At 7:58 pm on Tuesday, July 13th, 2010 I officially finished reading what, to date, is the longest single piece of literature I have ever attempted to read: Tolstoy's epic historical novel War And Peace. I noted the time and date on the final page to commemorate what, for me, is a momentous occasion; they are my figurative American flag that I thrust into the earth upon summiting the Everest of literature. It was a journey nearly a year in the making...but the actual time that it took me to read through the entire novel is deceptive in comparison.
When I was growing up I often heard War & Peace referenced either as the pinnacle of literary merit (it is referred to by many in the literary world as the "greatest novel of all time"--a title I take contention with) or as an analogue to a tremendously time consuming undertaking ("It was like reading War and Peace"...though, if truth be told, most people who say that haven't actually read the book). Despite the epic scope of its plot and character development, War & Peace's claim to fame is indeed its prodigious length; I believe that it is fair to say that the average person who has heard of the novel knows it only for its incredible duration and not because of its literary quality.
The irony is that it isn't even close to being the longest novel ever written. Artamène, or Cyrus the Great is often considered to hold that title and, when compared to War & Peace, it shows how ridiculous the lore of Tolstoy's work is. The Modern Library Classics edition of War & Peace comes in at a whopping 1,386 pages. Pretty impressive...until you realize that the unthinkinable length of Artamène is...wait for it...seriously...I hope you're sitting down...well...of course you're sitting down...how else would you be on the computer?...unless you're at Baruch...they have those dopey computer terminals there...the keys are always sticky...it really is quite disgusting...anyway...::ahem::...ready for it? Artamène, or Cyrus the Great is an unthinkable 13,095 pages long!!! That's almost ten times the length of War & Peace.
So if it's not even close to being the longest novel ever written...why bother reading it?
A fair question. I could say that it's always been my dream to read it...but then I'd be lying. Ironically enough, though, it was someone else's dream to read it and that's what ultimately led me to tackle the novel. My wife, since she was a young girl, has said two things: she wanted to get married on 07/07/07 and she wanted to read War And Peace while she was pregnant. The former was a response to a prompt from her aunt asking a then-nine-year-old Heather what date she would want to get married on. Seven has always been her favorite number so that was the first date that came to mind. When her aunt said, "Is that even a Saturday?" (As if all weddings must take place on the Day of Saturn) they looked it up and found that it was indeed a Saturday. Needless to say, that was the date we selected for our wedding (before all that craziness about the date--we were so clueless to it--thank God we got all of our reservations booked up before it started!)
Anyway, with regards to the second thing, Heather, like the aforementioned people who speak of War & Peace, felt like it would be quite an accomplishment to read such a long novel. She decided that, when she would someday become pregnant (and presumably while on maternity leave), she would have the time to read it and, consequently, reading such a lofty work of literature would serve to make her unborn child smarter. Thus she embarked upon the journey sometime in July or August of last year. I had never read any of Tolstoy's novels before but I knew that Russian literature could be brutal both in terms of its often obtuse and dense prose (Dostoyevsky comes to mind) and in its consonant-heavy names of people and places. I knew that, although Heather had read pieces of classical literature before, she might be put-off by the aforementioned difficulties presented by the novel. And so, in a sign of solidarity, I decided to read the novel with her.
Right out of the gate it was clear to me that I was going to hate this book. I was going to hate it because of its content (I'm not a fan of historical fiction), I was going to hate it because of its characters (particularly during the "Peace" sections, if you will, where it focuses on the aristocracy), and I was going to hate it because of its reputation. I had read Mann's The Magic Mountain, which, coincidentally, is also often referred to as the greatest novel of all time and, in my estimation, deserves that spot or should be tied with Joyce's Ulysses for it. Being predisposed to prefer the former works, I found that I was challenging War And Peace to prove itself to me. Heather...not so much.
I give my wife credit for being an absolute trooper. If I hated the novel then she absolutely abhorred it. Seriously--I think at times she would have preferred having her fingers dipped in battery acid than having to read another page. Originally, we had only one copy of the book--a compact paperback version. The length of the book was unchanged as compared with a slightly larger version also put out by The Modern Library Classics and thus the font was infinitesimally small. Aside from that, it also seemed heavier than the other book. (I know that they weigh the same but imagine if you will a three pound book bag or slat of wood...and then a three pound marble. The marble will seem that much heavier because of the fact that the weight is condensed into a smaller package. Same deal with the book.) After struggling with the font size, Heather was ready to give up reading but I suggested that we just get the other, larger book. It was at that point that I offered to read the book as well, taking on the challenge of the tiny font version while she continued her reading with the more appropriately sized one.
When I began reading, Heather had a considerable fifty page-or-so lead over me. As I struggled through the first few pages I found my attention wavering almost constantly so that I was forced to read and then re-read nearly every sentence; in a half hour I might have read ten pages whereas with another novel I might have read twenty, thirty, or more pages. Still, though, I plugged away...and then came the inevitable day a few weeks later that I caught up to Heather...and then surpassed her...and then left her in a cloud of dust as I adjusted my rear view mirror and reached over to grab some trail mix from a half-empty package on the passenger seat. To her credit, she made it through nearly three hundred pages before crying "uncle" and moving on to some books she would actually enjoy reading (we were both happier people as a result).
As for me...well...I have my inborn stubborn streak to thank for helping me through the rest of the novel. Sometimes I'm like a mule--no matter how hard the task is or how intensely I dislike it, I'll just put my nose to the ground and keep on trucking (though my Mom and wife can likely offer a thousand counterexamples of moments that I bailed on things or complained incessantly, kicking and screaming until it was done!) Ordinarily, though, when it comes to physical challenges such as walking great distances or something fitness related, I never give up; ditto for reading difficult pieces of literature. The only book that I began reading for pleasure that I wound up putting aside without finishing it was Joseph Heller's Catch-22 because I just could not get into the story. Having finished War & Peace, though, I'm redoubling my efforts to plod through it. After all--if I could make it through Tolstoy, I can make it through Heller!
So what made reading War And Peace so difficult, and what gives with it taking almost a year to read it?
Well, with regards to the latter, I didn't read it every day. With The Magic Mountain, for example, I was required by my professor to read 70 pages a week (a GODSEND in terms of Graduate School expectations). Depending on the book, I can at times blow through that much in a single sitting. With War & Peace, though, I was a) not required by anyone to read it and b) not blowing through 70 pages at a time. Stephen King says in his memoir/text on writing...called...On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (see what I did there?!) that:
"You can tell without even reading if the book you've chosen is apt to be easy or hard...Easy books
contain lots of short paragraphs--including dialogue paragraphs which may only be a word or two long--
and lots of white space...Hard books, ones full of ideas, narration or description have a stouter
look. A packed look. Paragraphs are almost as important for how they look as for what they say; they
are maps of intent." (NB: Bold emphasis added) (Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft,
p. 123, 2000)
Needless to say, War & Peace is a dense book--a packed book, if you will. There were, at times, single paragraphs that would go on for pages, only at their conclusions to refute or negate the original points that were made. As noted earlier, I found myself rereading many such paragraphs, which slowed my progress considerably. My reading environment also often greatly hampered said progress. If I were reading on the bus or ferry I'd have to deal with the crazies and their loudness and many times at home (after January) I'd have to deal with Timmy wanting me to play with him or any other myriad distractions that can be caused by an infant. Plus I really didn't like what I was reading so any time my attention wavered I didn't do a hell of a lot to pull it back onto task.
I didn't have much incentive to sit down and plow through a hundred pages in a single session...and so I didn't. I remember being almost five hundred pages through when Heather stopped reading. Then, a month or two later, I was only in the six hundreds...and still wasn't even halfway through. That alone was disheartening. I had concerns and responsibilities in terms of tending to my household duties and my pregnant wife. Summer turned to Autumn and then to Winter. Then, when Timmy came, I wanted to spend every waking moment playing with him.
Spring came and went...but somewhere along the way I found myself making progress. I had eclipsed the nine-hundred page mark and was closing in on a thousand pages--a milestone of pagination, if you will. More importantly though I was finally clicking with the novel; I was at long last experiencing that sensation of being in and into the book. Suddenly, it no longer felt like a textbook but more like an approachable piece of literature. I found myself loving Tolstoy's philosophical musings, either disseminated through his narration or through the voices of Pierre Bezuhov, Prince Andrey, and Nikolay Rostov. I was beginning to understand better and to enjoy the historical sections. The only thing that I still couldn't stand and which, for me, renders the novel pedestrian on some levels, is the romantic aspect of it. Characters fell into and out of love quicker than teenagers in heat. It really detracted from the overall enjoyment I ultimately found in my reading, though the characters, taken individually, are quite interesting (except for Natasha, which is a shame since she is one of the most important characters in the novel).
Anyway, I found myself picking away at the novel throughout 2010. Some days I would read a few pages, on other days a few more...but few sessions lasted for more than twenty pages and the number that reached thirty to fifty pages could be counted on a single hand. I had stretches of three weeks at a time where I wouldn't read a single page (and thus the elongated duration required to finish the book) and felt like it was slipping away. When I finally entered the 1100s though I knew that I was in the home stretch. Two-hundred pages and change quickly became one hundred pages plus. Then, last week, I read through one hundred and ten pages in a single day--the largest single day total I had had with the book.
As I closed in on finishing this mammoth tome I found myself having an odd set of emotions and feelings; they were almost identical to those that are often felt by students who have suffered through a particularly terrible semester with a horrendous professor and who are now only two or three sessions away from never having to see this particular person ever again. As in those situations, as I neared the end of War And Peace, I found myself looking back through the many moments I had shared with the book (or that said students share with their professor). Suddenly, the agonizing moments that I never thought I would make it through--those ones that had me wanting to smash my face against the wall over and over again--didn't seem quite so bad. I smiled wryly at some of the worst parts and realized that maybe the bark was worse than the bite. I felt bad for thinking the terrible thoughts I did about the book (or professor, to continue the analogy), even feeling a slight pang of guilt. As I neared the end I kept experiencing the, "It wasn't that bad!" feeling and, when I finally reached the epilogue, I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was the best part of the entire novel. Ultimately, it finished on a high note.
I now face the old, "Where to go from here?" question. I know that in the immediate future I plan on re-reading the introduction as I imagine it will make more sense now with the experience of hindsight. I will also do what I imagine many people would have done from the start: watch the DVDs. The BBC released a 5-DVD set of a 1972 production of the epic novel and my parents were kind enough to pick it up for me last Christmas. I never viewed it as a temptation but rather a motivating force--the carrot dangling from some fishing line in front of me, if you will. I wanted to see the novel come to life...but not without reading it first. I have high expectations since it is a BBC production and because it features Sir Anthony Hopkins in a prominent role. It should be a good time.
Resuming the education analogy, I suppose that, if War & Peace was a difficult course/professor that I survived, then my next step, consequently, would be to move on to the advanced course. I'm planning on reading some light material before attempting to tackle what will be, for me, the magnum opus of my reading list: James Joyce's Ulysses. Aside from being arguably the greatest novel ever written (I'll know after I finish it whether or not it is better than The Magic Mountain) it is also arguably one of the most unapproachable, difficult texts to work through. Heeding the advice of others who have traversed the oft murky waters of Ulysses and who have washed up upon the other shore sputtering and gasping for breath but ultimately unscathed, I will be using an accompanying text that will help me to decipher the myriad cryptic references, puns, and jokes made by Joyce in his magnum opus. It is ironic that I will be reading Don Gifford's 694 page collection of annotations concurrently with the 783 page paperback edition of Ulysses; that's 1,477 pages--nearly a hundred more than War And Peace...spread out over TWO books. I've never attempted to read two books simultaneously so that in and of itself will be quite an experience...but one that I look forward to and a challenge that I will surely relish.
My experience with War & Peace (as with most things since January) made me think of Timmy and wonder what his relationship with literature and reading will be like. Will he be an avid reader or one who reads only what is necessary? Will he turn the pages of his favorite novels with feverish excitement...or simply skip ahead to the end when he gets bored? I hope that he enjoys reading as much as his Mom and Dad do and I suppose that the easiest way to foster that love will be to expose him to our respective interests in reading and to have plenty of books around for him to read. I remember having to read books throughout the year in elementary school for the "Readers are Leaders" program and, though it might not have fostered that deeper commitment to reading right away, it sure as hell tapped into my competitive side and made me want to read more than anyone else! Naturally, though, in so doing, I developed a broader palette and found wider reading interests, which served ultimately to transform me into a voracious reader and (I'd like to think) a halfway decent writer.
I've been reading Timmy as wide a range of things as possible, mixing in The Divine Comedy with basic infant ABC books and Dr. Seuss. I'd like to think that, as his vocabulary develops, so too will his ability to pick up the rhythms and nuances of English verse. If for nothing else, he might just wind up being the first Kindergartner ever to do a book report on Dante Alighieri! Either way, I hope that Timmy will be tenacious in his exploration of literature and will approach each book with that same dogged determination that his Dad uses to travel from cover to cover without straying or wandering away until the task is complete. At the very worst, he'll be able to say, "I read that," even if he hated it, and will derive a sense of self-satisfaction in having done so. At the very best, he'll develop and share with me the intrinsic pleasure of feeling a paper page turning in his hand...of the sound of crinkling pages and the smell of both a new book and an old book...of watching a new book become an old book...
Here's hoping he'll be a reader at heart.
Below are some excerpts of the more difficult portions of War And Peace. I feel like they give a better idea of what I complained about in the post. There will be a lot of text so feel free to browse through as much or as little of it as you'd like!
All text has been copied from http://www.online-literature.com/tolstoy/war_and_peace/
Please note that the translation on the website above is slightly different from what I read; Constance Garnett translated the version that I read.
(This section shows how monotonous the novel could be at times--a "Can we get on with it already, please?" moment)
(From Book IX, Chapter IX)
Among the opinions and voices in this immense, restless, brilliant, and proud sphere, Prince Andrew noticed the following sharply defined subdivisions of and parties:
The first party consisted of Pfuel and his adherents- military theorists who believed in a science of war with immutable laws- laws of oblique movements, outflankings, and so forth. Pfuel and his adherents demanded a retirement into the depths of the country in accordance with precise laws defined by a pseudo-theory of war, and they saw only barbarism, ignorance, or evil intention in every deviation from that theory. To this party belonged the foreign nobles, Wolzogen, Wintzingerode, and others, chiefly Germans.
The second party was directly opposed to the first; one extreme, as always happens, was met by representatives of the other. The members of this party were those who had demanded an advance from Vilna into Poland and freedom from all prearranged plans. Besides being advocates of bold action, this section also represented nationalism, which made them still more one-sided in the dispute. They were Russians: Bagration, Ermolov (who was beginning to come to the front), and others. At that time a famous joke of Ermolov's was being circulated, that as a great favor he had petitioned the Emperor to make him a German. The men of that party, remembering Suvorov, said that what one had to do was not to reason, or stick pins into maps, but to fight, beat the enemy, keep him out of Russia, and not let the army get discouraged.
To the third party- in which the Emperor had most confidence- belonged the courtiers who tried to arrange compromises between the other two. The members of this party, chiefly civilians and to whom Arakcheev belonged, thought and said what men who have no convictions but wish to seem to have some generally say. They said that undoubtedly war, particularly against such a genius as Bonaparte (they called him Bonaparte now), needs most deeply devised plans and profound scientific knowledge and in that respect Pfuel was a genius, but at the same time it had to be acknowledged that the theorists are often one sided, and therefore one should not trust them absolutely, but should also listen to what Pfuel's opponents and practical men of experience in warfare had to say, and then choose a middle course. They insisted on the retention of the camp at Drissa, according to Pfuel's plan, but on changing the movements of the other armies. Though, by this course, neither one aim nor the other could be attained, yet it seemed best to the adherents of this third party.
Of a fourth opinion the most conspicuous representative was the Tsarevich, who could not forget his disillusionment at Austerlitz, where he had ridden out at the head of the Guards, in his casque and cavalry uniform as to a review, expecting to crush the French gallantly; but unexpectedly finding himself in the front line had narrowly escaped amid the general confusion. The men of this party had both the quality and the defect of frankness in their opinions. They feared Napoleon, recognized his strength and their own weakness, and frankly said so. They said: "Nothing but sorrow, shame, and ruin will come of all this! We have abandoned Vilna and Vitebsk and shall abandon Drissa. The only reasonable thing left to do is to conclude peace as soon as possible, before we are turned out of Petersburg."
This view was very general in the upper army circles and found support also in Petersburg and from the chancellor, Rumyantsev, who, for other reasons of state, was in favor of peace.
The fifth party consisted of those who were adherents of Barclay de Tolly, not so much as a man but as minister of war and commander in chief. "Be he what he may" (they always began like that), "he is an honest, practical man and we have nobody better. Give him real power, for war cannot be conducted successfully without unity of command, and he will show what he can do, as he did in Finland. If our army is well organized and strong and has withdrawn to Drissa without suffering any defeats, we owe this entirely to Barclay. If Barclay is now to be superseded by Bennigsen all will be lost, for Bennigsen showed his incapacity already in 1807."
The sixth party, the Bennigsenites, said, on the contrary, that at any rate there was no one more active and experienced than Bennigsen: "and twist about as you may, you will have to come to Bennigsen eventually. Let the others make mistakes now!" said they, arguing that our retirement to Drissa was a most shameful reverse and an unbroken series of blunders. "The more mistakes that are made the better. It will at any rate be understood all the sooner that things cannot go on like this. What is wanted is not some Barclay or other, but a man like Bennigsen, who made his mark in 1807, and to whom Napoleon himself did justice- a man whose authority would be willingly recognized, and Bennigsen is the only such man."
The seventh party consisted of the sort of people who are always to be found, especially around young sovereigns, and of whom there were particularly many round Alexander- generals and imperial aides-de-camp passionately devoted to the Emperor, not merely as a monarch but as a man, adoring him sincerely and disinterestedly, as Rostov had done in 1805, and who saw in him not only all the virtues but all human capabilities as well. These men, though enchanted with the sovereign for refusing the command of the army, yet blamed him for such excessive modesty, and only desired and insisted that their adored sovereign should abandon his diffidence and openly announce that he would place himself at the head of the army, gather round him a commander in chief's staff, and, consulting experienced theoreticians and practical men where necessary, would himself lead the troops, whose spirits would thereby be raised to the highest pitch.
The eighth and largest group, which in its enormous numbers was to the others as ninety-nine to one, consisted of men who desired neither peace nor war, neither an advance nor a defensive camp at the Drissa or anywhere else, neither Barclay nor the Emperor, neither Pfuel nor Bennigsen, but only the one most essential thing- as much advantage and pleasure for themselves as possible. In the troubled waters of conflicting and intersecting intrigues that eddied about the Emperor's headquarters, it was possible to succeed in many ways unthinkable at other times. A man who simply wished to retain his lucrative post would today agree with Pfuel, tomorrow with his opponent, and the day after, merely to avoid responsibility or to please the Emperor, would declare that he had no opinion at all on the matter. Another who wished to gain some advantage would attract the Emperor's attention by loudly advocating the very thing the Emperor had hinted at the day before, and would dispute and shout at the council, beating his breast and challenging those who did not agree with him to duels, thereby proving that he was prepared to sacrifice himself for the common good. A third, in the absence of opponents, between two councils would simply solicit a special gratuity for his faithful services, well knowing that at that moment people would be too busy to refuse him. A fourth while seemingly overwhelmed with work would often come accidentally under the Emperor's eye. A fifth, to achieve his long-cherished aim of dining with the Emperor, would stubbornly insist on the correctness or falsity of some newly emerging opinion and for this object would produce arguments more or less forcible and correct.
All the men of this party were fishing for rubles, decorations, and promotions, and in this pursuit watched only the weathercock of imperial favor, and directly they noticed it turning in any direction, this whole drone population of the army began blowing hard that way, so that it was all the harder for the Emperor to turn it elsewhere. Amid the uncertainties of the position, with the menace of serious danger giving a peculiarly threatening character to everything, amid this vortex of intrigue, egotism, conflict of views and feelings, and the diversity of race among these people- this eighth and largest party of those preoccupied with personal interests imparted great confusion and obscurity to the common task. Whatever question arose, a swarm of these drones, without having finished their buzzing on a previous theme, flew over to the new one and by their hum drowned and obscured the voices of those who were disputing honestly.
From among all these parties, just at the time Prince Andrew reached the army, another, a ninth party, was being formed and was beginning to raise its voice. This was the party of the elders, reasonable men experienced and capable in state affairs, who, without sharing any of those conflicting opinions, were able to take a detached view of what was going on at the staff at headquarters and to consider means of escape from this muddle, indecision, intricacy, and weakness.
The men of this party said and thought that what was wrong resulted chiefly from the Emperor's presence in the army with his military court and from the consequent presence there of an indefinite, conditional, and unsteady fluctuation of relations, which is in place at court but harmful in an army; that a sovereign should reign but not command the army, and that the only way out of the position would be for the Emperor and his court to leave the army; that the mere presence of the Emperor paralyzed the action of fifty thousand men required to secure his personal safety, and that the worst commander in chief if independent would be better than the very best one trammeled by the presence and authority of the monarch.
(This section shows the randomness of certain parts of the novel)
(Part IX, Chapter XIX)
In chapter 13, verse 18, of the Apocalypse, it is said:
Here is wisdom. Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast: for it is the number of a man; and his number is Six hundred threescore and six.
And in the fifth verse of the same chapter:
And there was given unto him a mouth speaking great things and blasphemies; and power was given unto him to continue forty and two months.
The French alphabet, written out with the same numerical values as the Hebrew, in which the first nine letters denote units and the others tens, will have the following significance:
a b c d e f g h i k
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
l m n o p q r s
20 30 40 50 60 70 80 90
t u v w x y
100 110 120 130 140 150
Writing the words L'Empereur Napoleon in numbers, it appears that the sum of them is 666, and that Napoleon therefore the beast foretold in the Apocalypse. Moreover, by applying the same system to the words quarante-deux,* which was the term allowed to the beast that "spoke great things and blasphemies," the same number 666 was obtained; from which it followed that the limit fixed for Napoleon's power had come in the year 1812 when the French emperor was forty-two. This prophecy pleased Pierre very much and he often asked himself what would put an end to the power of the beast, that is, of Napoleon, and tried by the same system of using letters as numbers and adding them up, to find an answer to the question that engrossed him. He wrote the words L'Empereur Alexandre, La nation russe and added up their numbers, but the sums were either more or less than 666. Once when making such calculations he wrote down his own name in French, Comte Pierre Besouhoff, but the sum of the numbers did not come right. Then he changed the spelling, substituting a z for the s and adding de and the article le, still without obtaining the desired result. Then it occurred to him: if the answer to the question were contained in his name, his nationality would also be given in the answer. So he wrote Le russe Besuhof and adding up the numbers got 671. This was only five too much, and five was represented by e, the very letter elided from the article le before the word Empereur. By omitting the e, though incorrectly, Pierre got the answer he sought. L'russe Besuhof made 666. This discovery excited him. How, or by what means, he was connected with the great event foretold in the Apocalypse he did not know, but he did not doubt that connection for a moment. His love for Natasha, Antichrist, Napoleon, the invasion, the comet, 666, L'Empereur Napoleon, and L'russe Besuhof- all this had to mature and culminate, to lift him out of that spellbound, petty sphere of Moscow habits in which he felt himself held captive and lead him to a great achievement and great happiness.
(Another of the boring sections--unless you're really a fan of historical fiction, I suppose!)
(Book X, Chapter XIX)
On the twenty-fourth of August the battle of the Shevardino Redoubt was fought, on the twenty-fifth not a shot was fired by either side, and on the twenty-sixth the battle of Borodino itself took place.
Why and how were the battles of Shevardino and Borodino given and accepted? Why was the battle of Borodino fought? There was not the least sense in it for either the French or the Russians. Its immediate result for the Russians was, and was bound to be, that we were brought nearer to the destruction of Moscow- which we feared more than anything in the world; and for the French its immediate result was that they were brought nearer to the destruction of their whole army- which they feared more than anything in the world. What the result must be was quite obvious, and yet Napoleon offered and Kutuzov accepted that battle.
If the commanders had been guided by reason, it would seem that it must have been obvious to Napoleon that by advancing thirteen hundred miles and giving battle with a probability of losing a quarter of his army, he was advancing to certain destruction, and it must have been equally clear to Kutuzov that by accepting battle and risking the loss of a quarter of his army he would certainly lose Moscow. For Kutuzov this was mathematically clear, as it is that if when playing draughts I have one man less and go on exchanging, I shall certainly lose, and therefore should not exchange. When my opponent has sixteen men and I have fourteen, I am only one eighth weaker than he, but when I have exchanged thirteen more men he will be three times as strong as I am.
Before the battle of Borodino our strength in proportion to the French was about as five to six, but after that battle it was little more than one to two: previously we had a hundred thousand against a hundred and twenty thousand; afterwards little more than fifty thousand against a hundred thousand. Yet the shrewd and experienced Kutuzov accepted the battle, while Napoleon, who was said to be a commander of genius, gave it, losing a quarter of his army and lengthening his lines of communication still more. If it is said that he expected to end the campaign by occupying Moscow as he had ended a previous campaign by occupying Vienna, there is much evidence to the contrary. Napoleon's historians themselves tell us that from Smolensk onwards he wished to stop, knew the danger of his extended position, and knew that the occupation of Moscow would not be the end of the campaign, for he had seen at Smolensk the state in which Russian towns were left to him, and had not received a single reply to his repeated announcements of his wish to negotiate.
In giving and accepting battle at Borodino, Kutuzov acted involuntarily and irrationally. But later on, to fit what had occurred, the historians provided cunningly devised evidence of the foresight and genius the generals who, of all the blind tools of history were the most enslaved and involuntary.
The ancients have left us model heroic poems in which the heroes furnish the whole interest of the story, and we are still unable to accustom ourselves to the fact that for our epoch histories of that kind are meaningless.
On the other question, how the battle of Borodino and the preceding battle of Shevardino were fought, there also exists a definite and well-known, but quite false, conception. All the historians describe the affair as follows:
The Russian army, they say, in its retreat from Smolensk sought out for itself the best position for a general engagement and found such a position at Borodino.
The Russians, they say, fortified this position in advance on the left of the highroad (from Moscow to Smolensk) and almost at a right angle to it, from Borodino to Utitsa, at the very place where the battle was fought.
In front of this position, they say, a fortified outpost was set up on the Shevardino mound to observe the enemy. On the twenty-fourth, we are told, Napoleon attacked this advanced post and took it, and, on the twenty-sixth, attacked the whole Russian army, which was in position on the field of Borodino.
So the histories say, and it is all quite wrong, as anyone who cares to look into the matter can easily convince himself.
The Russians did not seek out the best position but, on the contrary, during the retreat passed many positions better than Borodino. They did not stop at any one of these positions because Kutuzov did not wish to occupy a position he had not himself chosen, because the popular demand for a battle had not yet expressed itself strongly enough, and because Miloradovich had not yet arrived with the militia, and for many other reasons. The fact is that other positions they had passed were stronger, and that the position at Borodino (the one where the battle was fought), far from being strong, was no more a position than any other spot one might find in the Russian Empire by sticking a pin into the map at hazard.
Not only did the Russians not fortify the position on the field of Borodino to the left of, and at a right angle to, the highroad (that is, the position on which the battle took place), but never till the twenty-fifth of August, 1812, did they think that a battle might be fought there. This was shown first by the fact that there were no entrenchments there by the twenty fifth and that those begun on the twenty-fifth and twenty-sixth were not completed, and secondly, by the position of the Shevardino Redoubt. That redoubt was quite senseless in front of the position where the battle was accepted. Why was it more strongly fortified than any other post? And why were all efforts exhausted and six thousand men sacrificed to defend it till late at night on the twenty-fourth? A Cossack patrol would have sufficed to observe the enemy. Thirdly, as proof that the position on which the battle was fought had not been foreseen and that the Shevardino Redoubt was not an advanced post of that position, we have the fact that up to the twenty-fifth, Barclay de Tolly and Bagration were convinced that the Shevardino Redoubt was the left flank of the position, and that Kutuzov himself in his report, written in hot haste after the battle, speaks of the Shevardino Redoubt as the left flank of the position. It was much later, when reports on the battle of Borodino were written at leisure, that the incorrect and extraordinary statement was invented (probably to justify the mistakes of a commander in chief who had to be represented as infallible) that the Shevardino Redoubt was an advanced post- whereas in reality it was simply a fortified point on the left flank- and that the battle of Borodino was fought by us on an entrenched position previously selected, where as it was fought on a quite unexpected spot which was almost unentrenched.
The case was evidently this: a position was selected along the river Kolocha- which crosses the highroad not at a right angle but at an acute angle- so that the left flank was at Shevardino, the right flank near the village of Novoe, and the center at Borodino at the confluence of the rivers Kolocha and Voyna.
To anyone who looks at the field of Borodino without thinking of how the battle was actually fought, this position, protected by the river Kolocha, presents itself as obvious for an army whose object was to prevent an enemy from advancing along the Smolensk road to Moscow.
Napoleon, riding to Valuevo on the twenty-fourth, did not see (as the history books say he did) the position of the Russians from Utitsa to Borodino (he could not have seen that position because it did not exist), nor did he see an advanced post of the Russian army, but while pursuing the Russian rearguard he came upon the left flank of the Russian position- at the Shevardino Redoubt- and unexpectedly for the Russians moved his army across the Kolocha. And the Russians, not having time to begin a general engagement, withdrew their left wing from the position they had intended to occupy and took up a new position which had not been foreseen and was not fortified. By crossing to the other side of the Kolocha to the left of the highroad, Napoleon shifted the whole forthcoming battle from right to left (looking from the Russian side) and transferred it to the plain between Utitsa, Semenovsk, and Borodino- a plain no more advantageous as a position than any other plain in Russia- and there the whole battle of the twenty-sixth of August took place.
Had Napoleon not ridden out on the evening of the twenty-fourth to the Kolocha, and had he not then ordered an immediate attack on the redoubt but had begun the attack next morning, no one would have doubted that the Shevardino Redoubt was the left flank of our and the battle would have taken place where we expected it. In that case we should probably have defended the Shevardino Redoubt- our left flank- still more obstinately. We should have attacked Napoleon in the center or on the right, and the engagement would have taken place on the twenty-fifth, in the position we intended and had fortified. But as the attack on our left flank took place in the evening after the retreat of our rea guard (that is, immediately after the fight at Gridneva), and as the Russian commanders did not wish, or were not in time, to begin a general engagement then on the evening of the twenty-fourth, the first and chief action of the battle of Borodino was already lost on the twenty-fourth, and obviously led to the loss of the one fought on the twenty-sixth.
After the loss of the Shevardino Redoubt, we found ourselves on the morning of the twenty-fifth without a position for our left flank, and were forced to bend it back and hastily entrench it where it chanced to be.
Not only was the Russian army on the twenty-sixth defended by weak, unfinished entrenchments, but the disadvantage of that position was increased by the fact that the Russian commanders- not having fully realized what had happened, namely the loss of our position on the left flank and the shifting of the whole field of the forthcoming battle from right to left- maintained their extended position from the village of Novoe to Utitsa, and consequently had to move their forces from right to left during the battle. So it happened that throughout the whole battle the Russians opposed the entire French army launched against our left flank with but half as many men. (Poniatowski's action against Utitsa, and Uvarov's on the right flank against the French, were actions distinct from the main course of the battle.) So the battle of Borodino did not take place at all as (in an effort to conceal our commanders' mistakes even at the cost of diminishing the glory due to the Russian army and people) it has been described. The battle of Borodino was not fought on a chosen and entrenched position with forces only slightly weaker than those of the enemy, but, as a result of the loss of the Shevardino Redoubt, the Russians fought the battle of Borodino on an open and almost unentrenched position, with forces only half as numerous as the French; that is to say, under conditions in which it was not merely unthinkable to fight for ten hours and secure an indecisive result, but unthinkable to keep an army even from complete disintegration and flight.
(This is another random section but one that I really enjoyed)
(Book XI, Chapter I)
Absolute continuity of motion is not comprehensible to the human mind. Laws of motion of any kind become comprehensible to man only when he examines arbitrarily selected elements of that motion; but at the same time, a large proportion of human error comes from the arbitrary division of continuous motion into discontinuous elements. There is a well known, so-called sophism of the ancients consisting in this, that Achilles could never catch up with a tortoise he was following, in spite of the fact that he traveled ten times as fast as the tortoise. By the time Achilles has covered the distance that separated him from the tortoise, the tortoise has covered one tenth of that distance ahead of him: when Achilles has covered that tenth, the tortoise has covered another one hundredth, and so on forever. This problem seemed to the ancients insoluble. The absurd answer (that Achilles could never overtake the tortoise) resulted from this: that motion was arbitrarily divided into discontinuous elements, whereas the motion both of Achilles and of the tortoise was continuous.
By adopting smaller and smaller elements of motion we only approach a solution of the problem, but never reach it. Only when we have admitted the conception of the infinitely small, and the resulting geometrical progression with a common ratio of one tenth, and have found the sum of this progression to infinity, do we reach a solution of the problem.
A modern branch of mathematics having achieved the art of dealing with the infinitely small can now yield solutions in other more complex problems of motion which used to appear insoluble.
This modern branch of mathematics, unknown to the ancients, when dealing with problems of motion admits the conception of the infinitely small, and so conforms to the chief condition of motion (absolute continuity) and thereby corrects the inevitable error which the human mind cannot avoid when it deals with separate elements of motion instead of examining continuous motion.
In seeking the laws of historical movement just the same thing happens. The movement of humanity, arising as it does from innumerable arbitrary human wills, is continuous.
To understand the laws of this continuous movement is the aim of history. But to arrive at these laws, resulting from the sum of all those human wills, man's mind postulates arbitrary and disconnected units. The first method of history is to take an arbitrarily selected series of continuous events and examine it apart from others, though there is and can be no beginning to any event, for one event always flows uninterruptedly from another.
The second method is to consider the actions of some one man- a king or a commander- as equivalent to the sum of many individual wills; whereas the sum of individual wills is never expressed by the activity of a single historic personage.
Historical science in its endeavor to draw nearer to truth continually takes smaller and smaller units for examination. But however small the units it takes, we feel that to take any unit disconnected from others, or to assume a beginning of any phenomenon, or to say that the will of many men is expressed by the actions of any one historic personage, is in itself false.
It needs no critical exertion to reduce utterly to dust any deductions drawn from history. It is merely necessary to select some larger or smaller unit as the subject of observation- as criticism has every right to do, seeing that whatever unit history observes must always be arbitrarily selected.
Only by taking infinitesimally small units for observation (the differential of history, that is, the individual tendencies of men) and attaining to the art of integrating them (that is, finding the sum of these infinitesimals) can we hope to arrive at the laws of history.
The first fifteen years of the nineteenth century in Europe present an extraordinary movement of millions of people. Men leave their customary pursuits, hasten from one side of Europe to the other, plunder and slaughter one another, triumph and are plunged in despair, and for some years the whole course of life is altered and presents an intensive movement which first increases and then slackens. What was the cause of this movement, by what laws was it governed? asks the mind of man.
The historians, replying to this question, lay before us the sayings and doings of a few dozen men in a building in the city of Paris, calling these sayings and doings "the Revolution"; then they give a detailed biography of Napoleon and of certain people favorable or hostile to him; tell of the influence some of these people had on others, and say: that is why this movement took place and those are its laws.
But the mind of man not only refuses to believe this explanation, but plainly says that this method of explanation is fallacious, because in it a weaker phenomenon is taken as the cause of a stronger. The sum of human wills produced the Revolution and Napoleon, and only the sum of those wills first tolerated and then destroyed them.
"But every time there have been conquests there have been conquerors; every time there has been a revolution in any state there have been great men," says history. And, indeed, human reason replies: every time conquerors appear there have been wars, but this does not prove that the conquerors caused the wars and that it is possible to find the laws of a war in the personal activity of a single man. Whenever I look at my watch and its hands point to ten, I hear the bells of the neighboring church; but because the bells begin to ring when the hands of the clock reach ten, I have no right to assume that the movement of the bells is caused by the position of the hands of the watch.
Whenever I see the movement of a locomotive I hear the whistle and see the valves opening and wheels turning; but I have no right to conclude that the whistling and the turning of wheels are the cause of the movement of the engine.
The peasants say that a cold wind blows in late spring because the oaks are budding, and really every spring cold winds do blow when the oak is budding. But though I do not know what causes the cold winds to blow when the oak buds unfold, I cannot agree with the peasants that the unfolding of the oak buds is the cause of the cold wind, for the force of the wind is beyond the influence of the buds. I see only a coincidence of occurrences such as happens with all the phenomena of life, and I see that however much and however carefully I observe the hands of the watch, and the valves and wheels of the engine, and the oak, I shall not discover the cause of the bells ringing, the engine moving, or of the winds of spring. To that I must entirely change my point of view and study the laws of the movement of steam, of the bells, and of the wind. History must do the same. And attempts in this direction have already been made.
To study the laws of history we must completely change the subject of our observation, must leave aside kings, ministers, and generals, and the common, infinitesimally small elements by which the masses are moved. No one can say in how far it is possible for man to advance in this way toward an understanding of the laws of history; but it is evident that only along that path does the possibility of discovering the laws of history lie, and that as yet not a millionth part as much mental effort has been applied in this direction by historians as has been devoted to describing the actions of various kings, commanders, and ministers and propounding the historians' own reflections concerning these actions.
(This section has...ALGEBRA...ridiculous!)
(Book XIV, Chapter II)
For military science to say this is like defining momentum in mechanics by reference to the mass only: stating that momenta are equal or unequal to each other simply because the masses involved are equal or unequal.
Momentum (quantity of motion) is the product of mass and velocity.
In military affairs the strength of an army is the product of its mass and some unknown x.
Military science, seeing in history innumerable instances of the fact that the size of any army does not coincide with its strength and that small detachments defeat larger ones, obscurely admits the existence of this unknown factor and tries to discover it- now in a geometric formation, now in the equipment employed, now, and most usually, in the genius of the commanders. But the assignment of these various meanings to the factor does not yield results which accord with the historic facts.
Yet it is only necessary to abandon the false view (adopted to gratify the "heroes") of the efficacy of the directions issued in wartime by commanders, in order to find this unknown quantity.
That unknown quantity is the spirit of the army, that is to say, the greater or lesser readiness to fight and face danger felt by all the men composing an army, quite independently of whether they are, or are not, fighting under the command of a genius, in two- or three-line formation, with cudgels or with rifles that repeat thirty times a minute. Men who want to fight will always put themselves in the most advantageous conditions for fighting.
The spirit of an army is the factor which multiplied by the mass gives the resulting force. To define and express the significance of this unknown factor- the spirit of an army- is a problem for science.
This problem is only solvable if we cease arbitrarily to substitute for the unknown x itself the conditions under which that force becomes apparent- such as the commands of the general, the equipment employed, and so on- mistaking these for the real significance of the factor, and if we recognize this unknown quantity in its entirety as being the greater or lesser desire to fight and to face danger. Only then, expressing known historic facts by equations and comparing the relative significance of this factor, can we hope to define the unknown.
Ten men, battalions, or divisions, fighting fifteen men, battalions, or divisions, conquer- that is, kill or take captive- all the others, while themselves losing four, so that on the one side four and on the other fifteen were lost. Consequently the four were equal to the fifteen, and therefore 4x = 15y. Consequently x/y = 15/4. This equation does not give us the value of the unknown factor but gives us a ratio between two unknowns. And by bringing variously selected historic units (battles, campaigns, periods of war) into such equations, a series of numbers could be obtained in which certain laws should exist and might be discovered.
If you made it this far...then congratulations! You read what, to me, might be the worst parts of the book! Go ahead--reward yourself! Scope out the Second Epilogue and enjoy =)