...WAR AND PEACE by Tolstoy.
It’s been a while since I have written about any recently read books, and there is a good reason for that. I always try to include a classic among the many books I read each year, and this year I decided it was time for me to read WAR AND PEACE. Which took a little while. But my goal was to finish it before the end of the year, and I read the last chapter last night.
First I want to say that, at least here in the United States, this legendary book has taken on a meaning of its own, beyond what the book is, or is about. It is a stand-in for something that is insufferably long, something that one must slog through. Often that idea has a comedic meaning as well, a punch-line of sorts: “I could have read WAR AND PEACE waiting in that check-out line!” Its reputation is that it is a dreary, dreadful affair, the kind of bone-dry, academic book that no one really wants to read, the kind of book high school students are forced against their wills to read. But since ANNA KARENINA is one of my favorite pieces of literature, I had faith in Tolstoy’s story-telling powers, so I plunged in. After all, the book of a thousand pages begins with Page One. And honestly…it’s just a book…paper with some ink printed on it…nothing that threatening.
I will admit that WAR AND PEACE is long, but it is in no way dry or dreary. Like ANNA KARENINA, the breathtaking scope of the narrative is epic and sweeping, incorporating many different characters over the course of many years, from 1805 to 1820. The WAR of the title is of course the Napoleonic wars in Eastern Europe and Russia. But the PEACE is just as important, to serve as a counterpoint, and a way to illustrate the approach of the upper classes and Tsar Alexander I toward Napoleon and the invasion.
The story traces five families throughout this period, and how their lives are changed and shaped by the waves of war that ebb and flow during this period of history. And just like in ANNA KARENINA, Tolstoy has a masterful way of drilling deep into the mind and soul of a certain character, capturing the texture and thought process of a particular person, only to do the same with the next character. But it is shocking to see how thorough he is in his portrayals. Just when I accept as normal certain concerns, certain outlooks, certain beliefs as the tone of the story, he hops into the mind of another and the tone is turned on its head as we explore the concerns, outlooks, and beliefs of this next person. He is dedicated to making these characters come alive, whether they are good and noble or selfish and petty. All are worthy of exploration since they all exemplify the human condition.
The concerns of the women left at home range from situation to situation, but as one might imagine during that period, generally the women are left to care for children, elderly parents, or homes, or, if they are younger, wonder about attending dances and whom they will eventually marry. We bounce between these domestic and social scenes in Moscow and Petersburg and battlefields scattered across Eastern Europe and Russia.
And it is these war scenes and battlefield accounts that really took me by surprise. I am not now, nor have I ever been fascinated by war. I know history and I know about the major wars, but I do not study battles the way Civil War groupies do in this country, I do not pore over the History Channel documentaries about Hitler and WWII, and I do not gravitate toward war films. But because I know such people and their peculiar (to me) predilections exist, I suppose I am used to a kind of American view of war. And that view turns war into a hobby, something to be studied for fun or as a pastime, something to be re-enacted, and by extension, something to be held up with positivity, something to be glorified. I do not share this view, but it was still shocking to come across vivid descriptions of the reality of war. Tolstoy shows us that war is not what it seems, even to those in Moscow or Petersburg. War—especially hand to hand combat—is something slow and messy and personal and confusing. It takes a lot of fortitude to run up to someone and bayonet them or swipe at them with a saber. Nicholas, one of our young men we follow in the story, takes down a French officer in a battle, but once the enemy is down, Nicholas is alarmed to see that the officer is actually a young man, much like himself or his school chums, a young man with a dimpled chin and light-blue eyes filled with terror, apprehension, and uncertainty about what will happen to him, to his life force. It is a shocking moment, not only for the readers, but also for Nicholas who is profoundly shaken by the encounter and actually becomes quite depressed, confused about the meaning of “heroism” in war (afterward, Nicholas says to himself of the encounter, “So others are even more afraid than I am!”), wondering what the point of war is, and why men follow leaders who make war. And there are many such scenes which look unflinchingly at how any battle seems nonsensical and surreal to those actually in it. I liken it to a car accident. We see such scenes on television and in films: the angle is perfect, the lighting is good, and the soundtrack captures a true “cinematic” moment. But until you are riding in a car and are struck by another vehicle so entirely unceremoniously, and you hear not a soundtrack or a special sound effect, but simply the dull thud of fiberglass against your door, and a ripping sound followed by the sound of shattering glass, and you feel the absolute nonsensical, surreal, confusing feeling of the trauma to your body, you can’t possibly understand how immediate it all is, how quickly it can be over despite feeling as if it is happening slowly, and how truly destructive it can be.
The effects of war are shown as equally destructive with one of our major heroes being taken prisoner by the French, and losing a few other characters to enemy fire (I was quite saddened at the death of one character I had grown particularly fond of since his temperament and philosophy reminded me of my own). Later in the book, Tolstoy devotes chapters to trying to understand the reasons for war, the particular successes or failures of one side or the other, and what makes men make the decisions they do. Tolstoy examines such things from a very philosophical, even metaphysical, point of view. He claims that winning or losing, success or failure of a war cannot be traced to a single battle, cannot be traced to the will of one man, such as Napoleon or Alexander I. Such things are due to innumerable causes traced back hundreds, perhaps even thousands of years. He says that historians try to examine all events in a vacuum, away from anything else, but there can be no beginning of an event since all events flow into one another and are connected. It is possible to strategize about where to move your left flank or to give commands or orders to advance a regiment, but it is impossible to see through time and space, through the will of every living human, and to plot a winning war. As Tolstoy says, “Only unconscious action bears fruit and he who plays a part in an historic event never understands its significance.”
I also received an unexpected world history lesson in this novel. I was vaguely aware of the Napoleonic Wars, 1812, The Battle of Borodino, etc., but I suspect that my high school World History class was woefully lacking. It was fascinating to check up on historical facts as I followed these men and women through the battles and the awful aftermath, like the burning of Moscow!
The only small critique I will dare to put forward is that toward the end of the book, these philosophizing chapters examining the cause and effect of war and historians' lack of ability to grasp the real meaning, the higher meaning behind it all, tends to overtake the story. In fact, the Second Epilogue is entirely a treatise about this very subject, the main story having ended in the First Epilogue. Perhaps this is where the novel gets its reputation as something dry and academic. But truly, it is a small part of the experience.
Recommend? Yes. Just jump right in. It might take a bit of commitment to keep with it, but it is worth it.