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War and Peace / Leo Tolstoy (1865-8; translated by Rosemary Edmonds 1958)

It’s common to hear that War and Peace contains all of life, depicting the full range of human experiences. As a reader, it also evoked the full range of reading experiences for me, from the exhiliration of acute insight that resonated with my experience of life, to boring pages I wanted to flick over; from thrilling narrative drive to moments of narrative listlessness.

I have spent so long reading it – five weeks – that I have begun to feel that I was never going to read another novel, that this was the novel which would last me the rest of my life.

My dad asked me to sum up the plot. I couldn’t do that. How about this: it’s about three Russian families in the time of the wars against Napoleon’s army between 1804 and 1812, with an epilogue set several years later?

Percy Lubbock thinks ‘War and Peace’ is a bad title and I agree. (Even though it captures the epic nature of the work and has become a cliche in itself.) Or it’s not a bad title, but it focuses attention on one half of the novel, and the less interesting part to my mind – war and peace are the backdrop for an exploration of ‘Youth and Age’. Has a ring to it, I think. Better than its insights into war are the insights into the impetuousness of youth, the mad zeal which would drive young men to throw their lives away for the sake of glory; or the dive into marriages ranging at first from the unsatisfying to the miserable; and the insights into the quiet wisdom of age, or the fastidious fussiness of it; or just the depiction of characters – particularly Pierre and Natasha – moving from youth and into age.

In the first half, as possible ideas for this review ran through my head, I was going to write how remarkable it is that Tolstoy avoids the intrusiveness of so much nineteenth century writing; he doesn’t intervene with pages of boring exposition about history or culture but lets the story tell itself. And yet in the second half, Tolstoy becomes very interventionist, hammering home several key points that are worthy in themselves but are belaboured and out of place.

A lot of the problem seems to come about because Tolstoy spends so much time debating the historians of his age. He wants to rehibiliate the reputation of the commander of the Russian army, Kutuzov, who Tolstoy saw as a hero and not a fool for abandoning Moscow and refusing to directly engage the retreating French army.

He wants to prove that Napoleon was no genius.

He wants to elucidate his own theory of history and of war, that it is not made by Great Men but by inscrutable forces, the sum of millions of individual decisions which no one person can particularly influence one way or the other. A theory that sits well with contemporary views of history, but that he shows so well in his novel he doesn’t even need to explain.

In short, Tolstoy addresses the concerns of his day, the debates around the Napoleonic Wars that were going on fifty years after the event but which matter very little to most readers of War and Peace today. If only he knew that he would one day be as famous as Napolean and that readers would be more interested in the brilliance of his psychological depictions of his characters than in his contribution to historical debates.

My favourite character is Pierre. He has an ineffectual idealism; he stumbles into life. The illegitimate son of a rich prince, he receives a massive inheritance thanks to an older woman’s political acumen. He goes from being treated as a shabby, uncouth zealot to a desirable bachelor. He marries the wrong woman because she charms him; he lets himself be robbed and mistreated over and over. Stuck in a carriage with a freemason, he joins that movement with high ideals, only to find that the other members don’t share them, that the movement can’t live up to its own claims.

Perhaps the most fascinating, almost Dostoeveskian passage, involves him staying behind in Moscow as the French army invades and getting in his head the idea that he is the chosen one destined to assasinate Napoleon. Being Pierre, it doesn’t turn out right and he is captured as a prisoner of war while rescuing a baby from a fire. Perhaps I should have known that there had to be a happy ending for him; after being set free, he finally marries the woman who was meant for him all along.

Tolstoy finishes with two epilogues; the second is regrettable, a long meditation on war and history not at home in a novel at all. But the first is fascinating, a glimpse into the lives of the characters years later, as the surviving ones come together, now with children, another generation arising, and yet so many of the old quirks and problems remaining. It gives the novel an even bigger sense of expanse, a glimpse that this could keep on going on forever if only Tolstoy had more pages.