Peace, Love, War, and Tolstoy
The 2007 Signet Classics issue of War and Peace, translated by Ann Dunnigan, is a brick of a book. It is short, fat, and heavy, with a microscopic font size that renders the novel basically unreadable. (The picture to the left does not do it justice. If the Internet were in 3-D, I would be proven correct, I swear.) A novel’s physicality shouldn’t relate to its enjoyability, but it is difficult to read a book when you can only read it sitting upright in a chair and using your strength to leverage the book against the table. In a world where every product is designed so as to be consumed as passively as possible, who possesses the resolve to endure a
1,492 1,455-page paperback with sore fingers?
After a month of reading it in this manner, I reached page 300 or so and put down the novel, only faintly aware of the plot and, in general, confused about the fuss over the whole thing. Why, I wondered, had Jonathan Franzen modeled the Walter-Richard-Patty love triangle in Freedom after the Andrei-Pierre-Natasha one of Tolstoy’s epic (and why had well-documented Franzen-hater Michiko Kakutani bothered to note that this was “laughably conceited”)? What about Pat Conroy—why had he, in his introduction to the new Signet Classics, been so in awe of Tolstoy’s novelistic prowess that he had been unable to say anything original, insightful, or meaningful about the novel, aside from spoiling the plot by revealing that each of the three times he has read War and Peace he has “wept uncontrollably” at Prince Andrei’s death? Really? Prince Andrei? The guy on the battlefield contemplating life (where I left off) was some magnanimous hero? And he was best friends with Pierre? Hadn’t the whole of their relationship been shown in a single conversation, early on in the novel, where the closest they come to the type of best-friend rivalry that fuels love triangles is Andrei’s disparaging thoughts about Pierre’s social/intellectual naïveté? How was this going to culminate in a love triangle with Natasha? And speaking of Natasha, who was she? Had she even appeared in a single scene? I couldn’t remember.
So the novel sat on my dresser, taking up space, for the next few months. Then, in a flurry: I had a birthday, I got a Kindle, I downloaded classics (free!), I read the last 80 percent of War and Peace in ten weeks, I re-read the intro in my dreadful Signet Classics, and I totally understood how this novel paralyzed Pat Conroy to the point of drooling, because without even realizing it, I had just been doing the literary equivalent of getting on my knees for this novel. And it is worth mentioning that without the Kindle I may not have had this experience for many years, given that the reason for my change of heart, which was so drastic, so sweeping, and so profound, is due to the fact that the electronic device allowed me to consume the novel in the exact same way that Tolstoy executed the novel: with simplicity.
No fiction writer who has ever lived is more confident than Count Leo Tolstoy. (Should we expect anything less from the man who told off Rachmaninoff to his face and wrote that the genius of Shakespeare was an “untruth”?) If we were to break down the structure of War and Peace to identify its base, we would find that it actually consists of two novels: the chronicling of Russia in time of peace, and the chronicling ofRussia in time of war. Each of these sub-novels contains a fully developed narrative with memorable major characters and rich minor characters, believable major plots and necessary side plots, luscious scene description and hypnotic plot summary. Independent of one another, each is a mammoth achievement in the history of fiction writing.
However, Tolstoy has balanced his novel in such a way that neither part can exist without the other. Thus he relies on two vehicles—the plight of five aristocratic Russian families; and the will of the French emperor, Napoleon—to link the two parts and push the novel to its singular conclusion. All along, many, many, many things happen—we attend high society balls, we watch duels in the forest, we observe military planning, we see soldiers plunge into rivers—but to make sense of them in the context of explaining the novel’s import would be futile, especially when it is clear that out of this backdrop emerge Tolstoy’s two main purposes.
The first is a rancorous authorial meditation on the preservation of history. Even though Tolstoy begins many of the novel’s parts with this aspect and lets such discourse have the novel’s final say (the novel contains two epilogues; the first wraps up the story involving the characters, the second is a grumpy Tolstoy lecturing on history), I would guess that few readers remember it because who wants to listen to Tolstoy rant about the weaknesses of historians? Here there is nothing further for me to say except to commend Tolstoy on getting his point across: historians assess history incorrectly and probably even misunderstand the concept of “history.” As a result, they don’t properly grasp the concepts of “war” and “peace.”
The second purpose is to tell us about love, and that is why we have the triangle between Andrei, Pierre, and Natasha. This is what everyone remembers about the novel, primarily for its drama. While I can’t dispute that—there are 100-page chunks of the novel, particularly in its dead center, when a juvenile Natasha becomes embroiled in scandal, that engage its audience as much as any made-up written story could ever hope to engage—I found this whole ordeal to be rather anticlimactic, which is precisely what I liked about it. I think the reason for this is that most fiction stories I read (or watch) do everything in their power to convince me that they are dramatic. Here is where you’re supposed feel sympathetic, now is the time to feel angry, and at this point you should be crying. Tolstoy, never once relinquishing control of his plot points and tone, does not have to work so hard, and so he is effortlessly unsentimental. He does not use flowery language or create difficult metaphors; he is in fact a very plain and borderline elegant writer whose immense gravity comes from his ability to know exactly when to summarize, exactly when to dive into scenes, and exactly how long to stay in those scenes. He will allow you to know a character as well as you have ever known any without bombarding you with details about that character, and after he is finished telling you that character’s story as it relates to the novel, he will usher you onto the next. He is able to do so because he succeeds in telling you those details or reporting to you that dialogue that conveys exactly how whatever it is that happened, happened, so that you know the story as well as he does, which is as well as anyone in the world could. He is calm, patient, and calculating, and there is no part of the novel (except perhaps the history lectures) that he could (or should) have cut.
With Tolstoy, we are in the hands of a master commander (which of course makes him a master manipulator). He is neither a maximalist nor minimalist nor anything in between; and as no piece of fiction can ever approach verisimilitude, labeling him a realist (and particularly a “social” realist) is a disservice to his art, for there is no single sentence or passage of War and Peace that can be reproduced so as to convey to one who has not read the novel its authenticity. The novel must be digested as a whole, because just as Prince Andrei dies, as Natasha becomes a woman, as the daily machinations of Pierre somehow become the focal point of this immense story (a testament to Tolstoy’s genius in that he was able to cook up the development of the novel, let the novel become Pierre’s story, and then get out of the way of everything), so, too, does this love triangle occur: swiftly and with ease. Never is the triangle reduced to causality; never is it consciously or unconsciously meant to convey a certain something about a certain someone or any of that goopy stuff that reveals the artifice and cheats us out of truly enjoying characters who are “lifelike” not in the sense that they do things like in real-life (as Virginia Woolf put it) but that they do “what is in their nature to do” (as Tolstoy put it). The triangle is a microcosm of the novel without trying to be: it is structured storytelling in its purest form. When a character has one of those moments of clarity that are so weak in most novels (i.e. when the author writes, “And in that moment character so and so finally realized what love was”), we don’t feel duped because Tolstoy hasn’t primed us for that moment; he’s simply revealed that that’s what the character is thinking. A writer who can tunnel into a character’s psyche, extrapolate what’s true for that character, and tunnel back out to the themes of war and peace and love on the most massive of scales is a writer who deserves to be fawned over.
About 40 percent of the way through the novel, I had my first “This is the greatest novel ever written” moment. For the rest of the book, I read in mini cycles of: read a scene → feel enraptured by the scene → think about how no one has ever written a better scene → think about how no one has ever written a better novel → repeat. This is no way to read a novel, certainly not a
1,492 1,455-page one, but some things cannot be helped.
When I finally finished, I started over, partly because I wanted to make up what I’d missed the first time through, partly because I couldn’t imagine not having any more pages of War and Peace to read. Being able to easily keep track of all the characters (part of the trick to enjoying any big Tolstoy (or Dostoevsky) novel is not getting confused when in the first fifty pages you are introduced to thirty-five characters and their three alternate names), I clearly saw the seeds of the Pierre, Natasha, and Prince Andrei triangle, and so now I can say, with certainty, that never has anything in life been as clear as how these people lived the lives they did.