’tis the season of War and Peace in the UK**. Despite its Russian setting, it’s very much a European novel in many ways. One of its primary characters (a vividly sketched Napoleon) was a talented megalomaniac Western European who spent years trying to bring the different countries of Europe under one banner, mainly for his own nefarious ends, which does seem vaguely familiar. As I write, Dave is in Paris, sucking up to the intransigent Francois Hollande.
Here is Tolstoy describing a multinational war cabinet arguing before putting their plan to Tsar Alexander, with Napoleon’s Grand Armee breathing down their necks (book 9, ch 10):
A Frenchman is self-assured because he regards himself personally, both in mind and body, as irresistibly attractive to men and women. An Englishman is self-assured, as being a citizen of the best-organized state in the world, and therefore as an Englishman always knows what he should do and knows that all he does as an Englishman is undoubtedly correct. An Italian is self-assured because he is excitable and easily forgets himself and other people. A Russian is self-assured just because he knows nothing does not want to know anything, since he does not believe that anything can be known. The German’s self-assurance is worst of all, stronger and more repulsive than any other, because he imagines that he knows the truth- science- which he himself has invented but which is for him the absolute truth.
At best it does sound like a group of irreconcilables. A modern Tolstoy could have a field day with the absurd unelected peacocks of the current EU. We’re light years from the noble ideals of Monnet, Schuman or even the nonagenarian Jacques Delors.
**I’ve intentionally not watched the latest TV version yet, in order not to detract from reading the outstanding Pevear & Volokhonsky translation. However, the incomparable Clive James has read them all and seen them all, read his brilliant take on it here. If you want a taster for what it’s about, try the sparkling Philip Hensher.