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Prince Andrei and the oak tree - a story about the overlap of literature and life

The cover of the new (2007) edition of War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

I have been spending some time in Russia lately. Well not exactly in Russia (and certainly not in the Russia of 2022), but in early 19th century Russia, the world of Leo Tolstoy’s famous novel War and Peace. It is one of my favourite books.

It has been a combined audio-visual-literary experience, as I have been watching a DVD of the BBC’s superb 1972 dramatisation of the novel, rationing myself to an episode every week or so, while simultaneously reading a new and wonderful translation of the book. The combined impact is deeply compelling.

This is the second time I have watched the television series, having first watched it in the 1970s, and the third time I have read the book, so I already know the story and the characters. Nevertheless it remains fresh, full of surprises and intense interest, intermingling the joy of romance, the horror of the battlefield, and the wisdom and poetry of Tolstoy’s observations on life and times. I cannot but agree with the opening of the introduction to the new translation:

[This novel] is the most famous and at the same time the most daunting of Russian novels, as vast as Russia itself and as long to cross from one end to the other. Yet if one makes the journey, the sights seen and the people met on the way mark one’s life for ever.

War and Peace concerns the fortunes and tribulations of two noble and contrasting Russian families: the dour Bolkonskys and the carefree Rostovs, and of the interactions between them. There is also the interaction between the Rostovs, the Bolkonskys and the fascinating Count Pierre Bezukhov whose struggles to find a purpose in life provide another of the central themes of the book. The novel is set in the time of the Napoleonic wars. Bonaparte himself, and the great Russian general Kutuzov, appear as important characters. It is also a time of growing social unrest as the Russian peasants begin their struggle against serfdom.

Tolstoy’s poetic insights into human despair and tragedy are most poignantly revealed in his portrayal of Prince Andrei Bolkonsky. An educated, thoughtful, introspective and intelligent young man, Prince Andrei (against his better judgment, but through a sense of patriotism and honour) joins the army to fight the French. He is appointed an adjutant to Kutuzov, but soon finds himself in the thick of the fighting. This was the disastrous battle at Austerlitz in which the Russian and Austrian armies were routed by Napoleon. Prince Andrei is wounded and left for dead on the battlefield, but he is later taken prisoner and suffers severe privation. No word having been received, his family believe him dead.

Prince Andrei Bolkonski, as portrayed in the 1972 BBC serial

Eventually Prince Andrei is released and finds his way back to the family estate of Bald Hills, arriving unexpected and un-announced on a dark, snowy evening.

Here, a tragic scene unfolds. The Prince arrives just in time to witness the death of his wife in childbirth. Already in despair over the crushing blow inflicted on the Russian army by the French, Prince Andrei’s grief and guilt are inconsolable. All is made worse by a growing estrangement from his father. He falls into depression, sapped of enthusiasm for life and optimism for his future, and he retreats into a lonely life on the family estates, deep in the country. Here he is wholly removed from friends and society. Aged only in his early thirties, he considers his life is over.

Then, one late winter day, on unavoidable business to do with the trusteeship of the estates, he sets out by coach to call on the old Count Rostov at his nearby country estate. The Rostov family have moved from Moscow to their country estate for the summer.

His coach is about to move off when, suddenly, overhearing a remark by his coachman, Prince Andrei looks about him and realises that the first signs of spring are all about.

“So it is, everything’s green already.... so quickly! Birches and bird cherry, and alders already beginning ... But no sign of oaks. Ah, there’s one.”

At the side of the road stood an oak. Probably ten times older than the birches of the woods, it was ten times as thick and twice as tall as any birch. It was an enormous oak, twice the span of a man’s arms in girth, with some limbs broken off years ago, and broken bark covered with old scars. With its huge, gnarled, ungainly, unsymmetrically spread arms and fingers, it stood, old, angry, scornful, and ugly amidst the smiling birches. It alone did not want to submit to the charm of spring and did not want to see either the springtime or the sun.

“Spring, and love, and happiness” the oak seemed to say. “And how is it you are not bored with the same stupid, senseless deception! Always the same and always a deception! There is no spring, no sun, no happiness. Look, there, at those smothered, dead fir trees, always the same; look at me spreading my broken splayed fingers wherever they grow – from my back, from my sides. As they’ve grown, so I stand, and I don’t believe in your hopes and deceptions.”

Prince Andrei turned several times to look at this oak as he drove through the woods, as if he expected something from it. There were flowers and grass beneath the oak as well, but it stood among them in the same way, scowling, motionless, ugly and stubborn.

“Yes, it’s right, a thousand times right, this oak” thought Prince Andrei, “Let others, the young ones, succumb afresh to this deception, but we know life – our life, is over!” A whole new series of thoughts in connection with the oak, hopeless but sadly pleasant, emerged in Prince Andrei’s soul. During the journey it was as if he again thought over his whole life and reached the same old comforting and hopeless conclusion, that there was no need for him to start anything, that he had to live out his life without doing evil, without anxiety and without wishing for anything.

The Prince stays with the Rostov family for some weeks, and here he encounters the young Countess Natasha Rostov. Natasha is irrepressible, joyful, and feminine, on the brink of womanhood and bursting with vitality, laughter and a rich enthusiasm for life. Despite himself, Prince Andrei is entranced. Then one night, unable (as usual) to sleep and standing by his open window, he overhears Natasha on the balcony above, innocently describing her pleasure in the soft, spring night, lit by a luminous full moon. Prince Andrei “was afraid to stir, lest he betray his involuntary presence.” But, listening to Natasha talk “in his soul there suddenly arose such an unexpected tangle of youthful thoughts and hopes, contradictory to his whole life” that a great peace came over him, and he was able later to fall asleep at once.

The next morning, Prince Andrei left early to drive home to his estate. On the way he drove through the same birch woods where the old oak tree had so struck a chord with his sorrowful emotions at that time. But a change has occurred.

The ringing of the harness bells was still more muffled in the woods than a month ago; but everything was filled out, shady and dense, and the young firs scattered through the woods did not disrupt the overall beauty and, imitating the general character, showed the tender green of their fluffy young shoots.....Everything was in flower; nightingales throbbed and trilled, now near, now far.

“Yes, here in these woods was that oak that I agreed with,” thought Prince Andrei. “But where is it?” he thought again looking at the left side of the road, and, not knowing it himself, not recognising it, he admired the very oak he was looking for. The old oak, quite transformed, spreading out a canopy of juicy dark greenery, basked, barely swaying, in the rays of the evening sun. Of the gnarled fingers, the scars, the old grief, the mistrust – nothing could be seen.

“Yes, it’s the same oak,” thought Prince Andrei, and suddenly a causeless, springtime feeling of joy and renewal came over him....... “No, life isn’t over at the age of thirty-one,” Prince Andrei suddenly decided, definitely, immutably.

An ancient Russian oak tree, in full leaf

Alas, Prince Andrei’s future (and Natasha’s) hold further tragedy...but that is a tale for another time, yet another twist wrought by Tolstoy.... more than a poet, also a master story-teller.

Thinking about the old oak tree and its capacity for renewal and the lessons therefrom, it seems to me that perhaps the reason I love this passage is that I recognise it from my own experience. On that occasion, as with Prince Andrei, the renewal of my spirits, and the first slipping away of sadness and depression came from nowhere while I was walking through a gleaming eucalypt woodland one lovely spring morning. It had rained the night before, and the bush was well-washed. The bark on the salmon gums steamed in the sun; wattles were in bloom, and small birds were picking insects from the damp, sweet-smelling leaf litter underfoot. Beyond, a paddock of spring wheat burgeoned.

“No, life isn’t over.” I thought … and I was right.

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Aug 20, 2022

Have you ever read James Michener's "Poland" Roger?

There's a 700 year history of the Beech forest on the Vistula River which I found a most fascinating insight into the Poles Forestry culture..... pretty topical now with the Ukraine/Russia/Poland/German machinations... gives a great historical context to it all.

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