Wolfie began to eat my copy of War and Peace very early on my birthday morning. I was upstairs shaving. Spread out on the couch in the living room, his head rested on its arm, his usual pose. I had set Tolstoy on the edge of the cushion, about 8 inches from his mouth. What me worry? I am fortunate that Wolfie did not move on and eat words or paragraphs. I love this book.
War and Peace is a realist novel. Tolstoy’s Russia before Napoleon’s invasion of 1812, during and after is a description of an entire society caught in a cataclysm. He concentrates on showing the travails and evolution of members of the aristocracy, the educated classes, but in 1215 pages he made a canvas so encompassing that serfs, merchants, officers and ordinary soldiers all receive their humane due – that is, their measure of Tolstoy’s capacious empathy and insight into the human condition.
It takes an initial effort to begin to read 1215 pages. It takes an effort to fight off our noisy, frenetic, globalized world and descend into an early 19th century Russia where family names, status, connections and passionate attachments undiluted by irony are the norm. Do not be put off by its length. You will do yourself a disservice if you put this novel down because of its heft and the commitment you believe is required to read it. After orienting yourself to its setting and pace, the narrative moves quickly.
Reading this novel is akin to slowly descending into a cavern. You lose the light and sounds of our world by increments as you descend, but at some point, Tolstoy’s sharply drawn characterizations and his perfectly chosen details of dress and landscape and manner and action take you over and begin to live inside you so possessively and passionately that sometimes when you raise your head from the book, when you step away from the cavern, the light of your real life can be disorienting. After a particularly powerful scene, you emerge stunned; sometimes I found myself saying aloud, “Daaamn!”
The reader begins inside a center of intrigue surrounding the deathbed illness of Count Bezukhov, one of the wealthiest men in Russia. From there it expands into other families of Counts and Princes and Princesses who all speak French, who think of marriages as unions of families and as the engines of generations of wealth and privilege — as the reader you know that an earthquake is coming, and that their lives will be shaken, erased, burned out. You listen to them express their admiration for Napoleon, their coming destroyer. Their comfortable world is coming to an end at the bayonet point of Napoleon’s 600,000 men, and no one can see it. You watch them earnestly and blithely making plans, and many of them matter so much to you that you are anxious to know that they will be safe. Many will not be safe.
Tolstoy creates characters geologically; in 1215 pages he has given himself the luxury of time, space and pressure for his men and women to take evolving shapes – his psychological perceptions are better than any other novelist I have read. His third-person narration leads us through door after door of a character’s consciousness – through layers of sensations and of shifting, minutely observed scenes and emotional, moral, and intellectual reactions. These are never dull because Tolstoy has found a way to tell the truth about all of this – you find yourself saying “Yes, even though I would not have predicted that reaction, that is what he or she would do or say. That is authentic.” For example, this three sentence paragraph gives you a sense of his method: “Anna Mikhailovna was already embracing her and weeping. The countess was also weeping. They wept because they were friends; and because they were kind; and because they, who had been friends since childhood, were concerned with such a mean subject – money; and because their youth was gone … but for both of them they were pleasant tears….” You read of their weeping, you witness their embrace, and then the cascade of impressions increases – weeping because they are childhood friends, because they are kind to each other, and ashamed of their desire for money, and aware of their lost youth, and yet their tears are “pleasant”. All of these impressions are occurring simultaneously. In separating them, Tolstoy makes us aware of our own wash of feelings, all of them moving at high speed. We move closer to them because we recognize our own consciousness in motion in them.
For example, Pierre Bezukhov, arguably the central character of the novel, captured by the French when they occupy Moscow, is taken in a forced march on the French retreat. The French are shooting those prisoners who cannot keep up with the column. Pierre had made a good friend of Karataev, a peasant soldier. Karataev becomes more and more sick and finally signals to Pierre to come to him. Pierre pretends to ignore his signal. It is implied that Pierre knew that Karataev’s end was near. Pierre moves away from him, and when the march resumes, goes on. Tolstoy tells us that “Pierre did not look any longer. He went limping up the hill.” Note the absence of any emotional reaction to the abandonment. Then, “from behind, where Karataev had been sitting, came the sound of a shot. Pierre heard the shot clearly, but the moment he heard it, he recalled that he had not finished [a] calculation … of how many marches remained to Smolensk. And he started to count.” Later still: “Like him, his soldier comrades, walking beside Pierre, did not turn to look at the place from which the shot had been heard and then the howling of the dog; but there was a stern look on all their faces.” Pierre (and Natasha) is one of two most rigorously humane characters in the novel, the ones with the deepest capacity for empathy for others, but here he and his comrades shut themselves off from sympathy. They have no control over what happens to Karataev. They focus on staying alive. They block their emotions. They seem to focus only on going on, on enduring. In my most secret admission to myself, would I not have done the same?
Powerful scene after scene passes under our astonished gaze: the description of the battles of Austerlitz and Borodino*, the cavalry officer Denisov’s attack at the bridge at Austerlitz, the burning of Moscow, the execution of the `arsonists’**, Kuragin’s attempted seduction of Natasha, Prince Andrei’s death scene (I cannot believe that another novelist has written more sensitively and perceptively about death), Natasha’s rescue of her mother after her brother Petya’s death through her “… love, persistant, patient, … a summons to life ….”
Prince Andrei, his sister, Princess Marya Bolkonsky, Pierre, Natasha Rostov and her brother Nicholas Rostov – these characters are alive the same way that Hamlet or Lear or Iago or Ahab or Desdemona is alive. They take up so much sympathetic space in your imagination because you spend so many intimate moments with them.
Marya finally comes out of her sorrow for the death of her brother when she understands that “life did not stop, and one had to live.” Napolean’s army is destroyed. Peace returns. The dead are mourned. Wounds close. Life does not stop. I closed the book grudgingly. I did not want this story to come to an end. I will read it again.
*Read David Howarth’s short history Waterloo:Day of Battle for another, more direct and comprehensive description of what how late 18th/early 19th century battlefields would have looked and felt.
**Look at Goya’s great painting The Third of May on the Stories, Images and Videos page of this site.