Monday, January 11, 2016
I don’t often cage other people’s stuff, but couldn’t resist this. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, as reworked into an 800-word ‘digested read’ by The Guardian’s inimitable John Crace.
***It was July 1805, and all St Petersburg was concerned about the advance of Bonaparte. Though not so much as to cancel a soirée at which Pierre, a bastard by birth but not by nature, was to be introduced to Russian society.
“Pierre is not one of nous,” several guests observed. “Not only does he forget choses but he doesn’t speak Frussian. Et he drinks even plus que nous.”
Prince Andrew, a bastard by nature but not by birth, cleared his throat delicately. “As a member of the officer class, I have decided to join the army,” he declared.
“Leave your pregnant wife if you will,” Pierre said, willingly accepting the mantle of fecklessness. “I shall eat, drink and copulate for Russia. That will be my duty for the glorious Motherland.”
“I shall join the hussars,” Nicholas declared, while his sister Natasha eyed potential husbands. They might become rather scarce.
Pierre checked his fob watch. The pages were turning faster than he expected and his father had now died. “I seem to find myself the richest man in Russia.”
War proved more terrible than either Andrew or Nicholas has expected. Dreams as well as men got killed. “How I embrace death,” Andrew murmured as the battle of Austerlitz raged. “Pas so vite,” said Napoleon. “Permettez-moi de vous donner une main. Now I must wash my chubby little body.”
“I’m home,” said Andrew as his wife died in childbirth.
Pierre felt the burden of expectation and married Helene but, hélas, she had a bit on the côté. The anguish was intolerable, but Pierre felt obliged not to kill his love rival in a duel and left St Petersburg for many years to ruminate on Freemasonry before deciding a knotted handkerchief was not for him. Instead, he chose to improve the lot of his serfs, who had up till now remained entirely invisible. “Harrumph,” he concluded at last. “I cannot improve their lot because they have never had it so good.” Tolstoy nodded approvingly, lifting his eyes momentarily from the handsome handmaiden beneath him.
“So, 500 roubles on the peace lasting,” said Nicholas, as Napoleon and the Tsar embraced in friendship, thereby losing the remains of the Rostov fortune.
Andrew observed Natasha longingly. “Marry me, please,” he begged. “Oh, I do love you ever so much, Nick,” Natasha replied, but my father is making me wait a year and I’m bound to have developed une grande passion for the inside of Anatole’s trousers by then.”
“I am distraught,” Andrew declared as Natasha fell dangerously ill.
It was now 1812 and Pierre was beside himself as the French approached Moscow. “‘I am deranged with symbolism and Helene has left me even though I left her first. I vow to kill Napoleon,” he said.
“Je ne peux pas believe que je have just perdu the battle of Borodino,” Napoleon squeaked, his shoe-lifts giving him gip. “The French had by loin the best army.”
“But Russia had nature and spirituality on its side,” said Tolstoy while a chorus of Volga boatmen sang patriotic songs.
“Can you not faire quelque chose about the fumee in Moscow?” asked Napoleon. “Et quand will I receive the surrender?”
“Jamais,” Mother Russia replied. First scorched earth, then General Winter. War is hell.
Pierre hovered between madness and death as the French performed atrocities during their withdrawal from the icy embrace of Mother Russia.
“There is a nobility in being broke,” said Nicholas’s aunt. “So I am going to give you some more money.” “Oh, thank you,” Nicholas replied. “Now I can marry Mary. And maybe you and Andrew can make up now, Natasha?”
“I forgive you, Natasha,” said Andrew, before dropping dead.
“That’s handy,” said Pierre, appearing out of nowhere. “Maybe I can marry you instead.”
“Yes please,” Natasha whimpered. “I can give up my singing, we can have four children and I can become a right old drudge, because Leo thinks that submission is a woman’s natural state.”
Tolstoy bowed his head. He was tired. The novel was a difficult thing. Not that his book was a novel, of course. Though people would be bound to call it that. Fools all of them. We can only know we know nothing.