Friday, March 8, 2013

The Reading List: War and Peace

War and Peace is the touchstone for very long books, so obviously I am quite proud of myself for having completed it. Have you read War and Peace? I’ve read War and Peace. Indeed, at this point I’ve conquered the great tetralogy of very long Russian books: The Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishment, Anna Karenina, and War and Peace. The first two, by Dostoevsky, fall well short of their reputations. Tolstoy’s two, however, are pretty brilliant.

The Greatest Something Ever Written

Mind you, War and Peace is not to be approached lightly. Its sheer volume (my paperback copy runs to 1455 densely-printed pages) means that you will need to have a fairly clear reading calendar if you are to maintain your headway. There are a lot of characters to sort out – as in, hundreds of them – and it isn’t until you are on page 250 or so in that it starts to becomes clear which ones you need to be keeping track of. It doesn’t help that there are half a dozen counts and another handful of princesses, and that nevertheless Tolstoy will blithely start talking about “the count” or “the princess” without giving us any hint as to which particular count or which princess he means. If you just roll with it, though, you eventually get your sea legs.

W&P generally makes the shortlists of the greatest novels ever written, so it is kind of entertaining to find out that Tolstoy was adamant that it is not a novel. When I saw this in the introductory notes, I thought it was a bit precious, but it turns out that Tolstoy had a point. I am not sure how the smart set are defining the novel these days, but let’s just say that a novel is a book-length story that isn’t a script or a poem and in which it is expected that the author is lying -- which is to say describing imaginary events as if they had actually happened. W&P fits this rough-and-ready definition for a while, but as you get further and further in, the conventional narrative is increasingly intercut with a variety of essays, reflections, and polemics about the historical events that the book is centered around, about the theory and practice of history, and – most frequently – about specific events that Tolstoy thinks that the historians of his day are completely wrong about. By the final chapters, the historiography is so dominant that it starts to come as a surprise when we are dropped back into a narrative setting where invented characters are portrayed as interacting with each other.

The Plot

To be sure, there are some conventional plotlines in W&P. One guy spends the whole novel trying to figure out to do with his life. There is a sextet of characters who you eventually realize are going to need to be romantically paired off in one configuration or other. There is a dastardly rake who may or may not eventually get his comeuppance. And there is an old general who, wisely realizing that a commander’s control over his army in the battlefield is actually pretty minimal, struggles to limit the damage caused by the elaborate military planning of his subordinate officers.

But wait, that last one isn’t fictional. That’s Tolstoy’s take on General Kutuzov, a very real historical personage. So, is he part of the “plot”? He is sometimes given lines as if he were a character in a straight historical novel. Other times, Tolstoy simply reports his known actions at a given historical moment. Then too, Tolstoy likes to summarize what the historians have to say about Kutuzov, and explain why they all have it wrong. And occasionally, he’ll make mystical assertions about the will of the nation or the force of destiny, and about how these semi-supernatural forces may or may not have been embodied in the old general. So again, the line between fiction and other-than-fiction is both fuzzy and porous here. It’s perfectly accurate to say that the plot of W&P involves love and longing among a few families of Russian aristocrats, but it doesn’t really capture the scope of the thing.

The historical context of W&P is at least as important than the fictional “plot.” In this sense, the book is “about” Russia during the Napoleonic Wars. The book begins in 1805, and among many scenes set in parlors or parties – the opening chapters are a little slow out of the blocks – there is an undercurrent of tension as Russia prepares to ally with Austria against the French. We eventually follow some of the characters to the front. Eventually, we will fast-forward to 1812 and the French invasion of Russia. Most of the most memorable action in the book takes place in the Battle of Borodino, the subsequent capture of Moscow, the great fire, and the famous French retreat through the Russian Winter.

Humor in Uniform

Now I have to think that from all I have said up to this point, W&P cannot possibly sound like much fun. But you know, it’s actually a rather ripping read once you get up a head of steam. One reason is that Tolstoy is just a bottomless fountain of ideas and images; I don’t know how much my translator (Ann Dunnigan) helped him out, but the writing is strong and clear throughout. The other reason is that Tolstoy is funny, or better yet witty, and a definite streak of wry, urbane cynicism that we don’t usually associate with czarist Russia infuses the whole production.

Absurdities of military life are a primary target for Tolstoy, and one of our first glimpses of the armed forces is a long set piece in which a Russian army, having marched some vast distance to get to the Austrian front, is commanded to prepare itself for inspection. The exhausted men are kept up overnight, trying to mend, launder, and polish themselves into a presentable state, until – as the sun rises on the dog-tired but gleaming encampment, a messenger arrives with the stipulation that the troops are to be presented for inspection exactly as they were then they arrived, the point being to convince the Austrians to put up some funding for their resupply. With the general arriving in an hour, the troops are ordered to make themselves look shabby again, on the double.

Armies, to Tolstoy, are comprised of officers who are primarily concerned with their own rank and relative prestige, commanding troops who are primarily concerned with dinner. This military force is overseen by a general staff of that is primarily concerned with trying to tear down the reputations of everybody else on the general staff. It’s a pretty effective fighting force, though, although not always on purpose, and only as long as no one tries to think too hard or to try anything fancy. Tolstoy’s deadpan riffing on the curious behavior of men under arms has to have been influential on the more overtly comic 20th century novel Catch-22. There is a family resemblance. W&P is kind of a Catch-1, perhaps.

The Whole Insight-Into-Human-Nature Thing

It is always kind of amazing to encounter a passage where an author has articulated something about human emotion, thought, or experience, that we have noticed or at least felt before but never articulated. It is for these kind of revelations that people sometimes say that the function of the novel is to convince us of the full reality of other people besides ourselves; it’s one of the few places in life, when you think about it, where you can really see convincing evidence that others are experiencing the phenomenon of existence similarly to how you are.

Tolstoy, like a lot of the brand-name 19th century masters, is awesome at this. He has a keen insight into human behavior, and frequently exposes such commonplace occurrences as people doing things for Reason A while deeply convinced they are doing them for Reason B, or acting in ways that are very obviously contrary to their own interests. Tolstoy was a very smart and observant guy. The mystery, for me, is why the science of Psychology had to evolve so slowly, and out of the writings of Sigmund Freud, with his weird sexual mysticism and obsession with, of all things, dreams. Weren’t people reading their novels? Tolstoy, from just paying attention to how people behave, understood far more about the subconscious mind than Freud was ever able to figure out through his overblown accretion of odd assertions. What if Psychology had emerged out of the study of literature? It would be a science with a more humane history, I’d have to think.

Tolstoy, Social Scientist

Speaking of academic disciplines, ol’ Leo is startlingly prescient in his theory of history, at least according to conventional notions of the advancement of the discipline. In high school, for instance, I was taught that we used to do “Great Man” history, all focused on the decisions of a handful of powerful dudes in any given era, but we don’t do that anymore. In college, I started to realize that we hadn’t really done that since the 1920s or so. But here’s Tolstoy, writing before the American Civil War (which, as everyone knows, was an arm-wrestling match between Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee), stating repeatedly and in no uncertain terms that Great Man history is preposterous.

More than a century before it became a popular idea, Tolstoy vigorously maintains that thinking of history as a progressive march towards some goal, maintained in fits and starts but with overall continuous improvement, is silly. Or again: in graduate school, me and a seminar of like-minded eggheads once spent WEEKS trying to figure out some damn Theory or other that insisted that proper social science had to consider human interactions and decision-making as they were distributed throughout a society’s power structure, simultaneously. Needless to say, the Theory had very little indeed to say about how somebody might have pursued a research program according to its framework. We would have been better off reading War and Peace; Tolstoy makes essentially the same proposition far more elegantly, and offers up a hypothetical work sample. That one’s dissertation would run to four or five thousand pages would be worth the satisfaction of a job well done.

Incidentally, I think there is something to be said in support of both Great Man history and the notion of human progress. But I think Tolstoy did too.


If you like any two of Reading, History, Russia, or bragging about having finished a very long book, you should read W&P. It’s good! May I make two suggestions? One is, keep ten or twelve index cards and take little notes on the major characters as you encounter them. I wished I had. And, either commit yourself to a timetable, or plan on reading something lite and frothy at the three intermission points. It’s a long book.

The "GoodReads" website will automatically graph your progress
through a book if you occasionally tell it what page you are on.
At about page 400, I got a bad bronchitis and missed a week
of work.  I recovered at about page 1000.


pfly said...

"Have you read War and Peace?" I've read War and Peace! And Anna Karenina too, but not the big Dostoevsky books. Loved "Notes from the Underground" though.

It's been many many years since I read War and Peace, and much of it has faded. A few scenes remain like vivid snapshots. Like Count Whats-his-name (not only are there a bunch of counts, but everyone seems to have three or four names) fallen on the battlefield and looking up at the clear blue sky. That weird moment of peace in the midst of chaos.

Or, well this one less clear and more of a running sub-theme, iirc, the Zen-like contentedness of some peasants (and that one in particular, named, um...), even in the face of extreme hardship and impending death. Which stands in striking contrast to the complex angst of well-to-do aristocrats like Pierre. Maybe Tolstoy hammered this point a little too hard, but it definitely stuck with me.

Hmm, maybe both the battlefield clear blue sky and the content peasant are forms of peace in the midst of war...

Anyway, I always knew I had to read "War and Peace". Since I was a kid my Mom somehow gave me the notion that you haven't really read a book until you've read War and Peace. Moby Dick too.

mrs.5000 said...

It's an odd choice for a title--less odd for a wide-ranging historical work than for a novel--but we tend to forget that, since it's a title that gets bandied about so often as a stand-in for any fat and worthy tome. It's not rocket science, but it seems sort of the literary equivalent...

Nichim said...

Just before I got to the part of your post where you said "...W&P cannot possibly sound like much fun," the following words came out of my mouth: "Wow, War and Peace sounds like just my kind of book!" It may be true that "funness" is not a strong criterion for me in my book choosing process, although I do like those wacky long Pynchon novels.