War, what’s it good for?

Tolstoy intimidated me. It was primarily the page count of War and Peace that kept me from diving in, of course, and I honestly didn’t need more excuse than that to leave it on the shelf as long as I did. But I was also anxious by his reputation as a towering literary genius. Having just read Dostoyevsky, another towering figure, and found him less than convincing, I was hesitant to experience the same thing with Tolstoy. One wishes to be blown away, and it is tough to contemplate such a long book failing to deliver.

Happily, I can report from the halfway point, the book is highly readable. The first 50 pages are such a bewildering gauntlet of names and manners that I just gave myself permission not to retain any of it or hold myself to knowing who was who or what the hell was going on. Instead, I just let it all wash over me and before long I was recognizing characters, and following plotlines, and starting to see how things tie together. I wonder how many readers were lost in those first 50 pages, like so many casualties attempting a beachhead. But I persevered and have been rewarded for the last 500 pages or so with some of the most beautiful and stirring writing I’ve read. Headline news, I know.

Tolstoy carved his book up like an engineer, with volumes, and books, and chapters, and the whole thing flows along with a comfortingly predictable rhythm. The first volume follows our various Russian protagonists along their experiences during the Napoleonic wars of 1805-1806, when Russia came to the aid of their ally Austria in their fight with the new French Emperor, who promptly gave them all bloody noses. The second volume gives us the peace that follows, following these same characters, whose fates have risen and fallen in various ways with the turbulent times. I am going to predict that volume three will concern Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, with volume four covering the peace that followed that.

Despite the seeming cast of thousands, there are two key families the book concerns, the Rostov’s, a provincial family of limited influence, and the Balkonskys, a very powerful family. Of these families we get detailed views of the patriarchs and their immediate families, along with a wide range of associates, servants, and hangers on. The book is like a crash course in Russian social mores of the time, andf we move from ballroom to bedroom to the royal court, all rendered with exquisite literary precision. Setting aside the plot, I enjoyed getting a glimpse of how the landed gentry interacted with their serfs, the responsibilities that came with these positions, and the ways that money flowed around it all.

Of these two families, the two eldest sons hold the central positions in the narrative, and already we’ve seen them move from one extreme to another. Prince Andrei Bolkonsky is a man of gravity and influence whose worldview is destroyed by his experience in the war, and Nikolai Rostov is a grown man of trying occupy his place in the world while not disappointing his father, and it is his shortcomings off the battlefield that prove the most devastating to him. Both men are tossed about by love and familial obligations and the highly personalized pressures bearing down on them, with each doing his best to stand up.

Surrounding them are literally dozens of characters with fairly fleshed out roles and plots, and if that sounds like a lot it’s because it is. But as I got into it and gained familiarity with everyone, I found that each new turn of the story was welcome, and starting a new chapter was like catching up with an old friend. And I’ll hand it to Tolstoy, he knows how to handle his pacing. I have to imagine he had all of this worked out in advance, so he knew exactly which piece of the story needed to be moved along when, and he manages to bring both of the first two volumes to satisfying creshendos.

The prose is lovely, and more than anything reminded me of Flaubert. It had the same attempt to reveal the truth of a situation through exacting description, the same focus on the internal realities of the characters along with their actions, the same unflinching desire to render humanity in all its beautiful messiness. Tolstoy apparently claimed not to be influenced by Flaubert, but I don’t think he’d have been able to achieve the fluidity of perspective shifting had not Flaubert paved the way. But where Flaubert moves delicately in and out of people’s heads, Tolstoy slams across the battlefield like an omniscient documentarian, giving us the awful truth of a battle like I for one have never seen on the page or on the screen. It’s really wonderful stuff.

And moving. There’s a scene where Andrei finally takes fire in battle that is extraordinary. Leading up to the war each man wonders how he will behave, and Andrei finds himself clear headed and well able to cope. This makes him think he is born for this, and destined for acts of great bravery, and he becomes caught up in the story he tells himself about his destiny. And when the moment comes, and he is removed from his horse in the midst of thick fire, he stares up at the vast sky and realizes that it has all been vanity, this story he imagined. All his hopes and dreams and petty aspirations are pointless in the face of the vast and gorgeous immensity of blue sky. This sort of epiphany isn’t easy to carry off without inviting condescension from the reader, but Tolstoy manages to do the opposite, and brings us right along with him, and for days in the face of petty challenges I found myself looking up to the sky for comfort.

The book contains various glimpses of the life of the aristocracy that were interesting in and of themselves. For example, one of the characters, Pierre, a slightly bumbling and philosophical heir to a massive fortune, at one point becomes highly involved with the Freemasons, and Tolstoy gives a thorough rendering of the induction ceremony, the meetings, and the various business of the masons. But, of course, he also gives us the philosophical ennui that seizes our mason Pierre when he realizes that this supposed hidden truth is just as vain and vacuous as the other truths being foisted on him. It’s a wonderful view of a secret society I always wondered about but never explored.

We also see various people tour their estates and to see their various lands and account for the income or lack of income they’re generating. This income comes from the serfs, who are literally the property of these people, and they have various serf lieutenants who organize things and skim as much as they can across the top. Another time a character remarks casually about having sold several serf families to acquire a prized hunting dog, which is at least an understandable exchange rate for human life, according to the times. We also get an incredible and savage hunt, a brutal sport that demonstrates the character of the people as viciously as as any drawing room might.

Tolstoy wanted to render the truth of war on the page, as nobody had before him, and I’ll gladly grant that he achieved his vision, even with only half the book under my belt. But more than that it seems to me that he is trying to render the truth of life itself, the ups and downs of both man and society, with war and peace being the two pulsating states of reality. And he’s giving it to us at the micro and the macro levels, concurrently, which is a pretty boss move. Knowing how the history plays out I have a good sense of where we are headed, but I’m so invested in these characters that I am eager to see the parts they play, and where that history takes them. And when you’re sitting in the middle of a 1,100 page novel, that’s a pretty good place to be.

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