War and Peace

May 24, 2006

A book review. No, really.

I read it, complete and unabridged, a 1938 (or earlier) Modern Library edition, translated by one Constance Garnett. I feel kind of bad that in the time it took to read it—from Thanksgiving to Mother’s Day; I’m not proud—this antique book took some abuse and now the front cover and binding on the spine are off… (It was at least third-hand, with my having borrowed it from my mother, and its having two other names written inside, one of which says, “Rose Fink ’38.”)

As you may know, it’s bulky, and even when reading in bed it gets beset by its own weight. But still all 1,146 pages of quite small type are still there. Should any of you want to borrow it. (Joke.)

I realize it’s anachronistic and weird to have undertaken such leisure reading in this day and age but I’m so glad I stuck to it, and finished. It’s something I’ve wanted to read for about 20 years. The writing is exquisite of course, a fact almost forgotten in its universal acceptance. Tolstoy writes well. Duh. But really, really well, with an authorial reserve combined with psychological x-ray vision that is lucid and incisive for all its 19th century formality. With occasionally the slightest imaginable shade of irony. Refreshing. He understands how people work at a deeply interior level, and can relay it clearly without Freudian twaddle, whether it’s a peasant soldier, a minor countess of 19 years, or Napoleon Bonaparte, the axis on which the story turns, though he’s written about directly but little.

That scant attention to Napoleon actually embodies one of the main points Tolstoy seems to have been wanting to make (seeing as in the last 50 pages he abandons the characters and their stories as done and pursues this line philosophically from umpteen angles): History is not made by leaders and heroic men alone. It is the sum of all the participants’ decisions, acquiescences, and actions. He avers that Napoleon could not have gotten 600,000 men to march from France to Russia if it was all on his own say-so. It was the concatenation of other events and decisions, and most notably the combined will of those 600,000 that caused it to occur.And yet, is will the right word? Tolstoy questions free will, coming just shy of giving all motive power to the Almighty, but speaks of history in terms of Newtonian physics, irresistible forces and objects in motion….

The commentary on war in the second half is also arresting for Tolstoy wrote about the war when it was fairly recent history (50 years past or so), and in his laments at the barbarousness, the stupidity, and the venality of it all, he sounds downright contemporary. Every generation thinks not only that it is the most advanced, but also that it is the most vicious and degenerate. Guess human development only goes to more, not less, of anything, good or bad.

Of course, LT has a point about the absurd waste of Napoleon’s 1812 campaign. It’s very clearly shown in graphic artist Edward Tufte’s famous poster diagramming the movement of diminishing troops as they invade and retreat from Russia. I attended a Tufte seminar years ago, and still have the very telling poster in my study.

So, about the story part. First you meet a couple dozen characters, each with many names and apparently unconnected to one another, bopping about Moscow, St. Petersburg and the countryside. Then off to the War of 1807, which is not very warlike. Then it’s back to society and all its turmoil for a sizeable chunk of the book, which made me think Leo’s point was that that was where the real war was…. at least that battles and negotiation are as much a thing of home as army. Then the last quarter is mostly focused on the grisly events of 1812 and what our characters are doing through that time. Struggling with financial or spiritual bankruptcy, testing romantic and filial love, surviving…. Our original cast starts getting entwined by this point. A handful of characters we’ve grown slightly or very attached to die. But, without softening any pain or fear, Tolstoy paints a transformation at death to such mystical repose that it is downright comforting.

So the pace, the length, the depth… all written for another time, when reading wasn’t limited to the 15 minutes before you crash asleep or the occasional airplane ride. And yet, completely worth the swimming against the tide to get through. Wonderful.

And oh! Mon dieu, the whole novel is online, searchable by chapter!


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