I started reading War and Peace in Russian a little over a year ago, and Saturday I finally finished it. (I took quite a bit of time off between the four parts, or I would have finished sooner.) Like Proust, the man needed an iron-willed editor. Actually, an apter comparison would be with Beckwith, since in each case the book is damaged at the end by a long, largely irrelevant, amateurish section that should have been omitted. But let me start with the good stuff.
I’ve read it twice in English (in college and in the mid-’90s) and now in Russian, and each time the characters come to life in the same mysterious way. How does Tolstoy do it? From the protagonists to the minor walk-ons, they have the unruly undeniability of actual people, and the reader gets sucked into their messy lives no matter how many postmodern deconstructions of narrative he or she may have absorbed. I get mad at Prince Andrei with the same sort of exasperated affection I direct at my own brothers, not with the distanced feeling of irritation I experience with, say, Proust’s Marcel. I want good things to happen for Pierre and Natasha much more than I do for any characters in Hemingway. It’s a great gift, that ability to infuse life.
And he certainly doesn’t do it with fancy prose. There’s nothing in Tolstoy as gorgeous as, say, this bit from Goncharov’s 1849 «Сон Обломова» (“Oblomov’s Dream,” which became the ninth chapter of the novel when it was published a decade later): “Но лето, лето особенно упоительно в том краю. Там надо искать свежего, сухого воздуха, напоенного — не лимоном и не лавром, а просто запахом полыни, сосны и черемухи; там искать ясных дней, слегка жгучих, но не палящих лучей солнца и почти в течение трех месяцев безоблачного неба. Как пойдут ясные дни, то и длятся недели три-четыре; и вечер тепел там, и ночь душна.” (‘But summer, summer is especially intoxicating in those parts. It is there that you must seek fresh, dry air, filled — not with lemon or laurel, but simply with the smell of polýn’ [I’m not sure if it means ‘wormwood’ or ‘mugwort’ here], pine, and bird cherry; there seek clear days, lightly burning but not scorching rays of the sun, and almost three months of cloudless sky. When the clear days come, they last for three or four weeks; and the evening is warm there, and the night sultry.’) To read that in Russian is to want to read it aloud, and to read it aloud is to want to memorize it. Tolstoy doesn’t work that way; his prose can be very effective (see my discussion here), but basically it’s workmanlike and often clunky. No, he’s not a prosateur but a storyteller, and storytelling is a gift, perhaps an unanalyzable one.
I’ll go on to talk about the end of the novel, so if you want to avoid spoilers (who will die and who will live? and who will turn out to be a false embodiment of the motive force of history?), don’t proceed below the cut.
It’s always somehow a surprise when Natasha and Pierre get together (though not at all a surprise that Sonya gets dumped), and the ending of the novel proper (before the Epilogue) is perfect: “— Только для чего же в Петербург! — вдруг сказала Наташа, и сама же поспешно ответила себе: — Нет, нет, это так надо… Да, Мари? Так надо.” (“Only why does he have to go to Petersburg?” said Natasha suddenly, and quickly answered herself: “No, no, it has to be that way… Doesn’t it, Marie? It has to be that way.”) It has the satisfying feeling of a Faulkner climax, and frankly, I think the novel should have ended there, with “Так надо” summing up Tolstoy’s approach to history and life.
But of course it doesn’t end there. The First Part of the Epilogue carries the survivors’ story another seven years forward; Nikolai marries Princess Marya (saving the Rostov fortunes) and the two keep poor Sonya around the house as a sort of familial hanger-on while Nikolai turns into a stern but wise gentry landowner (how his serfs love him!), and Pierre and Natasha have kids as she turns into a dumpy housewife (but with occasional flashes of the old girlish fire) and he learns to bow to her preferences. All of this is preceded by four chapters of historical theorizing about Napoleon (for it is he who turns out to be a false embodiment of the motive force of history!) and the movement of peoples from west to east and from east to west (a cheap symmetry with which Tolstoy is inexplicably obsessed), and by the time I’d waded through that (of which there was plenty in the latter part of the novel proper) I was pretty impatient and wishing he’d quit while he was ahead. The superficial way in which he zipped through the exposition of Nikolai’s development as a landowner didn’t change my mind, but eventually, when Pierre and Natasha came to visit and long-developed strands wound together, I warmed to it, and by the time of the brilliant ending, in which orphaned Nikolenka (the son of Prince Andrei, who dies so memorably in the presence of his beloved but rejected Natasha after the retreat from Moscow), inspired by Pierre’s tales of the young men trying to oppose the reactionary government of the day (later to become the ill-fated Decembrists whose attempted revolt would sputter out five years later, and about whom Tolstoy originally wanted to write the novel), cries out while lying down to go to bed: “А дядя Пьер! О, какой чудный человек! А отец? Отец! Отец! Да, я сделаю то, чем бы даже он был доволен…” (‘And Uncle Pierre! Oh, what a wonderful person! And my father? My father! My father! Yes, I will do something that even he would be satisfied with’)… by that time, I was reconciled to the First Appendix, even with its longueurs and unsatisfying character development.
But nothing will reconcile me to the Second Appendix (or, to give it its proper title, the Second Part of the Epilogue). To tell you the truth, I almost skipped it, as I had the last time I read the novel in English. I vividly remembered how it had bored me as a college student. But how could I say I’d read the book in Russian if I skipped the end? And maybe I had been too callow then, not ready to appreciate Tolstoy’s subtle grasp of history…. No, I was right the first time. I didn’t read every word; once he’s lumbered into a line of argument and you can see how the next few paragraphs are going to go, it’s hard to make yourself sit still for the dogged exposition. I read and skimmed, read and skimmed. And let me tell you, it’s like being bludgeoned with the same words and phrases repeated and repeated and repeated like the raven’s “Nevermore!” until you want to shout “It’s OK, Lev Nikolaevich! I get it: history is not directed by great men, that is merely how it seems to us! Spare me the analogies to ships and wakes and to the latest scientific discoveries, and tell me some more about those wonderful people you created!” But in vain: he’s done with the people, and utterly determined to refute the errors of the historians of his day. Alas, no one has cared about those historians and their theories, erroneous or not, for over a century (Buckle, anyone?), and anyway Tolstoy was a novelist, not a historian, no more equipped to refute professionals than I am to refute string theory. The Second Appendix is the literary equivalent of an extremely long-winded Hyde Park orator, haranguing passers-by about how the so-called experts don’t know what they’re talking about. Or, to bring the analogy up to date, like a blogger spewing thousands of words about how things are going to hell in a handbasket, sure that with enough repetition and sarcasm he can bring you around to his point of view. I guess what I’m saying is, if you get all the way through the First Appendix, you can put the book down with a light heart. You’ve done your duty by literature; just ignore the grumpy ghost of Tolstoy glaring from the corner, muttering dustily.
For your salad course, if your taste buds are awakened by the thought of historical analysis and you want to read a good one, here are the two latest posts at future historian Greg Afinogenov’s Slawkenbergius’s Tales: Beards and Beckers I: The Cultural and the Social and Beards and Beckers II: The Highest Stage of Historiography.
And for dessert: The Daily Growler takes on the Rooshans: “Dostoevsky and Tolstoy! They are a different matter. I live in these two dudes’s books when I start reading them.” Ain’t it the truth.
Addendum (April 2015). For an interesting take on the novel that emphasizes the historical aspect (and the fact that the “happy ending” is not that happy if you remember that the males are going to wind up on Senate Square facing tsarist guns a few years later), see Andrei Zorin’s TLS essay (18 March 2015), “Tolstoy replays history.”
Addendum (June 2015). I just got to the part on War and Peace in Richard Freeborn’s chapter (The Nineteenth Century: 1855-80) in the excellent Cambridge History of Russian Literature, and I can’t resist quoting this excerpt:
As a family chronicle based largely on his own and his wife’s family, War and Peace ends at this point.
As an investigation of the supposed mainsprings of history, and as a historical novel, however, it ends with the second epilogue. Here the fatalism which seems to govern so much of the historical fiction is given an extended theoretical justification which owes something to Herzen, Schopenhauer, de Maistre and others but, in all its essentials, is Tolstoyan. The main target of the theory is the idea of historical leadership, to which Tolstoy opposes the notion of history as a movement of peoples generated “not by power, not by mental activity, not even by a combination of one and the other, as historians have thought, but by the activity of all people taking part in the action […].” In fact, for all the apparatus of philosophical argument which Tolstoy brings to bear, his theory of history no more reconciles the concepts of freedom and necessity, of individual and swarm life, which comprise the experience of his fictional heroes and heroines, than it satisfactorily explains exactly why the Napoleonic invasion occurred and why in the end the status quo was restored. It does emphasize the didactic purpose behind Tolstoy’s intention, an element that would dominate his work in the final three decades of his life and has obscured for many the greatness of his achievement as a writer.
The last bit is overstated (are there really many people for whom the greatness of his achievement as a writer is obscured for that reason?), but it’s an excellent putdown, in its sober scholarly way.