What I’m Reading: Leo Tolstoy – War and Peace

Finally, a new book post – took long enough, but I hope its makes up a bit for the long silence by being the longest post on this blog so far!

I have a theory that any individual reader can only truly like either Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, but never both of them, and I am quite firmly on the Dostoevsky side of things. I first read War and Peace quite a long time ago, and did not like it much – it has remained in my memory as an annoying piece of Russian nationalist propaganda, and in consequence I never felt an urge to re-read it. I’m not sure what caused me to suddenly change my mind and want to give this novel another try, maybe it is a trend that makes me want to revisit in my old age authors I used to dislike, or maybe it was just that I felt like reading a really, really long novel.

And even though it is far from being the most voluminous novel in existence, War and Peace is still eponymous for long novel, and with 2,500 pages (according to my Kindle edition of Tolstoy’s Complete Works) of quite daunting length. Fortunately, although my remembered assessment was not completely wrong, it turned out to be a much more enjoyable read than I expected.

War and Peace is really two quite distinct works entwined into one. (Actually, it is probably significantly more, but staying with two seems appropriate for a work that announces its duality already in its title.) Roughly, the novel consists of novelistic parts and historiographical parts (the latter again comprising fictionalized accounts of historical events and theoretical reflexions on historical methodology). At the beginning, War and Peace is almost purely novelistic, but as it progresses and once it reaches the year 1812 and Napoleon’s Russian campaign, history starts to creep in more and more, like an obnoxious and persistent weed slowly impinging on and finally completely overgrowing a flower bed.

From that comparison, you can probably already guess which of the two strands I prefer and which one I do not like quite so well. Tolstoy’s thoughts on history and historiography are not even the worst of it, although I gather that those are what most people reading the novel struggle with and they admittedly do make for rather dry reading. They basically boil down to just a single and not overly complex thesis, namely that history is not determined by great men, or individuals at all, but has its own momentum that determines how events play out. That’s not too bad, if not terribly original, but Tolstoy hammers this in again and again and again, and then several times more, until the reader is thoroughly sick of it. And as this obviously is not enough and there might still be a reader who hasn’t gotten it, he adds a seventy pages long epilogue to the novel in which he expounds his thesis yet another time, in a kind of extended remix.

The reason why Tolstoy is so irrationally insistent is (I suspect) because he has an agenda here, possibly even two. The first and blatantly obvious one is also the main subject of the fictionalized historical thread running through War and Peace and the main reason I found those parts of the novel very painful reading: Tolstoy is on a crusade to show the world how abysmally despicable a creature Napoleon was and how eternally great the Russian people are and he doesn’t shy back from using even the most heavy-handed propaganda tricks to ram this home over and over and over again… When he writes that history is not made by great men you can pretty much consistently substitute that it is not made by Napoleon – who, according to Tolstoy, was not a great man in the first place, anyway, and besides was utterly delusional. This is of course a classical example of what is known as “kettle logic” and marks one of the many places where Tolstoy’s argument falls apart as such and reveals itself as sheer propaganda. On a few occasions, Tolstoy also uses Tsar Alexander as an example, but it is quite clear that this is not more than a distraction – throughout the novel, there is a constant juxtaposition going on between Alexander and Napoleon which to call biassed wouldbe a crass understatement. Alexander is consistently painted in light colours, he is heroic, caring, of impressive appearance and masculine, while Napoleon is mostly dressed in grey, self-delusional, of small stature and effeminate – and yes, it really is as crude as that, I had to rub my eyes several times to make sure I was really reading correctly. Probably the culmination of Tolstoy’s Napoleon-hate is reached when he in all seriousness attempts to sell us the battle of Borodino as a victory for the Russian side which goes so blatantly against actual historical events that it made me gasp.

In contrast to the evil overlord Napoleon (and, just as a side note, I was wondering several times during this re-read of War and Peace whether it might not be considered as the original model for Epic Fantasy trilogies – it might be fun to compare it systematically to Lord of the Rings some time), the Russians – that is, of course, if they’re real Russians, in contact with their essential Rusian-ness and not Frenchified – are noble and manly, and somehow the impersonal, Not-ruled-by-great-men spirit of history seems to always be in their favour. And this, I suspect, is the second agenda Tolsty has here – even if he claims several times that his conception of history is scientific in spirit, he never makes it really clear what exactly that moving spirit of history he posits is supposed to be, except that it somehow manifests itself in the Russian people, and it is rather hard to see what else but the will of God he imagines to be manifesting itself there. In short, the whole apparently historigraphic and supposedly scientific thread of War and Peace in the final analysis boils down to a Christian-nationalistic allegory, with Napoleon cast in the role of the devil and the Russian People as messiah whose suffering delivers mankind from the French evil. Your mileage may vary, but I found it all thoroughly unsavoury, even after making concessions for a work that was published almost 150 years ago.


But this is only one strand of the novel, and while it gets more and more pushed into the background as War and Peace progresses until it all but disappears at the end, the novelistic thread still takes up a substantial part of the whole and is an entirely different affair. It is not without its problems as well, but nothing that wasn’t par for the course for any 19th century novel, and those pale besides those moments when the novel really shines. I have called this strand novelistic at the beginning of this post, but that term is somewhat misleading, as the best moments of War and Peace are exactly that – singular moments in time, isolated scenes that do not really cohere into any kind of narrative arc. They might be part of a narrative strand, but they’re like bright, glittering jewels embroidered on a drab, threadbare fabric, and one really wishes for an abridged version à la The Princess Bride with just The Good Parts.

That analogy is actually not completely off – for while War and Peace does not contain much in the way of True Love and High Adventure (although there is a bit of each),  the novel’s highlights (which I am quite tempted to call “epiphanies” as they really are not that far from what James Joyce seems to have had in mind with that term) are simply breathtaking in their vividness and intensity and well worth enduring the dross one has to slog through to get to them. It is a cliché now that a work of literature brings something vivdly to life for the reader, but I can easily imagine that the term originated with readers of War and Peace, because this is precisely what the novel achieves when it is at its best. Tolstoy maintains a perfect balance between description of an objectively given and a character’s subjective reaction to it, having both sides enhance each other until they merge into a luminous whole, a glittering prose artefact that encapsulates the totality of an experience, ready to unfold it under a reader’s gaze. Even though Tolstoy’s language did not strike me as particularly lyrical (the translation I was reading it in is the one by Aylmer and Louise Maude – not knowing a word of Russian beyond “njet” I have no idea how good or bad it is. I did however like that it retained the French), I don’t think I have ever read such vividly captured impressions outside of poetry as in those scenes from War and Peace.

They run the whole range of experience and taken together, form a mosaic of Russian life at the beginning of the 19th century. Of upper class life, that is – all the novel’s protagonists are members of the aristocracy, and the middle and lower classes, if they make an appearance at all, do so mostly as mere decoration. But even so, there is a sense of the novel encompassing, in a truly epic fashion, the totality of human life – from the simple pleasures of hunting in the countryside to the glitter and luxury of Russian high society, from the giddiness of a girl attending her very first ball to the horrors of battle (and Tolstoy does not pull his punches in describing those, his war scenes are truly horrifying, and heroism almost always happens only in the retelling of events), from the Russian noble whose ambitions are ended by war to the bungling, immature youth who comes into his own as country squire, from the naive girl who grows into a woman through suffering to the restless intellectual who finds his inner peace as a French prisoner of war. War and Peace thus unfolds a huge panorama of Russia at the beginning of the 19th century – quite literally so in fact, and I strongly suspect the novel’s form owes more than a bit to that particular spectacle, which was quite popular at the time the novel is set in.

If Tolstoy had stuck with that, War and Peace might have been one of the greatest novels ever (and yes, I’m aware that there were and are people aruond claiming that it is, but what do they know? Hmmph.), it’s a shame Tolstoy had to mar it with his pseudo-historiographical, nationalistic rants. Still, he did not quite manage to ruin it completely, and if you can put up with those (or only read the first half of the novel, or skip a lot), there is some truly great stuff here. I suppose I will have to re-read Anna Karenina one of these days…



  1. First of all – Heloise, have you seen “Russian Ark”? If not, you must see it. It would be the perfect cinematic complement to War and Peace – without the war. Just a sumptuous, rather postmodern film about Russian history from circa 1600 to circa 1917, all shot in a single take in the glorious halls of the Hermitage (with some fabulous art thrown in for good measure).

    Second, I am deeply impressed that you managed to write a review of War and Peace which included comparisons to The Lord of the Rings *and* The Princess Bride. I really hope that you do carry out your close comparison of The Lord of the Rings and War and Peace – seeing Napoleon as the prototype for Sauron has really brightened up my evening…

    I don’t remember War and Peace terribly well – I forced myself to read a chapter every evening during my final year at university – but I do remember exactly what you say about the historical lecturing that goes on. I was studying History at the time and I just felt as if it was all being rammed home all over again. But I don’t remember it being so polarised as you say, though I’m sure you’re right. I would say ‘I must go and read it again’, but I don’t think I have the energy just at the moment. Funnily enough, Helen (shereadsnovels.wordpress.com) is engaged in a joint reading of War and Peace at the moment, so it might be fun to see if you can share your thoughts with some of the people doing that reading? Judging from your fantastic post above I bet you would have plenty of ideas to offer. 🙂

    1. Awww, thank you very much, I’m glad you liked the post. 🙂 – And I understand very well where you’re coming from, I had no good memories of War and Peace either and am still not sure what made me read it again, but overall I’m glad I did, because the good bits are really worth it. I will take a look that the blog you mention, but don’t hold your breath for the Lord of the Rings / War and Peace comparison, the last time I tried to read Tolkien (who I adored as a teenager and who actually was the reason I first started trying to read books in English) I never made it beyond the first volume…

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