August is usually a slow month for me, and I’ve often read 19th century novels during the summers over the years, novels I didn’t read along the way or in school decades ago. This year’s big novel was “War and Peace”, by Leo Tolstoy (which, in Russian slang, means “fat lion”). I was amazed at how rapidly the book went by–it is notoriously long and often considered the finest novel ever written. In fact, it is probably too long and occasionally repetitive, but a great novel it indeed is (I can’t claim that there is a “best novel ever written”, but “War and Peace” is one of the best I’ve ever read).
I didn’t realize that “War and Peace” is a virulently anti-war novel, but that it is. Tolstoy’s chronicling the Napoleonic War, or at least that part of it between Napoleon’s French troops against those of Russia under Czar Alexander II. And the probable cause of this war, which really occurs twice in the novel, is fits of ego particularly on Napoleon’s part, and a combination of hurt feelings and pride on the part of Czar Alexander. The backdrop of these wars are the aristocratic salons of Russia, much based on those of France, and all the upper class Russians speak French only at these salons. Tolstoy presents these as mind-numbingly dull, endless, full of gossip and the desire of those “hostesses” to nab the diplomat of the day for the amusement of the aristocrats present: the novel begins with one of those salons, where a certain Prince is trying to marry his daughter off to a rich Russian (which he’ll succeed in doing). The conversations are deadly, stylized, repetitive (Marcel Proust’s great novel, ” In Search of Lost Time”, virtually documents novelistically the salons of The Belle Epoque in Paris, noting the importance that nothing of note should be discussed at said salons). In Tolstoy’s Russia, he documents the lives of certain aristocrats, of which he was one.
The evolution of the four main male characters, Pierre, Prince Andrei, Boris and Count Rostov is fascinating. We meet each still in his adolescence; each will enter the military in capacities determined by the social structure of Russia (they all will have plum jobs in the Army). Andrei, whom I found to be the most ethereal character, disappointed in life and love, represents a man whose dreams and goals are abstract and increasingly religious; his own noble rigidities fascinate; he is the first of several men to meet and fall in love with the famous, passionate Natasha, whom we also meet as a young teenager. Pierre will evolve the most, from the bastard son of the richest Count in Russia, to a man who ends up accidentally stuck in the French campaign in Moscow, who learns that the stifling aristocracy to which he ascends (through the machinations of an admirable court matchmaker) is not enough for him; his awful wife, Ellen, is a leading hostess of the era. Becoming a prisoner of war of the French during the siege of Moscow, Pierre becomes transformed, finds his true self. Suffice it to say that Tolstoy is a fabulous psychologist, different entirely from Fydor Dostoevksy). Boris is the humbly born social climber who will also marry money . And The Rostov family and its ups and downs–Natasha’s one of them–are utterly riveting throughout. Tolstoy allows us to see these young men in their silly adolescences, at the salons, and later as they all fight and grow up during the campaigns against Napoleon, a petty and vain man known for his arrogance, considered to be a great general, which Tolstoy will disprove.
The “war” sections of the novel are probably the most fascinating of all in the novel. Tolstoy writes passionately about the pointlessness of war, these wars in particular, and the enormous losses of men because of the pique of their leaders (there are a lot of subtexts and subthemes about war, from descriptions about how battles are won or lost (generally accidentally, according to the author). The social hierarchies of the fighting men are much noted. And, in the intervening chapters on “peace”, we return to the silly salons; the social capital of Russia at that time was St. Petersburg, but all the aristocratic families also have houses in the capital, Moscow, Russia’s “City on the Hill”, as well as their estates, which is where their money comes from. Tolstoy describes a virtually feudal system of agriculture, wherein families literally own thousands of serfs, though in the course of the novel, some of our lead characters free their serfs. They gossip while Moscow burns…..
What also fascinated from our contemporary perspective is the role of women at the time of the book’s writing: they don’t have much of one. Women are expected to marry well, and/or be married for their money, and possibly become leading hostesses of their own salons; I kept wondering what would happen to that passionate Natasha–in the end, marriage and children and an attempt to live communally with her friends and their families; Natasha today might have been a leading woman of many causes.
The final 100 pages of the novel, “The Epilogue” really tell us why Tolstoy wrote “War and Peace”; it’s his views of history, whether or not history is made by “great men” like Napoleon, by chance, by the masses; he concludes that all three must be necessary concurrently, but completely rejects “the great man of history” theory, while also disclaiming the idea that Russian generals lured the French forces into Moscow as both hogwash and revisionist history: Tolstoy’s taken on all the histories written to date, which, as we now know, are only written by “the winners”, and then, from the points of view of educated researchers, never from the perspectives of the people actually fighting those endless, pointless battles. These last 100 pages are not easy reading, but they fascinate, and are the most contemporary, living parts of the novel. They also question what roles leaders like Alexander I should or shouldn’t play in war; those observations are dotted throughout the novel, too.
At the end of The Vietnam war, a rash of novels written by the men who fought in them, the first of which was by Philip Caputo (” A Rumor of War”) came out and I read a bunch of them because I was unaware of that war from the points of view of the soldiers who fought in it. The best of those novels, “The 13th Valley”, by John del Vecchio”, continues to haunt my thoughts; others of great note, more recently, include Karl Marlantes’ “Matterhorn” and the late Denis Johnson’s “Tree of Smoke”). Novels recently by Kevin Powers and Phil Klay are about the war in Iraq from their soldierly points of view. All of these, in their ways, refer to “War and Peace”, directly or indirectly, as the first true anti-war novel, the first to question the authority of generals, of their egos and back-biting and the sheer invention of battles for reward/promotion /medals (remember Gen. Westmoreland in Vietnam?). Reading “War and Peace” from contemporary eyes and minds makes the novel that much greater, that much more rewarding, and it will forever remain not only a great novel, but a cautionary one, for centuries before us and for centuries to come.