War and War and Tolstoy

War and Peace

By Leo Tolstoy

Published serially 1865-1867; in book form 1869

Read May-July 2019

I listened to the 2007 Naxos AudioBooks version of the English translation by Louise and Aylmer Maude, read by Neville Jason, while referring to the Kindle version of the 1942 Oxford University Press Inner Sanctum Edition of the same translation.   The hardcopy of the Inner Sanctum Edition included a 12 page leaflet providing maps, a list of characters, both arranged in order of their appearance and in family groups, and a list of dates of principal historical events; this material was also included in the published hardcopy.   This edition also included Aylmer Maude’s preface, a brief biography of Tolstoy, and an introduction written by Clifton Fadiman which comments on the parallel between Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812 and Hitler’s invasion in 1941-42.   While the Kindle version doesn’t include the leaflet, it does include all other aspects of the Inner Sanctum Edition and is certainly easier to transport and store than the original hardcopy version. 

Neville Jason’s reading is fabulous. His reading allowed very easy assimilation of the various forms of the names of the numerous characters.  As the book progresses, and in the entire Epilogue Two, Tolstoy gives the reader various, sometimes lengthy, philosophical essays on his views of particular battles, the overall war with respect to causes of initiation, progression, and ending, Napoleon and Alexander, the documentation of war in history books, and the art of writing history itself, among others.  This reader anticipates these essays could have felt a bit tedious when reading “via eyes” but Neville Jason’s reading enabled this reader’s full engagement and a sense of Tolstoy earnestly speaking directly to this reader. 

Apparently Tolstoy chose the title “War and Peace” to replace the title (“1805”) originally used as the work was published serially.  Certainly the full work covers the period extending to 1820, with focus  on the Napoleonic-Russian War of 1805 and the invasion of Russia by Napoleon in 1812 so “1805” was an insufficient title.  The discussion of Peace is limited, however, unless he uses this term to cover the fictional story of five Russian families and numerous minor characters.  Or perhaps he used the term “Peace” to describe the period before the involvement of Russia in the 1805 war and the period between that war and Napoleon’s invasion.  In any case, he doesn’t overtly discuss “Peace” but he certainly discusses “War” as noted above. 

The book created controversy when it was published as the critics and public found it difficult to classify the book—not history, not a “normal” novel.  This reader sees the book as a form of historical fiction.  There are many (apparently some 160) real persons in the book, some only referenced and others actively involved in the story.  Tolstoy provides five fictional Russian families and numerous minor characters to engage the reader with a sense of the society of the time, to provide multiple stories of potential marriage matches, and to provide characters’ experiences in entering the service, in battle, and in the service of the army.  But unlike “normal” historical fiction, Tolstoy weighs in often with his personal take on various topics as noted above.

This reader invested unusually heavily in this book, purchasing both the two volumes of audiobook and the Kindle book.  The other investment, which seemed somewhat daunting at the beginning, was that the audiobook version requires 62 hours of listening.  But now that this reader is finished with listening, this reader frankly misses Neville Jason’s voice describing the various trials and tribulations of the five Russian families (which won’t be divulged here as you will want to discover yourselves) and providing this reader Tolstoy’s view on the various topics previously mentioned.  The only disappointment was in Epilogue 1 when Tolstoy’s view was divulged of the only purpose of women (to be married and raise children).  But this reader must give him a small pass here as this vast saga of families and the course of Russian history is so completely engaging.  This reader did utilize some other sources to comprehend better aspects of Russian and Napoleonic history that may have been familiar to his earliest readers.  Since this reader’s primary identity is “learner”, this book delivered well more than 62 hours of learning.  The Kindle version indicates average reading time of 32 hours.  This reader fully recommend investing savoring this book; Neville Jason’s version is time very well spent.

A Look at the Contemplative Life

In This House of Brede

By Rummer Godden

Published 1969

Read July 2019

Godden gives us a loving look at about twenty years in the life of an English Benedictine Abbey.  A primary character is Philippa Talbot who in her 40’s leaves a successful career to join the Abbey in about 1954.  Fairly shortly after her arrival Abbess Dame Hester Cunningham Proctor dies which provides Godden a useful device to introduce both the process of naming a new Abbess and to introduce us to a number of characters that are fully developed over the course of the book.  Elspeth Scallon enters the Novitiate and becomes Sister Cecilia just as Abbess Proctor dies providing Godden the opportunity to follow her journey on the path to becoming a fully vowed nun and contrasting her path, Phillipa’s and the path of other Noviatates. 

Overall Godden progresses the story of the characters and the overall community from Philippa’s arrival forward, but she takes many opportunities to discuss various aspects of the Benedictine contemplative community including structure of the day, organization of the community, various specific feasts and special events, and challenges facing the community.  In most cases she gives perspectives on the topic from many of the characters which allows her to develop the specific characters, to provide an in-depth view of the topic, and to give a look at the changes potentially or actually introduced as new Noviate arrive and as Pope John initiates the Vatican II Council. 

Godden provides us an in-depth view of the workings of the Abbey and helps the reader understand what draws one to join, what the path to full vows entails, and what keeps the nuns actively engaged in their chosen life for decades.  Fortunately Godden provides as well stories of novices that don’t remain part of the community and the numerous challenges that individual members of the community face across their lives in the Abbey.  Godden provides a short glimpse of the community’s reaction to the Vatican II Council and its impact without passing any sort of judgement about it. 

While not a book this reader might have selected for herself (again the value of being in a book discussion group that provides such opportunities!), this reader does feel enriched having read this thoughtful, lovely and loving, but not at all saccharine, look at this type of religious life and the way it was conducted during this period.