War and Peace, and much else besides

May 27, 2008

War and Peace (1865-69)
Leo Tolstoy (Knopf, 2007; trans: Pevear/Volokhonsky)
1291 p. First reading.

These little Book Notes of mine are all very well in their way, but certain books throw their middling ambition into stark relief. War and Peace is not only much larger than can be compassed in this forum, it is much larger than me. Rather than try to draft something with pretensions to adequacy, I resort instead to few brief comments.

* I was most impressed by the enormous scope of the book, and not just the historical scope, which is impressive enough, but the breadth and depth of the inner world that it unfolds. I am tempted to say that there is no aspect of human life that this story leaves untouched: family relationships, romance and love, grief, spiritual life, friendship — it is all here, and is treated with great sensitivity, and a certain reserve, allowing the thoughts and feelings of the characters to emerge naturally, in all of their complexity.

* There are some writers — I think of Nabokov or Borges — who keep their stories on a short leash, such that the reader always knows that the author is very much in charge of what is going on. The experience of reading Tolstoy was almost the opposite. I had the feeling that he was not controlling the narrative so much as simply trying to contain it. I suppose that I am touching again on the naturalness of the development. The story has a messiness that rings true — people want things and do things that ultimately don’t seem to lead anywhere. But they happened, so there they are.

* The book — I am trying to avoid calling it a novel, since Tolstoy himself rejected that label for it — narrates historical events, and many real historical figures make an appearance. I found myself fascinated by how he integrated that public, historical aspect of the story into the lives of his fictional characters. Sometimes the history occupies the foreground, as in the scenes of Napoleon, or the battles, but more often it recedes into the background, into seemingly incidental detail. For instance, we might learn about the status of the army through a snatch of overheard conversation at a dinner party. He keeps us informed, but without being overt about it.

* The overall historical narrative of the book recounts Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812-13, and the battles that accompanied it are important hinges for the story. The book is by no means naive about war, and the terrible price it exacts is vividly conveyed, but neither could it be said to be “anti-war”. Tolstoy’s portrayal of the thoughts and feelings of his young men as they enter battle surprised me by its generosity: yes, they hardly understand what they are doing, but their hearts swell with courage, daring, loyalty, magnanimity, and even, in the case of young Pyotr Rostov, a kind of spiritual ecstasy. It provoked me to wonder how I would respond if placed in that position. I had always imagined that I would be anxious and afraid, end of story. Is it possible that those circumstances might produce something quite different in me? I suppose it is possible that Tolstoy intends a layer of irony that I am not perceiving, but I don’t think so. The war’s effect on Pierre Buzekhov suggests that ultimately all that physical destruction doesn’t touch what is truly important, which is the inner life, and that the upheaval and material hardship of war may even be a catalyst for growth in goodness. It is not that violence is somehow benign, but that there is a difference between committing it and suffering it — witness the scene in which Nikolai Rostov sees military action in Ostrovna (III, 1, XV) — and that the latter is not the greatest of evils.

* Tolstoy famously interrupts the action of the story to expound a theory of historical causes, or at least to oppose one. He rejects the Great Man theory of history, in which historical events are caused by the will and actions of a few great figures — “geniuses” — like Napoleon. He presents a few arguments in defence of this idea: that no military science is possible because there are too many unknowns and intangibles in war, or that the number of causes is not less than the number of people involved and no-one can know them all. In his view, historians are fond of oversimplification and unjustified attribution of causal influence. Instead, Tolstoy compares the army to a great mechanical clock, and soldiers to waves crashing against a bridge. The so-called Great Men are really prisoners of circumstance, constrained to act in certain ways by the conditions in which they find themselves, and unable to oppose or alter the course of things. They are like the foam on the crest of the wave: they draw our attention and appear to be special, but are just an effect of the seething ocean underneath. Napoleon he calls “that most insignificant instrument of history” (IV, 4, V).

This theory of the impotence of the will is not confined to large-scale historical events. Tolstoy seems to believe that it goes all the way down, affecting all human action. There are numerous points at which characters act without knowing why. (For example, Pierre’s marriage to Hélène (I, 3, II)). This method is not used consistently, however, and I am in some doubt as to how seriously Tolstoy intends it to be taken.

It is unclear what he proposes in place of the theory of Great Men. At times it seems he attributes the cause of history to Providence, at times to deterministic mechanisms, at times to the incalculable outcome of millions of wills acting with and against one another. At all times he stresses the inscrutability of historical causes, and the folly of believing that history has a simple explanation.

I could meet him half-way. Of course not everyone acts from the same motives, and to propose that such-and-such occurs because “the people desire X” is too simple. It is also true that some historical events acquire a certain air of inevitability, as though there is such a thing as a Zeitgeist that manifests itself without anyone really knowing why. Yet I am not willing to abandon the freedom of the individual person to act within the circumstances confronting him, and I see no reason why a Great Man could not, by persuasive force, convince his hearers to act differently, and so affect a great historical change. I am not ready to entirely forsake the theory of Great Men.

* If there is a center to the story — and in a book with over 500 named characters, perhaps 20 of whom could be considered central, it is not obvious that there is — it would be Pierre Bezukhov. He grows and deepens immensely over the course of the story, and a major part of that growth is a spiritual awakening. The catalysts are his suffering in the war, including a close encounter with death, and the influence of the peasant Platon Karataev, who lives a life of luminous simplicity in the midst of great upheavals. Tolstoy’s narration of this inner journey is very subtle and suggestive, and his portrait of Pierre as a mature man is immensely attractive.

* Passages. For my own benefit, let me note several of my favourite passages. The battle of Schöngraben (I, 2, XV-XX), especially for its evocation of the eve of battle, the anticipation before the action commences. Prince Andrei listening beneath Natasha’s window (II, 3, II). The wolf hunt (II, 4, III-VI), and the subsequent evening that Nikolai and Natasha spend at their uncle’s house, singing and dancing (II, 4, VII). Moscow as a dying beehive (III, 3, XX). Pierre’s spiritual awakening (IV, 4, XII : XIX). Pierre and Natasha’s marriage (Epilogue, 1, X : XVI).


The military centerpiece of the book is the Battle of Borodino, in which neither side was obviously the victor, but which struck a serious enough blow to the French that it may have been a cause (keeping in mind the difficulty of accounting for such things) of their eventual defeat. Tchaikovsky wrote his famous 1812 Overture to commemorate the battle, and I can think of no reason not to listen to it right now. Here is Seiji Ozawa conducting the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra:

2 Responses to “War and Peace, and much else besides”

  1. Adam Hincks Says:

    Well done! Now you have just over three weeks to read Anna Karenina and you can be finished with Tolstoy before your nuptials.

  2. cburrell Says:

    I’m afraid there’s no chance of that, Adam, no, not one. Luckily I have already read Anna Karenina, some years back, so I’m under no strict obligation to attempt the Tolstoian double-bill at this time.

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