The Zen of Tolstoy - How to Read 'War and Peace'
by Christoper Bram
"Above him was nothing, nothing but the sky—the lofty sky, not a clear sky, but infinitely lofty, with grey clouds sweeping gently across. “It’s so quiet, peaceful and solemn, not like me rushing about,” thought Prince Andrey, “not like us, all that yelling and scrapping...those clouds are different, creeping across that lofty, infinite sky. How can it be that I’ve never seen that lofty sky before? Oh how happy I am to have found it at last. Yes, it’s all vanity, it’s all an illusion, everything except that infinite sky.”
War and Peace is often called the greatest novel ever written, which might be true, but it’s like sticking a “Kick me” sign on the book. Readers can’t help wanting to take issue with the novel, even those who haven’t read it. It’s a rare year when a bestselling writer doesn’t gripe about Leo Tolstoy’s masterpiece being too bulky or digressive or dull or cerebral or just plain long. Henry James famously called it a “loose, baggy, monster,” but he also thought its title was Peace and War. You can’t help wondering how much of the book he actually read.
A new BBC adaptation of the novel starring Paul Dano, Lily James, and Gillian Anderson was broadcast in January and February, occasioning new discussions of the book, including some by folks who know it only by hearsay. I’ve now read War and Peace three and a half times. (The half was back in college: I didn’t finish but it was an intense, memorable encounter.) I last reread it a year ago and made notes. What follows are a few observations to counteract the rumors and misconceptions. Attention to the novel as a whole—especially the techniques Tolstoy used to evoke the past and capture the complicated experiences of his chief characters—reveals a different lesson about human happiness than typically suggested by those who take their bearings from his famous speculations about history. Those ideas create confusion for some readers—and perhaps did so for Tolstoy himself—but shouldn’t obscure the truths that Tolstoy shares over the course of the story he tells.
We think of War and Peace as a vast novel, but that’s only in page length—1,358 pages in the Anthony Briggs translation. It actually covers just eight years, from 1805 to 1812, with an epilogue. (Well, two epilogues, but more on that later.) I don’t understand people who feel intimidated by it, put off by the length or rumors of difficulty. The book is long, but it moves quickly and the prose isn’t nearly as complex as that of, say, Middlemarch. What adds to the novel’s size are the enormous number of characters (but no more than in a novel by Dickens or Trollope) and the fact that Tolstoy takes few shortcuts. Here and there he leaps ahead in time or summarizes a few months of activity. But for the most part the book unfolds in day-to-day routines, producing the illusion of real life in real time. He doesn’t overdo the period details. He locates events in the past with gentle reminders, such as his observation that this generation spoke French or a mention of stockings and knee britches or his quoting of bad jokes told by society people. (Nothing dates like a bad joke.) He includes plot devices and dramatic scenes from an earlier age of romantic fiction—a deathbed struggle over a will, a duel with pistols, the attempted abduction of a young girl at night—but recounts them in the matter-of-fact “modern” language of the rest of the book.
It is a historical novel, which people often forget. The action feels so immediate and natural that many readers assume Tolstoy was writing about his own time. But the book was published in 1868 and was about his parents’ generation. Fictional versions of his father and mother actually appear—Nikolay Rostov and Marya Bolkonsky. Their presence was a private ladder that enabled the author to climb down into time.
War and Peace is much easier to summarize than one might think: it’s not a densely plotted novel. At the center are two friends: handsome, melancholy Prince Andrey Bolkonsky, and fat, bumbling, bespectacled Count Pierre Bezuhkov. They express two different attitudes toward life: a stern masculine distrust of the world and a child-like, sometimes buffoonish openness to it. Their experiences form two parallel narratives that run through the entire novel. Andrey serves in the military in the Austerlitz campaign against Napoleon. Pierre remains in Russia, where he inherits great wealth and ends up in a bad marriage. There’s a third narrative about the Rostov family, a happy, careless pack of aristocrats that includes a young officer, Nikolay, and his lovely, lively, little sister, Natasha. Over the course of the novel Natasha grows from an eager child of twelve to a serious woman of twenty. Andrey and Pierre both fall in love with her.
The two men define the book so strongly that it’s a surprise to realize afterwards that we see them together only three times. They meet at the party scene that opens the novel. Later between the wars they meet in the country and compare their hopes and disillusion. Pierre, who has recently become a Freemason, argues that one must live for other people. Andrey counters that people can live only for themselves. They have one last meeting on the eve of Borodino, but all Andrey can talk about is military strategy.