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Thomas International Center
June 2008


Ralph McInerny


To Moscow And Back



Leo Tolstoy was a great novelist, not much of a philosopher and pretty much a disaster as a theologian. There are many, and I am among them, who consider War and Peace to be among the very greatest of novels, if not the best of them all. I have just finished reading it for the eighth time, prompted by a new English translation. With refreshing candor in this age of political correctness, the translator Anthony Briggs commends his own effort by saying that previous English translations, all being done by women, fail to capture the earthiness of the military scenes. Well, he does get the famous four letter word into the text. I could compare the translations only in terms of my remembered pleasure in reading them all. Briggs has not rendered the others obsolete but he deserves our gratitude for what had to be an enormous task.

There are books of which it is said that they are difficult to put down. That can be said of War and Peace, with the addendum that it is equally hard to pick up, weighing as much as it does. I read the Briggs translation in a hard back edition and getting comfortable with it requires some of the skills of the Sumo wrestler. But how would we notice pleasure without the contrast of pain?

The novel turns around Napoleon's invasion of Russia, occupation of Moscow and then, after a few months, his long and disastrous retreat, followed by the Russian army he had hitherto driven before him. The antecedents, events and consequences of this are lavishly considered both on the home front and on the battle field. Not content to simply tell the story, Tolstoy wants to interpret its events for us, to philosophize about them. His ruminations about history swing wildly from a kind of Hegelian Cunning of Reason view of the role of the great actors in historical events and an appeal to Providence. His main point is that we can never hope to comprehend such events. They are mysteries.

On the theoretical level, Tolstoy dismisses the notion that the actions of human agents are free. But of course a story whose characters were fatalistically determined would contradict the basic assumption of fiction. What he is denying is that our projects turn out to have the effects we intend, that the invasion of Russia had intelligible causes and that it was the result of planning. Only a consequentialist could object to this. For all that, the extended historical essays which make up the final chapters make for tough going. But who can resist the thought that generals called great are those whose orders are not carried out?

Tolstoy intrigues us because he came to regret his literary achievements and to regard them as almost sinful excursions. In What is Art? he develops an anti-aesthetics and in Confession, published in 1879, he gives us the history of his religious opinions, his rejection of Orthodoxy and espousal of a version of Christianity which has little to do with Christ. He became a sort of Dostoievski character in his old age, a half mad mystic who longed for simplicity in the most complicated way. He and his wife exchanged diaries, incredibly enough, and Leo came to regard his fleshly desires as per se evil, not a solid foundation for a happy marriage. At the end, he fled home and wife and died in a railroad station, resolutely refusing entry to his wife.  Ah well, even Homer nods. None of these later cranky and idiosyncratic efforts can detract from the glory of War and Peace. But it is an odd thought that one loves the novel so much more than its author came to do.


Ralph McInerny