described in Plutarch's Lives, was to be brought to the bar and found guilty. To that end Tolstoy went after the Napoleonic legend as no one had done before, picking off its outriders, falling on its flank, its rear, then meeting it head-on and driving through to its hollow centre.

ANYONE who has read War and Peace will remember the famous scenes, some of which were reproduced in the Hollywood movie version (with Henry Fonda as Pierre), the mammoth 1968 Russian film, and in a more recent BBC TV series: Natasha's troika ride, Pierre's duel with Dolokhov, Anna Pavlovna's soirees, the burning of Moscow, the retreat. But hovering over everything is the presence of Tolstoy's antagonist: Napoleon, the Corsican Ogre, "Boney," the man they called the Great Shadow. It is he who is the pivot upon which everything and everyone turns. Early in the narrative, Tolstoy places Napoleon on stage as France and Russia go to war, but it soon becomes apparent that the French emperor has been re-invented. There is Napoleon, in his old familiar style, addressing his troops before Austerlitz, to cries of "Vive l'Empereur." After the battle is over he rides up to Prince Andrew, who lies wounded on the battlefield. The emperor strikes his pose as magnanimous victor, but Prince Andrew has drifted elsewhere. Alrea dy you can see the beginning of the demolition process. "He knew it was Napoleon -- his hero -- but at that moment Napoleon seemed to him such a small.... creature compared with what was passing now between himself and that lofty infinite sky with the clouds flying over it."

Seven years later, as the French army crosses the Vistula and invades Russia, Bonaparte seems gradually to shrivel even more; as the great armies collide at Smolensk and then Borodino, he becomes almost insignificant. Mercilessly, Tolstoy tears off the mountebank's mask revealing the man beneath. As Tolstoy describes it, there is Napoleon snivelling with the cold on the eve of Borodino (according to Segur, he also had a bladder infection); his valet sprinkling eau-de-Cologne on his leader's "plump hairy chest. …

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