Right now, we live in a tumultuous nation, filled with internal strife emanating from Washington and, though ostensibly at peace, always kept on a footing for war thanks to both all of the international actions undertaken by our awe-inspiring military and the national security mindset of a post-9/11 world. To say that it can be difficult sometimes determining how to live our lives in this climate is an understatement.
But as 2012 comes to a close, again, it is good to think about another country similarly torn by crises on a grand scale. 200 years ago, Napoleon Bonaparte and his Grande Armee invaded Russia with a goal of conquering the superpower and got as far as laying waste to Moscow…only Napoleon had suffered his most staggering military action yet before reaching Moscow, at Borodino, and unprepared to face Russia’s winter and vastness, he was forced into a retreat which slashed his forces and laid the groundwork for his two great defeats and total loss of power.
Fifty-seven years later, a veteran of another Russian war—the Crimean—who had fought in the endless and draining siege of Sevastopol wrote a book about the before, during, and after of Napoleon’s assault on Russia. That veteran’s name was Leo Tolstoy, and his book was War and Peace.
War and Peace is now in many ways shorthand for “great literature nobody ever reads.” My own copy is 1200+ pages of small type accompanied by footnotes and supplemental material, and considering it deals primarily with genteel figures in a vanished Russian civilization, both fictional and real, and treats them all with exacting detail, the question of why we should still read War and Peace for any reason but to appreciate the aesthetics of Tolstoy’s peerless writing, is a formidable one to answer. Some consider it boring, a nineteenth-century slog. And others may, with a bit more justification, argue that a text so rooted in its time and place says little important to our globalized modern world.
I strongly disagree, however, with anyone who thinks War and Peace is not worth reading or too formidable a mountain to conquer.
It is one of the greatest and most irresistible novels ever written.
Admittedly, a good deal of the pleasure of War and Peace is found on the somewhat more superficial level of the purely aesthetic. Tolstoy, in the words of Paul Johnson, has “times when he writes better than anyone who has ever lived,” and through careful research, revision, and refinement over seven drafts, he spins a narrative which, as a story, is perfectly constructed with well-timed rising and falling action, grand climaxes, satisfying and logical resolutions, and some of the most memorable characters one can find in literature. It’s debatable whether this or Anna Karenina was Tolstoy’s masterpiece, which probably carries with it the title of “greatest novel ever written,” but those who are enthralled with the passionate image of Anna and Vronsky should know that War and Peace is filled with similar personages who never seem invented. In particular, the central trio of the thoughtful, tortured Pierre Bezukhov, beautiful and impulsive Natasha Rostov, and imperious but emotional Andrei Bolkonsky remain implanted in the mind long after reaching the end, but Tolstoy gives the same realism to every minor character, from Napoleon and General Kutuzov to the inspirational peasant Platon Karataev.
And as the book goes on, the writing somehow only gets better; as fantastically written as the early part’s set pieces of Austerlitz and Christmas balls are, the later portions concerning Borodino, the burning of Moscow, and the wild confusion of that action’s aftermath are written with perfect you-are-there detail and vivid language of the sort which makes every sentence a poem. (This is especially true in the recent translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Verekhovsky, which captures the rhythms of Tolstoy’s prose and precision of his expression while staying in tune with modern vernacular.)
And one is never sated by Tolstoy’s art. The idea of War and Peace as a potentially boring read is almost entirely inspired by its length alone. Reading War and Peace is actually comparable to following the career of a great and innovative rock artist, such as the Beatles, Bob Dylan, or David Bowie—artists who did not stick to one style over their bodies of work but actively sought to change, grow, and surprise. The type of music they made one year bore no relation to what they would create in a few more years. In War and Peace, this constant change and stylistic departure occurs almost chapter by chapter, especially as the book goes on. Drawing-room drama of a Downton Abbey-cum-The Scarlet Empress style gives way to intelligent comedy, then to docudrama, then to sweeping action sequences, then to pure romance, then to Tolstoy breaking the flow to deliver a series of philosophical essays on the nature of history. And again, these various parts all grow in power and excitement as the book relentlessly drives to its conclusion…because Tolstoy makes us feel we have lived every minute with these figures, makes us accept their laughter and tears and even most incomprehensible decisions.
And about those philosophical essays: they might seem annoyingly superfluous, the work of a less-than-amateur historian and professional busybody trying to prove he’s right and everyone else is wrong (Tolstoy was like that), but not only in the context of our own times does Tolstoy seem closer to the mark than many others, but also, his interpretation of historical events reflects right back into, and explains, why War and Peace works as it does.
Tolstoy’s essays pose something of a rebellion against the grand narrative school of history. He firmly believes in cause and effect, but rejects the idea that great men and great forces of necessity are what drive history along. Instead, his essays focus on the collective efforts of so many individuals, most of whom would have gone unmentioned in the history books of his day, each influenced by their own personal causes and interpretations of the moment they are living in to act. The cumulative result of all these causes and effects and personalities, Tolstoy says, is what makes history. Being Tolstoy, he brings God into the mix, but the secular portions of the theory are reasonably convincing, especially when he puts them into the “practice” of his art.
Because we believe in the reality of Tolstoy’s vision, a reality I personally felt just lately in the wake of the Newtown tragedy: like so many others, I processed and reacted to this horrible act, but was still cognizant of my day-to-day life going on around me and the living of that life. 9/11, the presidential elections, other major cultural events which changed society—for none of these moments could I say that these changes affected our own lives significantly. Over time, we as individuals find our way back to personal, sometimes selfish hopes, fears, and dreams, to concerns primarily for our immediate welfare, to the petty and trivial as much as the significant and meaningful. While not the most desirable state, neither is it sinful or wrong. It is simply our personal life, and it is in our personal life that we express ourselves most as individuals, expression comparable to the creation of art, for what is developing our self-concept but an act of creation?
Arguably, no other writer captured this universal state of individual affairs better than Leo Tolstoy in War and Peace, and in doing so he came as close as any writer has ever gotten to depicting life as it is. He describes occurrences of a cataclysmic nature, but shows that while such events influence the growth of a person, people usually change due to their own inner workings, be they the learning of lessons and maturation over time or sudden whims, and these changes will occur whether the world is shifting under our feet or not. Moreover, through all these changes, certain key traits of a human being remain the same, and so through rising and falling fortunes and terrible destruction, Pierre remains a confused man of introspection, Natasha a lively chatterbox with a big heart, the possibly incestuous siblings Helene and Anatole the pictures of hedonistic selfishness, Nikolai Rostov the definition of responsibility, Marya Bolkonsky the definition of piety, and so forth, and they bring these essential qualities to their reactions to the world and interactions with those in it.
And it is in these interactions and exchanges of points of view that people are influenced to act further, to make decisions based on observation and empathy (or lack thereof) with other people. Based on this, Tolstoy implies, all of history stems from a never-ending series of interactions among ordinary figures, influencing grander events in ways they may not even comprehend. As he says himself, “the people who make history are not aware they are making history.”
Moreover, despite the occasionally despicable actions of figures such as Helene, Anatole, the wily gambler Dolokhov, and the fortune-seeking Boris, Tolstoy never includes an out and out villain in his tale, looking on them with pity more than anything else, and just as carefully refuses to make any character a hero. Even with the overall happy ending he provides, Tolstoy is quick to point out the flaws in his more virtuous characters. These are not fictional good guys and bad guys, he says, but people much like you and me.
In the end, that’s why I love War and Peace and why I think it deserves to be read and reread. We have been bombarded as a species over the past decades with treacly, sappy, inspirational stories of ordinary people who changed the world, only so often these stories are sanitized into hagiography. Leo Tolstoy makes the same point, but does so in a far, far more effective manner, by dramatizing how recognizably flawed, sometimes self-centered, not always clear-thinking ordinary people will change the world in ways both small and large but always possible for us.
200 years later, we fight our own Borodinos and face our own burnings. Tolstoy knew this. And he responded with a book as sweeping and real as life itself, a book to give us hope.