War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. It’s the size of a small loaf of bread. It’s a cultural icon. But is it any good?
I had promised a very old friend to read War and Peace, and so I did. All of it. It was hard work in places I have to say, but a bit like removing all the grains of sand from a beach, if you stick at it, and do a bit every day, you can get there in the end.
Tolstoy’s War and Peace is generally considered to be the best Russian novel, possibly the best novel, ever written. That’s interesting considering Tolstoy himself said it was not really a novel at all. I agree with him. War and Peace is very much Russian but not really a novel. It contains multiple genres.
It tells the story of three well to do Russian families set against the background of the Napoleonic wars. It begins about 1805, and has an epilogue that finishes round about 1820.
Tolstoy’s story consists of sections about life at home, in Russia, Moscow, St Petersburg or in the Russian countryside. These seem to be completely fictional, and are written in the style of a novel. They alternate with sections set on the battlefield or in the army camp. These are more like fictionalised accounts of historical events – today’s equivalent might be a drama documentary.
Pierre Bezukhov is possibly the most interesting of the main characters. He is a foolish and fairly simple young man whose life is changed when he inherits a large estate. He becomes the victim of goldiggers. and is tricked into an unsuitable marriage, which he does not have the gumption or resolution to resist. His wife is a dissolute character who cuckolds him and spends his cash. Paul is a bit of a dreamer. Looking for a philosophy to follow, he drifts into masonry, then finds himself at the battle of Borodino, and subsequently wanders round Moscow during the French occupation.
Two families, the Bolkonskys and the Rostovs, are part of the Russian nobility. Each suffers bereavement as a result of the war. I won’t go into too many details here. Put simply, the Rostovs suffer from a profligate father, and the Bolkonsky men from pride, bad temper and snobbery. Andrei Bolkonsky’s first wife dies in childbirth, and later he becomes engaged to the beautiful Natasha Rostov. But they are both flawed characters and this leads to tragedy.
These elements of the book, set in peace, are interesting. Tolstoy is writing about the corruption and foolishness of the Russian upper classes. The characters are rounded, and the plot arises naturally from their interactions and personalities. The character of Pierre is a bit odd in this respect. His story is mostly separate and quite tangential to the soap opera of family relationships explored through the Bolkonskys and the Rostovs.
The sections in the war are to some extent completely separate, though the men from both families are involved in the fighting and at times the political manoeuvring that surrounds it. Tolstoy goes into immense detail about the battles, especially the Battle of Borodino, and apparently spent days wandering around the battlefield getting the geographical and historical facts right. In these sections he also makes use of historical documents, at times quoting from or paraphrasing them.
The focus is really on a patriotic vision of Russia. Kutuzov, the general at Borodino, is a major figure. Tolstoy contrasts the romantic idea of war promoted by literature, and embodied in the patriotic fervour of the upper classes, with Kutuzov, a plain speaking down to earth commander who almost accidentally stumbles on the realisation that only the way to defeat Napoleon is never to fight him.
The scale of War and Peace is vast, and it’s probably true to say that the real subject of the novel is Russia itself. Tolstoy shows us both the emperor and the peasant. In the epilogue especially he presents us with an idealised version of Russia, showing peasant and noble working in moral harmony. Above all, this reminded me of the section of Lord of the Rings set in Hobbiton which offers a similarly idealised view of England! Tosh, really.
Tolstoy has a lot to say for himself, especially about the nature of history. He opposes the theory that great men determine events, and this is of course significant considering much of the book is about the impact of Napoleon on history. The second part of the epilogue deals with this theory, and Tolstoy shares the idea with us liberally throughout the rest of the book too. I would have hated to go on a long train journey with him across the steppes. Let’s just leave that there.
War and Peace is a novel, in the sense that Tolstoy deals with many literary themes – love, marriage, death, greed and chivalry amongst others. But I would have preferred to read a shorter book with a clearer focus on these main characters and their flawed and tragic lives.
Aristotle valued the unities of time place and action, which he saw as essential to creating a coherent work of art with a dramatic impact. Of course Shakespeare played fast and loose with these rules as well as Tolstoy. But a Shakespeare play is only three or four hours long. It took me six months on and off to read W and P and much of the drama was lost in Tolstoy’s self indulgent philosophising.
That’s a shame, as he can really write well. The death scene of Andrei is especially moving and I would have preferred the novel to end around that point, where the story of Pierre also reaches a dramatic moment. Instead the book goes on. Pierre’s wife rather conveniently dies, leaving him free to find a happier ending in the Hobbity version of Russia that the book concludes with.