The Zen of Tolstoy

How to Read 'War and Peace'
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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.

Andrey is the saddest character in a novel with a surprisingly high proportion of cheerful people. Even his religious sister Marya is content. Before Austerlitz, Andrey believes military glory can cure his existential despair. After Austerlitz and the death of his wife, he feels nothing can save him. One spring, riding in a carriage to the Rostov estate on a business matter, he passes a grove of white birch trees in full leaf. In the middle stands an old oak tree that looks dead and broken. He identifies with the oak. At the estate he sees Natasha for the first time, a black-haired, black-eyed sixteen-year-old girl in a yellow print dress running with her friends in a field. That night he overhears her and her cousin chatting and singing at the window above his window. The moonlight is so beautiful she wants to fly into it. Andrey is charmed.

A week and three short pages after he first saw the oak, Andrey passes the birch grove again.

“That oak tree, it was somewhere near here in the forest. There was such an affinity between us,” he thought. “But where was it?” As he wondered, he glanced across left and, unconsciously, without recognizing it, began to admire the very tree he was looking for. The old oak was completely transformed, now spreading out a canopy of lush, dark foliage and stirring gently as it wallowed in the evening sunshine.... “No, life isn’t over at thirty-one,” was his instant, final, and irrevocable conclusion. “It is not enough for me to know what is going on inside me. Everybody must know about it—Pierre and that girl who wanted to fly up into the sky—they must all get to know me. My life must be lived for me but also for other people.”

Pierre experiences revelations like this every fifty or so pages, but they are rare for Andrey. He goes to Petersburg and begins reform work for the government. He is soon disappointed. But on New Year’s Eve 1809, he attends the imperial ball and sees Natasha again, the girl he barely knows. They dance and Andrey begins to fall in love.

 

TOLSTOY'S EPIPHANIES FEEL true because they don’t create immediate change. Nor do they radically alter a person’s identity. They simply put the person in touch with something that was already there. More important, the person might change again in a few weeks and the revelation will be lost.

Tolstoy works with surprising speed, doing in a sentence or two what most novelists need whole paragraphs or pages to achieve. He also leaps nimbly from one point of view to another. Again and again, we see an emotion inside a character, and then how it appears to others. His quickness enables him to show people changing from one week to the next, and back again, not in big permanent strokes but in little jumps, like a jittery time-lapse film of a growing plant. There’s a constant buzz of evolution, a blur of change that leaves the characters vulnerable—or adaptable—to major shifts in the environment. A death in the family or the outbreak of war can freeze the last change, but only for a slightly longer period.

It’s interesting to compare Tolstoy’s pace with the pace of Les Miserables by Victor Hugo, written a few years earlier (1862) and almost as long. Hugo piles on digressions and sermons and irrelevant history. He throws in seventeen chapters about the Battle of Waterloo to no clear purpose. Many readers give up on the book and turn to one of the many movies made from it (or even the musical) to find out what happens.

Tolstoy works so quickly and with such exuberance that we don’t have time to question his purpose. Look at the wolf hunt with the Rostov family. They and their neighbors and two hundred dogs pursue a she-wolf and her mate, Tolstoy leaping from body to body, rapidly identifying not only the humans but some of the dogs and horses. He even puts us in the skin of the wolves. (“‘No difference, I’m going on,’ the wolf seemed to say to herself, and she pressed on without looking round.”) The episode is not necessary for the story—it’s gratuitous, a gift—yet if we think about it later, we realize how much it adds to our picture of Natasha. She takes such pleasure in the hunt. Combined with the next scene when she performs a folk dance for her peasant “uncle,” the hunt puts us solidly on the side of this impulsive, energetic young girl. She will need our sympathy a few chapters later when she ruins her reputation and destroys her engagement to Andrey by falling in love with a worthless young rake. 

Much of the book’s dynamic comes from the juxtaposition of civilian life and military life. These are two very different worlds, cozy homes with mothers and sisters, and the rugged all-male army in foreign places. The two worlds remain apart, yet inform and echo each other. (This has special resonance for someone like myself who grew up in a navy town during the Vietnam War and was surrounded by military families.)

Adding to the book’s size is the fact that Tolstoy gives both worlds enormous attention. He doesn’t skimp on the military, even though one campaign is very much like another and battle scenes can become repetitious. But Tolstoy carefully varies the combat so that the reader doesn’t suffer battle fatigue. And in each battle, he creates an orderly disorder: we get a clear sense of the battlefield as a whole even as we experience the confusion of the individual participants. He deftly mixes the big and the little, long shots and close-ups. He humanizes battle, replacing distant spectacle with personal drama. And he includes startling shifts of mood and surprising juxtapositions. Nikolay in his first battle is shocked to find Frenchmen shooting at him. “They can’t be after me. Why? They can’t want to kill me. Me. Everybody loves me.” Later, at Austerlitz, Andrey is wounded and lies on the ground flat on his back. Suddenly, in the middle of so much noise and violence, there is silence:

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.”

The surprising notes are sometimes comic and sometimes profound, but all add to the shifting, vibrating reality of the novel.

Tolstoy’s pace and drama and command of details sweep us backward in time with amazing ease. I think he surprised himself with how much he knew and how real he could make this experience, more real than anything he’d written before. For the first half of the book that was enough. Not until the second half, after Napoleon invades Russia, did Tolstoy stop being satisfied with just telling a story and want to dig around in the meaning and philosophy of history. I will get to his ideas soon enough, but let me say here that I believe the real meat of War and Peace is in its storytelling, not in the sixty or so pages of woolly commentary—the fifty pages of the second epilogue and ten pages of passages scattered earlier—that many critics love to discuss.

But one piece of story that shifts War and Peace from the realm of the novel to something closer to a work of history is the presence of Napoleon. In most historical fiction, capital-H History—the impersonal forces of politics and power—happens completely outside the control of the characters, like the weather. The presence of Napoleon changes that—or should. Napoleon is the demiurge of the novel, its haunting spirit. He is mentioned in the very first sentence. Pierre and Andrey begin by admiring him. He appears briefly in person when he stands over the wounded Andrey at Austerlitz. Nikolay glimpses him from a distance at his meeting with Tsar Alexander.

We don’t see him up close until the start of the second half of the novel, when Tolstoy shows Napoleon at his headquarters receiving a Russian emissary. He is neither liberator nor Antichrist, but a “tubby, dumpy,” cranky figure who is not embarrassed to lose his temper in public. In a single scene, Tolstoy knocks to pieces the Great Man theory of history. Nothing in the pages that follow changes that first impression. He remains a mindless nullity, a mysterious puppet. Napoleon only rides the horse of history, thinking he is in control even as the horse takes him wherever it pleases.

Napoleon becomes part of what might be called the zen of Tolstoy: Nothing is what it seems. Nothing goes according to plan, but ordinary people sometimes get what they want. Life is smarter than you are.

 

WAR AND PEACE IS probably known less for its storytelling and more for its ideas and epilogues. It’s especially notorious for its epilogues. For some readers this is the novel that refuses to end.

Tolstoy begins with the First Epilogue, a brisk set of pages that takes the surviving characters through seven years of marriages, births, and the paying of debts until they all come together on a winter night in 1820. He follows this with the famous Second Epilogue, where he crosses the border from fiction into history, and not just history, but a philosophy of history. He is so proud of what he’s accomplished that he believes the novel must mean more: he has somehow solved history.

The Second Epilogue is less than fifty pages long, but it feels interminable. We shift from the novelist’s world of specifics to an amateur philosopher’s jumble of ideas. Tolstoy asks some good questions: Has History replaced God? What moves nations? Do historians really know anything? But his answers are airy and contradictory. This is not the good, gritty nineteenth-century narrative history of Macaulay and Parkman, but the gassy spirit history of Hegel and Carlyle. 

Tolstoy argues that the individual is helpless within the cosmic machinery of history. Even leaders are helpless. There’s a good analogy about the beasts in the front of the herd only appearing to lead the herd. This dismissal of leaders is the result of Tolstoy’s reducing Napoleon to a nullity, a figurehead, a mascot of history. We can’t blame Tolstoy for being disappointed by Napoleon. He’s one of those figures from the past whose fame and grandeur puzzle the present. For many of us he’s just a short, grumpy dictator in a harlequin hat. Yet most historians, and most novelists, too, give Bonaparte more weight than Tolstoy does. He believes Napoleon is too unimportant to have produced the massive movement of armies in 1812, which he knows leaves a huge hole in the story. So what produced these events, what engine drove the train? Tolstoy thinks that if he can find the answer, he can discover the real laws of historical action. He suggests the solution might be in economics, but admits the science isn’t there yet.

He leaves the question unanswered and spends the rest of the Second Epilogue arguing with himself about free will and determinism. Man is free as an individual, but completely determined inside the larger actions of history. Like anyone arguing with himself, like his fictional characters, in fact, Tolstoy often contradicts himself. He insists there must be general laws of history, but is scornful of any historian who claims to have found them. The common reader usually gives up here, but a few critics dig deeper, hoping to find the real meaning of War and Peace. The most famous is Isaiah Berlin in “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” who popularized an intriguing Greek saying (“the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing”), but he is not very helpful about the novel. Among other points, he claims that Tolstoy meant to say determinism works at all levels of human activity, the historical and the individual, but that’s not true. 

Tolstoy argues with hypothetical historians for two dozen pages before concluding that a belief in free will has confused the study of history just as a belief that the earth was the center of the universe confused astronomy for centuries. Well, maybe, but how does it translate to the experience of Pierre, Natasha, and the others?

These pages are not the real point of the novel, Tolstoy’s original purpose in writing it. He didn’t start adding his reflections on history until he was working on the second half of the book. Some of the earlier two- and three-page digressions are interesting, but the rest are irrelevant. Before Tolstoy gets to the Second Epilogue, he’s said everything that’s useful. But he could not let go. (Curiously, he removed the Second Epilogue from the 1873 edition. The book is better without it. His wife reinstated it in the 1886 edition, presumably with his approval.)

The useful comments are all scattered earlier in the novel. Here he establishes the two realms of private life and the hive life of history. “There are two sides of life for every individual: a personal life, in which his freedom exists in proportion to the abstract nature of his interests, and an elemental life within the swarm of humanity, as a man inevitably follows laws laid down for him.” (Tolstoy doesn’t write about ideas half as clearly as he writes about characters.) He argues that the higher up one goes in the chain of command, the more a person is bound by circumstance. Enlisted men and peasants are more free than their leaders. “Kings are the slaves of history.”

Later he turns to calculus in his search for historical meaning. “Only by adopting an infinitely small unit for observation, the differential in history otherwise known as human homogeneity, and perfecting the art of integration (the adding up of infinitesimals) can we have any hope of determining the laws of history.” I don’t know about the laws of history, but this “small unit for observation” sounds like the human scale, which is the scale of novels. It’s the scale in which Tolstoy successfully works for over a thousand pages, but he has lost faith in his accomplishment by the time he writes his conclusion.

 

THE TRUTH OF War and Peace—the key truth of many novels about history—lies in its examples of individual men and women trying to find the room to be human inside the dense machinery of history. They want the breathing space of private life. As readers we often go to history to escape the confines of our private lives, but once there we read about characters who yearn to escape history back into the private and personal.

The real ending of Tolstoy’s novel comes in the First Epilogue. Natasha, Pierre, Nikolay, and Marya all survive the war. The two families gather at the Bolkonsky estate on a snowy night after Pierre’s return from Moscow. Tempers and egos show, but these people are genuinely fond of one another; they’ve found a plausible happiness in private life. We catch some of this happiness in the wonderful scene where Pierre and Natasha talk in bed:

The moment they were alone together Natasha too began to converse with her husband in that manner peculiar to husbands and wives, one of those in which ideas are perceived and exchanged with extraordinary clarity and speed by some means that transcends all the rules of logic and develops its own way without any spoken assertions, deductions, or conclusions. Natasha was so used to talking to her husband like this that she took any process of logical thinking on Pierre’s part as an unmistakable sign that something was wrong between them.

Pierre has secretly met with people who want to save Russia from the Tsar. Natasha disapproves. She knows, like Tolstoy, that there is no happiness in the public sphere of politics. 

Downstairs in his own bed, little Nikolay Bolkansky, the orphaned son of Prince Andrey, is asleep, dreaming of going into battle alongside Uncle Pierre, leading an army of white gossamer threads against another gossamer army, finding glory in a battle with cobwebs. “Everybody will know me and admire me and love me,” he thinks.

The entire novel is an argument against the delusions of fame and power. The individual is a creature of no importance in the great scheme of things. History is a trap; history is trouble. All that matters is private happiness. Yet Tolstoy, the sad realist, ends the book with a boy dreaming of glory and fame and the temptations of history.

This essay is adapted from The Art of History, due out in July 2016 from Graywolf Press.

Published in the March 11, 2016 issue: 

Christopher Bram is the author of nine novels, including the book that became the movie Gods and Monsters. He teaches at the Gallatin School of New York University.

This story is included in these collections:

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