Saturday, April 19, 2014

Telling Lies About Tolstoy's War and Peace

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD

"It is very difficult to tell the truth," Leo Tolstoy remarks in War and Peace. He wrote these words in reference to Nikolai Rostov's recounting of his experiences at the Battle of Schongrabern. However, what he said of war can probably be said about anything else in life, not the least of them our experiences reading literature, including that very book. War and Peace, which has so much to say about the lie, is one of the most lied-about books, thirty-one percent admitting to having lied about reading it in a poll by Britain's National Year of Reading Organization. (Only George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four beat it out for the #1 spot.)

I suspect, too, that the book is not only much more often mentioned than read, but that like other fiction bearing the label of Great Literature it is also much more often praised than actually enjoyed--just as one would expect from a book that is read by those who actually do read it just for the "bragging rights" (as many reviewers admit on Amazon).

Certainly few books compare with War and Peace in that respect. But why is that?

Why All The Fuss? Is It Really All That Hard?
Certainly reading Tolstoy is not difficult in the way of Joyce, or even Dickens; his writing is straightforward and lucid throughout, enough so that doctrinaire advocates of "Show don't tell" must have a field day when reviewing it.

Of course, War and Peace is a notoriously long book, running to some 1,400 pages in many an edition. However, it is not all that much longer than Les Miserables, another roughly contemporaneous nineteenth century national epic set in Napoleon's shadow by a comparably acclaimed author, but which does not seem to have quite the same cachet (perhaps because most people who hear the name think of the musical?).1

Where this book really trumps the competition in the prestige stakes is the combination of that length with an extraordinary density, War and Peace presenting us with a cast of some "five hundred characters"--whose names at times seem contrived to confuse the reader. One can easily feel themselves adrift in a sea of Counts and Countesses, Princes and Princesses, Annas and Nicholais, and worse than adrift if their attention slips sufficiently to let them mistake Karagina for Kuragina, Orlov-Denisov for just plain Denisov--all the more so as the few dozen central characters are intricately interconnected with one another, as we follow their five families through no less than three wars, culminating in Napoleon's invasion of Russia.

That there is no overarching plot to unite all this action does not help (as Tolstoy owned in Russian Archive in 1868, he did not conceive of it as a novel exactly), the very shapelessness of this "mass of life" making it difficult for the reader to get a handle on it.2

The result is that while I have been accustomed to setting aside a book, and then months later coming back to it and pretty much picking up where I left off with little or no difficulty, with War and Peace I found myself forced to go back to the beginning again, and then repeat the process when I set the book aside yet again (once, after I got a third of the way in), so that it was only years later, after finding the time and energy and will to commit to reading it straight through without that kind of break, that I got all the way to the end.

One might add, too, that Tolstoy's themes are large and ambitious ones of the kind long since grown unfashionable--free will and determinism, history and History, the realities of war, mortality, happiness, the aims of life--and that Tolstoy frequently moves from dramatizing them to directly lecturing the reader about them. Indeed, taken together his remarks about the subject of war alone add up to a treatise comparable to that famously offered up by Clausewitz (who actually puts in a brief and unflattering appearance on the eve of Borodino), while the book's second epilogue eschews storytelling entirely for another treatise-in-itself on the problem of reconciling free will and determinism.

On the whole these shifts struck me as less jarring than what we see in other authors of the time, much shorter and far less digressive than those we see in Les Miserables, for instance, but still frequent and occasionally repetitive, and likely to be something of a trial for readers unaccustomed to nineteenth century novels, or to ideas like Tolstoy's. (Given that Tolstoy's ideas about a great many social and political matters--reflective as they are of an aristocratic, agrarian, mystical view of life, influenced by Joseph de Maistre and Slavophilism--come off as deeply anti-rational, anti-modern, and flatly reactionary, not merely by the standard of our time, but his own as well, just about any twenty-first century reader will likely have trouble wrapping their minds around them, never mind really engaging with them.3)

In short, the book's combination of populousness, plotlessness and sprawl, its wide range of concerns and its frequently digressive treatment of them, make great demands on the reader's concentration, patience and readiness to grapple with Big Ideas (and Unconventional Ideas at that). Problematically for those likely to read this novel in English, it also takes for granted the reader's familiarity with the military and political history of the Napoleonic era not as an English-speaker tends to recall it (Nelson, Wellington, the Nile, Trafalgar, Spain, Waterloo), but rather as a Russian would (Alexander and Kutuzov the principal opponents of Napoleon, Austerlitz, Tilsit, Smolensk, Borodino, Moscow, Berezina, central events of the narrative).

The result is that War and Peace's reputation as a "difficult" book is not totally unjustified. Far from it.

Okay, But How Is It?
Still, difficulty alone is not the sole reason for its prestige. There is, too, the idea that this is one of that small group of novels regularly acclaimed the Greatest of All Time.

It is probably impossible to debate such superlatives in a rigorous way, but one can (and should) try to get beyond the glowing platitudes of the fawning and the cries of boredom of the detractors--each, opaque and meaningless to the truly discerning reader--and actually discuss War and Peace as a work of fiction.

As it happened, one of the reasons why I failed to make much progress on my first few tries was that it was easy to set the book aside during those early portions in which my recourses to the character list at the front of the volume were frequent. The succession of scenes of the polite society of the uppermost of the upper classes seemed monotonous, and disappointing, this "national" epic apparently excluding ninety-nine percent of the nation.

Of course, one eventually gets the exposition out of the way, becomes able to tell the principals apart, gets a little more variety in their scenes, but even after that point (as is usual in epics) one finds some threads more interesting than others, leaving them impatient to get back to them, while slow stretches are almost unavoidable--and for me War and Peace was no exception. Indeed, the tendency was particularly apparent, because it is not one of those works that can be counted on to cut quickly back and forth across their various storylines (one result of which was that the Rostov family-centered Book Seven was rather a slog for me).

I suppose it does not help that while the novel has its fair share of intrigue, it is still a far cry from the soap opera it might have been. Indeed, Tolstoy pointedly marginalizes the sensational and scandalous in favor of those characters offering positive demonstrations of his ideas. The result is that he consistently gives the reader the opposite of what people typically look for from their entertainment--the soul-conflicts of Maria Bolkonskaya rather than the affairs of Helene Bezukhova, Andrei Bolkonski's career of public-minded integrity rather than the shameless self-advancement of Boris Drubteskoy, Pierre Bezukhov's search for a meaningful life rather than the colorful picaresque that Dolokhov's story would have been if it were fully fleshed out. Those other parts of the story are increasingly mentioned in passing rather than depicted as one proceeds through the novel, and eventually fall by the wayside, along with the stories of no fewer than two of his five principal families, the Kuragins and Drubetskoys (which may be justifiable from the standpoint of Tolstoy's purposes, but is certainly problematic from those of symmetry and completeness, to say nothing of interest).

Likewise, Tolstoy's depiction of such things as the relations between masters and serfs also seems sanitized--a charge to which Tolstoy himself responded in the aforementioned Russian Archive essay, not altogether persuasively. (It would have been one thing for him to leave such things as an acknowledged part of the background, another to exclude them as completely as he seems to do.) Say what one will, this is not a story of life from the bottom up, and from the standpoint of art as well as entertainment I regretted that Tolstoy did not have Dostoyevsky's appreciation of human weakness--or his familiarity with the lower levels of society in which dwell "les miserables."

Additionally, the book loses what momentum it has well before the end, dragging in the anti-climactic Book Fifteen, and never recovering its earlier vigor. Indeed, the second epilogue summing up Tolstoy's view of history not only repeats the ideas he expressed earlier, but does so much less concisely, so that it seems unnecessarily roundabout and wordy.

And of course, it has to be admitted that for all his emphasis on conveying his ideas to the reader, Tolstoy can be a frustratingly inconsistent thinker. There is more of the Romantic in the work of the "Great Realist" than one might expect, which is particularly pointed in his shifting from the ironic view of battlefield heroism he offers in his portrait of Schongrabern, and the adventures and misadventures of Nikolai Rostov in general, to an exaltation of the fighting spirit of the Russian army in its defense of its homeland, and the celebration of Kutuzov and Dokhturov as underappreciated heroes. His eagerness to demonstrate his ideas at times gets the better of his arguments, skewing his depiction of characters and events--the strain quite evident when he uses the same deterministic theory of history to condemn Napoleon, and at the same time excuse Czar Alexander all his failings and failures.

Still, despite all that, and the fact that I found Tolstoy's writing here less technically or dramatically impressive than in, for instance, his later The Death of Ivan Ilyich, he still frequently displays the eye for detail and the insight into human beings that made that work so impressive. There is also no denying that his historical vision is sufficiently powerful and provocative for its interest to transcend his prejudices. The result is that even his most pious creations have their share of nuance, and his minor characters are at least as vividly drawn (helped, I suppose, by Tolstoy's permitting them to be much more colorful). In fact, for all my difficulties following the book in those early attempts to read it, many of his characters still made impressions strong enough that I remembered a trait or a line of dialogue months, even years, afterward, even when I had forgotten the characters' names--the streak of hooliganism that made the absent-minded, idealistic Pierre participate in tying a police officer to a bear's back and setting him floating down the river, for example.

As it is with his characters, so is it with his scenes, even the sluggish early chapters containing their share of memorable bits: the pathetic coquetry of the fading Anna Drubetskaya as she lobbies for an army appointment for her son Boris; the combination of detachment and awkwardness, sombreness and conniving, in Pierre's meeting with his dying father as their relatives fight over the will; Nikolai Bolkonski's bullying of Maria over a math lesson. Again and again, Tolstoy finds the few crucial words needed to bring his chosen material to life--and is often immensely quotable in the bargain. (One of my many favorite turns of phrase in this book: "it always happens in contests of cunning that a stupid person gets the better of cleverer ones.")

Additionally, if Tolstoy frequently resorts to lecturing, it ought to be admitted that he is an engaging lecturer, and that he never relies on lecturing alone, time and again dramatizing his ideas very effectively. This is especially the case in the war scenes, which at their best (as with Nikolai Rostov's experiences in the war of 1805, or his cavalry charge in the 1812 campaign) make up the most memorable portrait of the fog of war and the muddle of the battlefield that I have ever encountered in fiction. Much the same can be said of the book's closely linked denunciation of the Great Man theory of history and public affairs (as in the scenes where Bagration, Kutuzov and Napoleon command, or Andrei leaves the imperial staff in disgust), which, even if it overreaches, now seems to have been far ahead of its time, and reminds us of how limited and old-fashioned popular historiography remains in ours.

And so while there were times when the book was easy to put down, there were also long stretches when I didn't want to put it down, enough of them that it was not so very long as might be imagined before I made it all the way to end, and afterward considered the book well worth my while.

Though I admit that I probably would not have thought so if I had encountered it at the same age Charlie Brown did in his long-ago New Year's special.

1. Incidentally, I am using the 2001 Wordsworth Classics edition of the Maude translation for this discussion of the book.
2. I refer to Tolstoy's "Some Words About War and Peace," which is printed at the back of the 2001 edition mentioned above.
3. This is evident in such matters as the trajectories of Pierre Bezukhov (transformed from a cosmopolitan, Westernized liberal intellectual into a passive, ascetic figure like Platon Karataev), and Natasha Rostova (satisfied in the limitation of her concerns to her husband and children, the "woman question" explicitly dismissed).
Those accustomed to Tolstoy the moralist, Tolstoy the dissident, Tolstoy the pacifist and anarchist, should note that he is not much in evidence here. For the most part that is a later Tolstoy, who condemned his own earlier work, War and Peace included.

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