My Selection — War and Peace

By Leo Tolstoy

Muhammad Nasrullah Khan
Feb 16 · 12 min read

Many years ago I was sitting in the reading room of Muhammad Khalid Akhtar, a renowned writer of Urdu literature, when I saw a heavy book that looked like a holy book. You know the holy books are mostly kept in home for the sake of keeping them. Out of curiosity, I took out the book from my friend’s bookshelf. I felt as if I was carrying a brick in my hand.

“Have you read this book?” I asked Khalid Akhtar.

“No, not yet,” he replied.

“But you are so fond of classical books that you even read them in your bathroom.”

“Well, I’ll read it before my death, and it will be my last book.”

“Okay, then you wait for your death and let me read this book.”

I read this book almost three decades ago. Muhammad Khalid Akhtar, as I’ve mentioned above, was my mentor and the best writer. He won the highest award, Adam Jee Award, of Urdu literature. I’ll tell you in detail about Muhammad Khalid Akhtar next time.

I got that book and read it in three weeks. It was, in fact, the discovery of beauty for me. This novel is an epic tale, if I’m not wrong calling it an epic tale, is obsessed over trivia of human life and society. I actually lived with the characters and have those moments when we can really slow down and live with the characters, understand what they’re thinking and feeling. Though there are many subjects in this novel, but love is the subject that impressed me. Here, let me quote my favorite theme in it:

“Love hinders death. Love is life. All, everything that I understand, I understand because I love. Everything is united by it alone. Love is God, and to die means that I, a particle of love, shall return to the general and eternal source.” These thoughts seemed to him comforting. But they were only thoughts. Something was lacking in them, they were not clear, they were too one-sidedly personal and brain-spun. And there was the former agitation and obscurity.”

It’s too lengthy but you won’t find absurdity of length at any stage. Initially, you are introduced to too many characters but then it becomes lucid and smooth. Soon you become familiar with the main characters Pierre Bezukhov, Prince Andrei Bolonsky, Natasha Ilyinichna and Nikolai Ilyich, whose individual narratives cross over and intertwine throughout the novel. The role of an individual in the ongoing generation of history is the main theme, as in Leo Tolstoy’s own words: “The movement of humanity, arising as it does from innumerable arbitrary human wills, is continuous.”

Regarding the craft, Tolstoy’s prose will amaze you. When he talks about the cold weather, we feel it in our bones. Here, for example, I quote him to show you his SHOWING skill:

“By morning the night’s fog had left only hoarfrost turning into dew on the heights, but in the hollows the fog still spread its milk-white sea. Nothing could be seen in that hollow to the left, into which our troops had descended and from which came the sounds of gunfire. Over the heights was a dark, clear sky, and to the right-the enormous ball of the sun. Far ahead, on the other shore of the sea of fog, one could make out the jutting, wooded hills on which the enemy army was supposed to be, and something was discernible.”

Though it will take weeks to finish but I’m sure when you finish it you will reopen it again and again.

Here are few extracts from this unforgettable novel:

Photo Credit: BBC

“Life is everything. Life is God. Everything shifts and moves, and this movement is God. And while there is life, there is delight in the self-awareness of the divinity. To love life is to love God. The hardest and most blissful thing is to love this life in one’s suffering, in the guiltlessness of suffering.”

“How often we sin, how much we deceive, and all for what?… All will end in death, all!”

“What is bad? What is good? What should one love, what hate? Why live, and what am I? What is lie, what is death? What power rules over everything?” he asked himself. And there was no answer to any of these questions except one, which was not logical and was not at all an answer to these questions. This answer was: “You will die — and everything will end. You will die and learn everything — or stop asking.”

“Never, never marry, my friend. Here’s my advice to you: don’t marry until you can tell yourself that you’ve done all you could, and until you’ve stopped loving the woman you’ve chosen, until you see her clearly, otherwise you’ll be cruelly and irremediably mistaken. Marry when you’re old and good for nothing…Otherwise all that’s good and lofty in you will be lost.”

“Smiling with pleasure, they went through their memories, not sad, old people’s memories, but poetic, youthful ones, those impressions from the very distant past where dream merges with reality, and they laughed softly, rejoicing at something.”

“I don’t give a damn unless I’m fond of a person; but I’d sacrifice my life for those I am fond of; the rest I’d throttle if they stood in my way…And you may not believe me but if I still set a value on life it is only because I still hope one day to meet such a heavenly creature who will regenerate me, purify me and elevate me. But you don’t understand that.”

Photo Credit: BBC (Movie: War and Peace)

“And there in the middle, high above Prechistensky Boulevard, amidst a scattering of stars on every side but catching the eye through its closeness to the earth, its pure white light and the long uplift of its tail, shone the comet, the huge, brilliant comet of 1812, that popular harbinger of untold horrors and the end of the world. But this bright comet with its long, shiny tail held no fears for Pierre. Quite the reverse: Pierre’s eyes glittered with tears of rapture as he gazed up at this radiant star, which must have traced its parabola through infinite space at speeds unimaginable and now suddenly seemed to have picked its spot in the black sky and impaled itself like an arrow piercing the earth, and stuck there, with its strong up thrusting tail and its brilliant display of whiteness amidst the infinity of scintillating stars. This heavenly body seemed perfectly attuned to Pierre’s newly melted heart, as it gathered reassurance and blossomed into new life.”

“A wound in the soul, coming from the rending of the spiritual body, strange as it may seem, gradually closes like a physical wound. And once a deep wound heals over and the edges seem to have knit, a wound in the soul, like a physical wound, can be healed only by the force of life pushing up from inside.

This was the way Natasha’s wound healed. She thought her life was over. But suddenly her love for her mother showed her that the essence of life — love — was still alive in her. Love awoke, and life awoke.”

“A good player who loses at chess is genuinely convinced hat he has lost because of a mistake, and he looks for this mistake in the beginning of his game, but forgets that there were also mistakes at ever step in the course of the game, that none of his moves was perfect. The mistake he pays attention to is conspicuous only because his opponent took advantage of it.”

“A battle is won by the side that is absolutely determined to win. Why did we lose the battle of Austerlitz? Our casualties were about the same as those of the French, but we had told ourselves early in the day that the battle was lost, so it was lost.”

“When a man sees a dying animal, horror comes over him: that which he himself is, his essence, is obviously being annihilated before his eyes — is ceasing to be. But when the dying one is a person, and a beloved person, then, besides a sense of horror at the annihilation of life, there is a feeling of severance and a spiritual wound which, like a physical wound, sometimes kills and sometimes heals, but always hurts and fears any external, irritating touch.”

“There is something so enchanting in the smile of melancholy. It is a ray of light in the darkness, a shade between sadness and despair, showing the possibility of consolation.”

Photo Credit: BBC

“If there is a God and future life, there is truth and good, and man’s highest happiness consists in striving to attain them. We must live, we must love, and we must believe that we live not only today on this scrap of earth, but have lived and shall live”

“But one thing I beg of you, look on me as your friend; and if you want some help, advice, or simply want to open your heart to someone- not now, but when things are clearer in your heart- think of me.’ He took her hand and kissed it. ‘I shall be happy, if I am able…’ Pierre was confused.
‘Don’t speak to me like that; I’m not worth it!’ cried Natasha…
‘Hush, hush your whole life lies before you,’ he said to her.
‘Before me! No! All is over for me,’ she said, with shame and humiliation.
‘All over?’ he repeated. ‘If I were not myself, but the handsomest, cleverest, best man in the world, and if I were free I would be on my knees this minute to beg for your hand and your love.”

“In captivity, in the shed, Pierre had learned, not with his mind, but with his whole being, his life, that man is created for happiness, that happiness is within him, in the satisfying of natural human needs, and that all unhappiness comes not from lack, but from superfluity; but now, in these last three weeks of the march, he had learned a new and more comforting truth — he had learned that there is nothing frightening in the world. He had learned that, as there is no situation in the world in which a man can be happy and perfectly free, so there is no situation in which he can be perfectly unhappy and unfree. He had learned that there is a limit to suffering and a limit to freedom, and that those limits are very close; that the man who suffers because one leaf is askew in his bed of roses, suffers as much as he now suffered falling asleep on the bare, damp ground, one side getting cold as the other warmed up; that when he used to put on his tight ballroom shoes, he suffered just as much as now, when he walked quite barefoot (his shoes had long since worn out) and his feet were covered with sores.”

“Each man lives for himself, uses his freedom to achieve his personal goals, and feels with his whole being that right now he can or cannot do such-and-such an action; but as soon as he does it, this action, committed at a certain moment in time, becomes irreversible, and makes itself the property of history, in which is has not a free but a predestined significance. ”

Photo Credit: BBC

“At the advent of danger there are always two voices that speak with equal force in the human heart: one very reasonably invites a man to consider the nature of the peril and the means of escaping it; the other, with a still greater show of reason, argues that it is too depressing and painful to think of the danger since it is not in man’s power to foresee everything and avert the general march of events, and it is better therefore to shut one’s eyes to the disagreeable until it actually comes, and to think instead of what is pleasant. When a man is alone he generally listens to the first voice; in the company of his fellow-men, to the second.”

“What’s this? Am I falling? My legs are giving way,” thought he, and fell on his back. He opened his eyes, hoping to see how the struggle of the Frenchmen with the gunners ended, whether the red-haired gunner had been killed or not and whether the cannon had been captured or saved. But he saw nothing. Above him there was now nothing but the sky- the lofty sky, not clear yet still immeasurably lofty, with gray clouds gliding slowly across it. “How quiet, peaceful, and solemn; not at all as I ran,” thought Prince Andrew- “not as we ran, shouting and fighting, not at all as the gunner and the Frenchman with frightened and angry faces struggled for the mop: how differently do those clouds glide across that lofty infinite sky! How was it I did not see that lofty sky before? And how happy I am to have found it at last! Yes! All is vanity, all falsehood, except that infinite sky. There is nothing, nothing, but that. But even it does not exist, there is nothing but quiet and peace. Thank God!…”

“Man can be master of nothing while he fears death, but he who does not fear it possesses all. If there were no suffering, man would not know his limitations, would not know himself. The hardest thing is to be able in your soul to unite the meaning of all. To unite all? Pierre asked himself. “No, not to unite. Thoughts cannot be united, but to harness all these thoughts together is what we need! Yes, one must harness them, must harness them!”

“When an apple has ripened and falls, why does it fall? Because of its attraction to the earth, because its stalk withers, because it is dried by the sun, because it grows heavier, because the wind shakes it, or because the boy standing below wants to eat it?”

“How strange, extraordinary, and joyful it was to her to think that her son — the little son, whose tiny limbs had faintly stirred within her twenty years ago, for whose sake she had so often quarreled with the count, who would spoil him, the little son, who had first learnt to say grusha, and then had learnt to say baba — that that son was now in a foreign land, in strange surroundings, a manly warrior, alone without help or guidance, doing there his proper manly work. All the world-wide experience of ages, proving that children do imperceptibly from the cradle grow up into men, did not exist for the countess. The growth of her son had been for her at every stage of his growth just as extraordinary as though millions of millions of men had not grown up in the same way. Just as, twenty years before, she could not believe that the little creature that was lying somewhere under her heart, would one day cry and learn to talk, now she could not believe that the same little creature could be that strong, brave man, that paragon of sons and of men that, judging by this letter, he was now.”

My Selection

myselections

Muhammad Nasrullah Khan

Written by

His short stories are well-recognized internationally for his unique prose style. nasar_peace@hotmail.com

My Selection

“All good books are the same and when you read a good book you realize it’s already passed on to you and then that book becomes yours whatever good or bad or enjoyable in it. There are evils, sadness, people, towns and seasons there, they all become yours.” (Ernest Hemingway)

Muhammad Nasrullah Khan

Written by

His short stories are well-recognized internationally for his unique prose style. nasar_peace@hotmail.com

My Selection

“All good books are the same and when you read a good book you realize it’s already passed on to you and then that book becomes yours whatever good or bad or enjoyable in it. There are evils, sadness, people, towns and seasons there, they all become yours.” (Ernest Hemingway)

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