War and Peace is more than a novel, a 1.400 pages long tale about Humankind, Man, their miseries and glories. A treaty in psychology, history, religion, philosophy. But also, a novel: action, drama, love, jealousy and characters that won’t let you indifferent.
I have just read it for the third time, drawn by the memories that the last bbc radio 4 audiodrama has awoken in me. A nine and a half hours production, broadcasted for the first time on January 1st, and with an extraordinary cast, of the kind that just the Brits can afford: John Hurt as old prince Bolkonsky, Roger Allam as Kutuzov, Simon Russell-Beale as Napoleon, the absolute marvellous Leslie Manville as countess Rostova… Check here complete cast list.
There are several curious and funny videos available on line about the production: Andrei and Natasha’s dance, Dolokhov and Pierre’s duel, the death of count Besukhov, Dolokohv and Denisov ride. The radio drama was recorded on location, as if it was a movie, as John Hurt in this interview. It is also very interesting this post by producer Celia de Wolf revealing more insights of the huge amount of work behind the radio drama.
This post (a rather long one) will be mainly about my favourite character of the novel, prince Andrei Bolkonsky, and his relationship with my second-favourite, Dolokhov. I will try it to be not excessively boring, including screenshots of, if not the most entertaining of all the filmed versions, at least the one more faithful to the original: 1966 soviet colossal “War and Peace”, directed by Sergei Bondarchuk. The screenshots relative to the character of Dolokhov are from 2007 European tv series.
Although the prince Andrei that I imagine when reading the novel has not a definite face (even if I think he’s quite close to Vyacheslav Tikhonov’s), he will for sure have Stephen Campbell Moore voice. I have made this video as a tribute to his work, using some clips of the Russian film with the audio of the radio drama. He is cold and deeply cruel when returning Natasha’s letter, a little bit haughty and aloof when advises Pierre never to marry, moving when repenting of his behaviour towards Natasha, soft, caressing and tender when he sees her again. The music used for mixing the clips is the Variation Nr. 10 of Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata, one of Lev Tolstoy’s favourite pieces of music. He even wrote a novel entitled The Kreutzer Sonata , that I strongly suggest you to read. For those afraid of long readings, the book is only about 150 pages long.
My favourite character in War and Peace is Andrei Bolkonsky, who proudly forms part of the sacred triad of male literature characters together with Mr. Darcy and Edmond Dantes.
What makes Andrei Bolkonsky attractive? “He was a very handsome young man, of medium height, with firm, clear cut features”. He has been portrayed in the screen by very beautiful men, far more than the Andrei described by Tolstoy: the dashing Mel Ferrer, the handsome Alessio Boni, the elegant Vyacheslav Tikhonov, and in this year’s BBC production, James Norton.
Although he has something that I usually find in men repulsive, small feminine hands, what makes prince Bolkonsky unique is his rich, deep psyche. He is one of those men that “keeps it all within him”; some people of the good society can’t stand him because he’s considered aloof and proud. His never-to-be brother in law, Nicolas Rostov, although not liking “that small and frail but proud man” at all the first time he sees him, “felt with surprise that of all the men he knew there was none he would so much like to have for a friend”.
Andrei’s character evolves during the novel; at the end of it the resulting Andrei is far more attractive and interesting than the one we meet at the very beginning, in Anna Scherer’s party.
The transformation is gradual, marked by several events in his life. The first crucible appears when he is wounded during the battle of Austerlitz and he returns just to see his wife die of childbirth. Something started to change in him when he lied on the battlefield grasping the banner of the regiment, a sight defined by Napoleon himself a beautiful death, while he was watching “that infinite sky”. His friend Pierre visits him in his estates after he’s left the army and the conversations they will have will act as an agent of change in his spiritual transformation. Andrei is intelligent, witty and ironic. When he’s being told of the supposed miracle of a star appearing in one icon of the Virgin Mary, he can’t help asking “And was the Holy Mother promoted to the rank of general?”. In his discussions with Pierre, who in those moment is an enthusiast freemason, he has a more down-to-earth and practical view of matters opposed to the idealistic and rather unpractical projects of his friend. Whereas Pierre ideas will result in nothing, cheated by his overseers, Andrei improvements in his estates will be more practical. Nevertheless, the man who only knew “two very real evils in life: remorse and illness” after those days with Pierre “though outwardly continued to live in the same old way, inwardly began a new life”.
The third movement of his transformation starts after he meets Natascha. Andrei had business with her father and visits one of the country estates. While lost on his thoughts without hearing what the talkative count Rostov says in the carriage “nearer to him ran a dark-haired, remarkably slim, pretty girl in a yellow chintz dress, with a white handkerchief on her head from under which loose locks of hair escaped”.
The effect that Natasha produces in his tormented soul is immediate. “Suddenly, he did not know why, he felt a pang”. That night he hears her from the window of his bedroom. She can’t sleep of pure happiness, she feels so light that she’d want to fly away. The next day he leaves the Rostovs’ estate early in the morning, and when passing by an old oak he saw on arriving three weeks before he realises that some green leaves have grown from the apparently dead tree. Andrei feels like that old tree, something that he thought was dead, is coming back to life, as his own soul is. This is one of the most beautiful and lyric moments of the novel:
“all the best moments of his life suddenly rose to his memory. Austerlitz with the lofty heavens, his wife’s dead reproachful face, Pierre at the ferry, that girl thrilled by the beauty of the night, and that night itself and the moon, and… all this rushed suddenly to his mind.
‘No, life is not over at thirty-one!’ prince Andrei suddenly decided finally and decisively. ‘It is not enough for me to know what I have in me–everyone must now it: Pierre, and that young girl who wanted to fly away into the sky, everyone must know me, so that my life may not be lived for myself alone while others live so apart from it, but so that it nay be reflected in them all, and they and I may live in harmony!”
The new Andrei resulting from this transformation strikes Petersburg society: “he had greatly improved during these last five years, having softened and grown more manly, lost his former affectation, pride, and contemptuous irony, and acquired the serenity that comes with the years”.
The iconic scene of the ball is not as decisive for Andrei and Natascha as the film versions show; Natasha is so excited by her first ball that she has not the time to think about Andrei. On his side, even if thinking the famous sentence (if after dancing with me she talks with her cousin she will be my wife) Andrei rejects that idea immediately as something stupid and will think again of her seriously the day after a meeting at Sveransky’s house. He feels very disappointed with the hypocrsy of Sveransky’s society circle and he calls the day after drawn by curiosity, searching in Natasha that truthfulness that he has guessed she has. When she plays the piano and sings, the moment arrive in which prince Andrei falls definitely in love with her. Tolstoy writes another paragraph of incredible beauty:
“he felt happy and at the same time sad. He has absolutely nothing to weep about yet he was ready to weep. What about? His former love? The little princess? His disillusionments? His hopes for the future? Yes and no. The chief reason was a sudden, vivid sense of the terrible contrast between something infinitely great and illimitable within him and that limited and material something that he, and even she, was. This contrast weighed on and yet cheered him while she sang.”
Andrei is a deep, complex and sensible man, a man of a great moral sense, someone capable of seeing and understanding beyond the surface and with a keen capacity of analysis. He knows that everything may happen during the year that he will be apart from Natasha and he foresees that Pierre would be the only one there capable of helping her as he knows that his pride won’t allow him to forgive her should she fall. Why has he followed so strictly his father’s wishes? Most probably, even if she would have not betrayed him, old prince Bolkonsky wouldn’t have allowed the marriage and Andrej would’ve married her anyway without his father’s consent. He has followed his orders as a dutiful son, even if that will probably end with his happiness, but that’s what he had to do, according to his principles. And when Natasha tries to elope with Kuragin and their engagement is broken, he feels himself hurt, disappointed and misunderstood; because he was the only one capable to see inside Natasha, because “it was that soul that I loved in her… loved so strongly and happily”. Not Kuragin who “only saw in her a pretty and fresh young girl, with whom he did not deign to unite his fate”.
She has failed him not only for the betrayal act itself, but also, and most of all, because of the subject she’s chosen to betray him with. Andrei, alone in his tent before the battle of Borodino, fails also in understanding her; that’s his biggest defeat, the fact that he could have been happy and his pride avoided him to realise it.
He will when it will be too late, dying on a bed a few meters again from her. Then he would understand her soul, her shame, her remorse, and would realise how cruel he was when he rejected her.
Another representative scene of Andrej’s persona, usually ignored by the adaptations of the novel, is when the army is retreating from Smolensk, near his estate of Bald Hills. His family has already retired to another country house (he thinks instead to Moscow) and he rides alone to see it. The place is almost abandoned, part of the retiring troops has sacked the garden. He sees an old peasant sat on a green garden seat, plaiting a bast shoe. Goes to the house, talks of the situation of the estate with the overseerer, and when he returns the old peasant is still there, “like a fly impassive on the face of a loved one who is dead”. When he joins his men in the road, many of them are bathing in a small pond of muddled water, trying to refresh from the summer heat and clean up the dust. He’s loved by his men because he is kind to them, as they don’t remind him his old life, but “as soon as he came across a former acquaintance or anyone from the staff, he bristled up immediately and grew spiteful, ironical and contemptuous”.
Gazing those naked men refreshing in the dirty water: “flesh, bodies, cannon fodder!” he thought, and he looked at his own naked body and shuddered, not from cold but from a sense of disgust and horror he did not himself understand, aroused by the sight of that immense number of bodies splashing around the dirty pond”. The abandoned estate of Bold Hills is a metaphor of his own being; he feels abandoned, useless, squandered; the sight of his naked men is an anticipation of death, everything is meaningless.
Unfortunately, he will in the end lose his last battle against death. Tolstoy has written the most beautiful and touching pages I have ever read about death; although it is not an easy reading, because it touches deeply and leaves you shocked, I suggest you to read “The death of Ivan Iliç”, a short novel. Ivan illiç, as Andrei Bolkonsky experience a dettachment of life before being physically dead.
Andrei falls asleep and he dreams about death while he’s trying desperately and unsuccessfully, to keep it away from his room. Once that it “suddenly happened”, the battle against death lost, Andrej, as Ivan Illiç surrender detaching themselves from the living, even if they still breath. Andrei’s sister, Marja, who finally succeeds in visiting her brother, remains shocked about what she sees, the way he behaves and speaks: insensible, cold, detached. “Had he screemed in agony, that scream would not have struck such horror into Princess Marja’s heart as the tone of his voice”.
He is no longer with them, he has already left, as Natasha will repeat over and over later “Where has he gone? Where is he now?”
BOLKONSKY AND DOLOKHOV
My second favourite character among the around six hundred and thirty present in the novel is Dolokhov. Although he belongs to the group of the “negative characters” (the Kuragins [Anatole and Heléne], Boris Dubretskoy, Natasha’s elder sister Vera or her husband Berg, who measured time not in years but in promotions), he is undoubtedly the most interesting of this group and even of some of the “good” characters as Nikolaj Rostov towards who, I must admit, I feel a very cordial but profound dislike.
Dolokhov is a good-looking, courageous and ruthless infantry officer. “A notorious duellist and a rake” (for further reading about this figure in XVIIIth and XIXth century literature, check out this linnet’s post that offers precious and detailed information on the subject) as demonstrates his first appearance in the novel, when he bets with an English officer that he can drink a whole bottle of rum while keeping his balance on the ledge of a window. Needless to say, he wins. “Dolokhov always wins his bets”, as will recall later Nikolaj Rostov.
That very night, together with Pierre and Anatole Kuragin, they finish their amusement tying a bear to the back of a police officer, plunging both of them in the river. As a result of that cocky behaviour he will be reduced to the ranks, but promises to win back his position distinguishing himself in battle. As usual, Dolokhov keeps his promises and, after the battle of Austerlitz, he’s an official again.
As I wrote before, although Dolokhov is a villain, he is far away from the archetype represented by Anatole Kuragin and, in some sense, he is more similar to Andrei than any other character in the novel, at least the Andrei before his transformation that will begin in that battle in which both of them coincide, ignoring their existence.
Anatole Kuragin is a vain (“he regarded his own life as a continual round of amusement which someone for some reason had to provide him”), stupid (“in general he thought very little”) even if beautiful piece of flesh, as his sister Helene is. Dolokhov, at least, has a set of non-values of his own, some of them awful as the canonically misogynistic all females are whores except my mother and my sister.
Dolokhov feels a deep resentment; of humble origins, without any family money to rely on, he has to work hard for his position while others have everything they want without an apparent effort. Furthermore, his frustration grows when he suffers two humiliating defeats although he is better than his opposers. He is a cold, professional duellist but he is almost killed by Pierre, someone who held a pistol for the first time. He reputes himself far better than the weak and spoilt Nikolaj (I cannot agree more) but nevertheless Sonia rejects him to keep faith to her love (who will end up marrying prince Bolkonsky’s sister, Marja).
To go back to the Bolkonsky-Dolokhov duo, both make heroic actions in battle, driven, nevertheless, by opposed reasons: Andrei out of honour, Dolokhov from pure selfishness. When wanting to wash his name as promised to general Kutuzov he captures an enemy, and the salvation of a group of comrades is an incident coming from his wish to get away as soon as possible from Austerlitz. Bold as Dolokhov is, he finds out that the way out to salvation crosses an iced mat.
Dolokhov, compared with Andrei, is like a fallen angel in front of an archangel, two beings made of the same mould, but that from a certain point take different paths. Prince Andrei starts his own, as we have seen before, when is laying hurt in the battlefield of Austerlitz. Dolokhov is not purely evil, he has the capacity of doing good, his “angelical side” is hidden: “Dolokhov the brawler, Dolokhov the bully, lived in Moscow with an old mother and a hunchback sister, and was the most affectionate of sons and brothers”. It is only from the mouth of his mother that we learn his name, Fedya. This weird, almost bipolar personality is described also by a comrade in the army “One day he is sensible, well educated and good-natured, and the next he’s a wild beast… in Poland he nearly killed a Jew”. Maybe without Austerlitz Andrei would have become Dolokhov, and the latter with Sonia could have become Andrei. Dolokhov’s love for Sonia was his way of salvation; he hopes to find virtue in women as the only way to be redeemed and once he’s rejected by Sonja, his last hope, he embraces voluntarily and completely evil, being cruel and cold as ice with Rostov in the card game.
” ‘So you are not afraid to play with me?’ repeated Dolokhov, and as if about to tell a good story he put down the cards, leaned back in his chair, and began deliberately with a smile: ‘Yes, gentlemen, I’ve been told there’s a rumour going about Moscow that I’m a sharper, so I advise you to be careful.’ “
Dolokhov and Andrei are so similar being at the same time so different, that they almost say the same to their friends, Rostov and Pierre. Dolokhov says: “I don’t care a straw about anyone but those I love; but those I love, I love do that I would give my life for them, and the others I’d throttle if they stood on my way […] as for the rest I only care about them in so far as they are harmful or useful. And most of them are harmful, especially the women. “ And Andrei: “they [referring to his father, son and sister] are not others. The others, one’s neighbours, le prochain as you and Princess Mary call it, are the chief source of all error and evil“.
But after Austerlitz and Sonja’s refusal, their roads diverge completely. We have already seen Andrei’s path. We will find again Dolokhov many chapters afterwards, the very night that Natasha falls for Anatole Kuragin. Dolokhov has become a romantic Byron-like figure; he reappears in society after several adventures in the East, it is said that he acted as minister of “some ruling prince in Persia, where he killed the Shah’s brother”. This is the description of what Natasha saw when looking at the faces at the stalls of a theatre: “In the front, in the very center, leaning back against the orchestra rail, stood Dolokhov in a Persian dress, his curly hair brushed up into a huge shock. He stood in full view of the audience, well aware that he was attracting everyone’s attention, yet as much at ease as though he were in his own room.”
He plays an active part in the future Rostov family pains and troubles. It is he who organises in detail the elopement of Anatole with Natasha while advising him very mildly to wait until she is married. But most of all afterwards; during the retreat of the French army from Russia and the guerrilla warfare that followed he commands a group of cavalry hussars to which joins the young Petya Rostov who will be killed by a bullet in his head trying to imitate Dolokhov, of whom “had heard many stories of his extraordinary bravery and of his cruelty to the French”.
Tom Burke will play Dolokhov in this year’s BBC mini series. Undoubtedly one of the most interesting cast choices of the project (together with Stephen Rea as prince Kuragin) in a cast that, on the paper, awakes in me more doubts than certainties.