Boris and ‘the unwritten code’ of power... Learning to smile ambiguously... 'Nothing was ready for the war which everyone expected'...
Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.
I first read War and Peace at the age of about 17-18. I loved it and was captivated by the famous scenes — Natasha’s first ball, the hunt at Otradnoe, Natasha dancing in the hut, Prince Andrei overhearing the girls talking from a window above and regaining his love of life, Nikolai and Sonya dressed as ‘mummers’ kissing in the snow, Nikolai facing his first enemy fire, the appalling Dolohov torturing Nikolai with ‘one little card’, Pierre striding around Borodino…
I didn’t appreciate how politics is discussed even though the main thing I was studying at that age was history. I’ve re-read it after each big political project I’ve done: in 2005 after being involved in politics for the first time over the euro and the North East referendum, in 2014 after I resigned from the Department for Education, in 2017 after the referendum, and in 2021 after resigning from No10.
Each time I see and feel more of the extraordinary depth that I didn’t see before. The way it describes political meetings, with the drones swarming in the direction of imperial favour and drowning out all sense with their buzzing — just like the Cabinet room! Boris learning to smile ambiguously as he glides from promotion to promotion, behind the mask another mask! The awful Berg spinning his heroics and imitating a superior in smiting his own breast, but a beat late! Although my mind has never recovered from 2015-16 — I’m slower, I stumble over words, in many ways I aged years and didn’t recover, then deteriorated further in 2020 — it feels like I understand it better because I’m older, I’m married, I have a child and so on. Primitive emotional pattern-matching feels more important for appreciating at least some parts of great art than ‘cognitive function’.
In 2017 I re-read Anna Karenina for the first time. When I first read this at Oxford aged about 19-20, I could not understand how my mum could prefer it to War and Peace. I found a lot of it boring. The relationships and marriages made little impression. I didn’t grasp the politics and found Karenin tedious. I had a wonderful Ancient History tutor, Robin Lane Fox, who said to me ‘your Mum’s right, Anna Karenina is better, you’ll realise when you’re older’. I didn’t believe him, of course, but now I know what he meant.
I dont know if it’s ‘better’ but it seems deeper in some ways. When I re-read it aged 46 I was stunned. My own marriage and feelings were there on the page. Some of the arguments and reconciliations between Levin and Kitty almost exactly mirrored those with my own wife! When I looked at my own baby’s fat arm, it ‘looked as if a piece of thread had been tied tightly round the wrist’. So many pages brought tears to my eyes. And in Karenin, an awful shock of recognition. Not only did I recognise him in so many people. But … terrible thought… is it possible that … I too might resemble this awful chacracter in some ways?! Unthinkable surely… Yet…
You can learn more about politics if you really study a few classics and case studies than almost everybody involved in it figures out in a lifetime. But there are deep aspects of politics in Tolstoy that you don’t really read in history books, at least not with the same depth and insight, because it takes an artistic genius to portray the feelings and atmosphere with honesty. (Occasionally there is someone in politics who is also a brilliant artist. Some of Bismarck’s setpieces are masterpieces but they’re often more artistic masterpieces, refined in the re-telling, than historical masterpieces honestly recording what happened.) Often I’ve tried and failed to explain something that’s at the edge of my consciousness, I can’t write it because I can’t capture it in my mind, it floats away as I try to grasp it, but then I read Tolstoy and there it is, the thing I couldn’t articulate but immediately see is true.
I’ll post a few snippets below, I won’t email each one separately. When I post on other subjects I’ll mention if I have updated this page. I’ll add the occasional point from my own experience but that isn’t the purpose of this. The purpose is just to encourage you to read Tolstoy if you haven’t, regardless of anything to do with politics, but also to suggest to those who haven’t that if you keep your eyes open you will also read about politics in a way that you won’t read in history books.
All page references are to the Rosemary Edmonds translation. I’d be grateful if someone could leave a reference in comments to the definitive Russian text. I could once speak very basic Russian, at least after vodka in Moscow nightclubs, and can still read it and would like to look at some passages in the original.