It’s almost impossible to come to a novel with fresh eyes, and perhaps Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace is the example par excellence. Hailed widely as the greatest novel of all time, it is written by a man traditionally depicted as a giant among giants who stands atop in a giant (geographically and otherwise) civilization’s literary golden age. As if that wasn’t enough to ensure its status, the book itself is huge, so wide and deep that in the words of more than one critic it contains (as Mahler’s 80-minute symphonies are said to) the entire world in all its splendor and diversity.
That’s quite a billing, so when modestly making my ant-like way word by word through this massive stack of paper I felt something of a responsibility to like it. Or maybe more like a duty. Well whatever you call it, I would be either unbelievably arrogant or unbearably stupid if, counter to the wisdom of the many who have preceded me, I stopped to trifle with this book.
The good news is that I liked War and Peace very much, but the bad news is that I was also let down, because to me the book feels (and this is going to sound strange, seeing as War and Peace deals with one of the most massive wars waged by one of humanity’s greatest conquerors) restrained.
This isn’t to say that Tolstoy doesn’t write beautifully. Rarely have I bounced so pleasantly down the course of so many sentences, each clause like a falling-then-rising swell that gently deposits me upon the next one, page after a page with nary a word out of place. And it’s likewise true that Tolstoy’s celebrated capacity for inhabiting the mind of virtually any class or gender in virtually any situation he chose to is in full force here. Just one example: as a Poli Sci major I read thousands of pages on nationalism and great power rivalries, but none of that summed the matter up so well as Tolstoy describing Rostov as Emperor Alexander reviews his army before war:
Rostov, standing in the front lines of Kutuzov’s army which the Tsar approached first, experienced the same feeling as every other man in that army: a feeling of self-forgetfulness, a proud consciousness of might and a passionate attraction to him who was the cause of this triumph.
He felt that at a single word from that man all this vast mass (and he himself an insignificant atom in it) would go through fire and water, commit crime, die, or perform deeds of highest heroism, and so he could not but tremble and his heart stand still at the imminence of that word.
‘Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah!’ thundered from all sides. . . .
Through the terrible and deafening roar of these voices, amid the square masses of troops standing motionless as if turned to stone . . . the Emperors. . . .
Rostov immediately smiled himself and felt a still stronger flow of love for his sovereign. He longed to show that love in some qay and knowing that this was impossible was ready to cry.
It’s easy to tell that Tolstoy was deeply in touch with the essentials of his people and could cut right to the heart of their interactions because so many of his descriptions ring true even today. The names and places have changed, but human nature remains the same, and you can see that in Tolstoy. Here are Berg and his new wife Vera—two Muscovite yuppies of their day—throwing a post-nuptial house-warming party:
Though the conversation was very incoherent and Vera was angry at the intrusion of the masculine element, both husband and wife felt with satisfaction that, even if only one guest was present, their evening had begun very well and was as like as two peas to every other evening party with its talk, tea, and lighted candles. . . .
[T]he party became unquestionably exactly like all other evening parties. Berg and Vera could not repress their smiles of satisfaction at the sight of all this movement in their drawing room, at the sound of the disconnected talk, the rustling of dresses, and the bowing and scraping. Everything was just as everybody always has it.
Berg and Vera’s self-satisfaction bordering on relieved anxiety that their party fits in brings to mind any number of people I’ve known (many of whom I knew in high school).
Lastly, of course, there is the plotting, the fact that over ten main characters move through more than a decade. Their paths all entwine believably and intricately, and each develops from child to adult authentically as a result of Tolstoy’s careful manipulations. Reading it, it feels as though things could not have been otherwise. Plotting of this precision is difficult to pull off in even a modest novel, but to see it on the scope of War and Peace is amazing.
All these are the rewarding sides of reading War and Peace, but as pleasant a read as it was, the book missed something that my inner Modernist couldn’t help but look for in every single page. Certainly Tolstoy reached into his characters, but only so far. He repeatedly, flawlessly pulled out apt thoughts, but only from a certain depth. One wishes that he would have reached farther. It was as though those beautifully crafted sentences were placid arcs, the turns of a pendulum that gracefully swept its inevitable course but never once flew any farther than I knew it would. I longed for some glass to break, some wood to chip, for the clock to run absurdly fast, backward, even to slow just a teensy bit. I wanted difficulty, passion, a touch of the bizarre.
To be sure, Tolstoy’s characters know their share of agony, despair, even eccentricity. Love is a major theme, and it’s wrung for all the courage and heartbreak that only love can bring. But the courage and heartbreak are more described than embodied.
Take for instance Tolstoy’s character Prince Andrew, scarred by the loss of his wife in childbirth. Andrew is capable of saying such spiteful, callous things—at one point he proclaims “One must try to make one’s life as pleasant as possible. I’m alive, that is not my fault.”—and with a little imagination I can project my way into what he must have felt. But then that is it. It’s over. That feeling has been assigned, labeled, and placed, so on to the next one. Tolstoy never shows us the pain the way Camus showed his stranger’s alienation (and what else is a line like “I’m alive, that is not my fault” but existentialist?), or, for that matter, the way Dostoevsky’s Underground Man wallowed in his self-pity.
I look at War and Peace as the last, greatest work of a way of writing literature then already in serious decline and soon to be all out of things to say. It is true that War and Peace contains a world—after reading it I feel in possession of all the cultural knowledge necessary to join up with early-19th-century Russian society. But if Russia is a world than so too is each individual. Tolstoy could spend a lifetime understanding the nation of his birth and Proust could spent a lifetime understanding Proust. To see Tolstoy’s characters bouncing off one another—their trajectories and collisions described as carefully as a master pool player would call her shots—is to be reminded of the orderly thing the universe was in Tolstoy’s day. Tolstoy’s characters lose their tempers but not their minds, they bend under the weight of destiny but not under the call of human perversity.
Only later on would come things like quantum physics, Schrödinger’s cat, and penis-envy, things that forced new ways of creating art and forever made writers who didn’t consider them sound a little naïve. Quite a charge, I can hear everyone saying, to call Tolstoy to task for not writing like he lived in a century that he didn’t live in. Yet just because Tolstoy missed out on the 20th century, it doesn’t mean we can’t hold his writing like it against him. As already remarked, while Tolstoy wrote his novels Dostoevsky was peering forth into the strange, disquieting future. A couple decades back we find Flaubert writing the undeniably modern Bouvard and Pecuchet. There was the example of the insane, posses Don Quixote, protagonist of what is commonly called the first modern novel. Even Gogol and Turgenev were onto paths other than Tolstoy’s. It wasn’t that Tolstoy wasn’t aware that that kind of writing was out there; he was, and knowing of it he chose to write the way he did.
I have heard it said that when it comes to musicians, there are innovators and there are perfectors—Beethoven innovated, Mozart perfected—and as a listener I will appreciate the perfectors but love the innovators. I suppose the same is true of great writers and painters: Meissonier’s massive Friedland may have gotten countless accolades for its remarkably lifelike depiction of horse musculature, but now we recognize that a far more valuable service was rendered to art by the Impressionists so callously disregarded during Meissonier’s time. So it is that War and Peace is rightly praised as an immense canvas that Tolstoy expertly populated with every conceivable detail. For this Tolstoy is rightly called a titan, but this reader’s loyalty will always lie with those writers who, though they used a smaller canvas, turned that canvas inward into a world more compact than Tolstoy’s, but far more strange and revelatory.
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