August 29, 2005


Birth, death, balls and battles: It has no clear beginning, middle or end, but the first translation of War and Peace for 50 years reaffirms its greatness. Tolstoy brilliantly interweaves the historical and the personal (Orlando Figes, 8/27/05, Times of London)

While clearly still a novel, War and Peace can be understood, at another level, as a novelist’s attempt to engage with the truth of history. Tolstoy’s interest in history developed long before his career as a novelist. But history-writing disappointed him. It seemed to reduce the richness of real life. For whereas the “real” history of lived experience was made up of an infinite number of factors and contingencies, historians selected just a few (eg, the political or the economic) to develop their historical theories and explanations. Tolstoy concluded that the histories of his day represented “perhaps only 0.001 per cent of the elements which actually constitute the real history of peoples”. He was particularly frustrated by the failure of historians to illuminate the “inner” life of a society — the private thoughts and relationships that make up the most real and immediate experience of human beings. Hence he turned to literature.

During the 1850s Tolstoy was obsessed with the idea of writing a historical novel which would contrast the real texture of historical experience, as lived by individuals and communities, with the distorted image of the past presented by historians. This is what he set out to achieve in War and Peace.

Through the novel’s central characters Tolstoy juxtaposes the immediate human experience of historical events with the historical memory of them. For example, when Pierre Bezukhov wanders as a spectator on to the battlefield of Borodino he expects to find the sort of neatly arranged battle scene that he has seen in paintings and read about in history books. Instead, he finds himself in the chaos of an actual battlefield:

“All that Pierre saw to right and left of him was so negative that no part of the scene before his eyes answered his expectations. Nowhere was there a field of battle such as his imagination had pictured: there were only fields, clearings, troops, woods, the smoke of camp-fires, villages, mounds and streams; and try as he would he could descry no military ‘position’ in this landscape teeming with life. He could not even distinguish our troops from the enemy’s.”

Having served as an officer in the Crimean War (1854-56), Tolstoy drew from his own experience to recreate the human truth of this celebrated battle, and to examine how its public memory could become distorted by the medium of written history. As Tolstoy shows, in the confusion of the battle nobody can understand or control what occurs. In such a situation, chance events, individual acts of bravery, or calm thinking by the officers can influence the morale of the troops en masse and thus change the course of the battle; and this in turn creates the illusion that what is happening is somehow the result of human agency. So when the military dispatches are later written up, they invariably ascribe the outcome of the battle to the commanders, although in reality they had less influence than the random actions of rank and file.

As a novelist, Tolstoy was interested most of all in the inner life of Russian society during the Napoleonic wars. In War and Peace he presents this period of history as a crucial watershed in the culture of the Russian aristocracy. The war of 1812 is portrayed as a national liberation from the cultural domination of the French — a moment when Russian noblemen such as the Rostovs and Bolkonskys struggled to break free from the foreign conventions of their society and began new lives on Russian principles. Tolstoy plots this transformation in a series of motifs. The novel opens, for example, in the French language of the St Petersburg salon — a language which Tolstoy gradually reveals to be false and artificial. Tolstoy shows the aristocracy renouncing haute cuisine for lunches of rye bread and cabbage soup, adopting national dress, settling as farmers on the land, and rediscovering native culture, as in the immortal scene when Natasha, a French-educated young countess, dances to a folk song in the Russian style.

On this reading, War and Peace appears as a national epic — the revelation of a “Russian consciousness” in the inner life of its characters. In narrating this drama, however, Tolstoy steps out of historical time and enters the time-space of cultural myth. He allows himself considerable artistic licence. For example, the aristocracy’s return to native forms of dress and recreations actually took place over several decades in the early 19th century, whereas Tolstoy has it happen almost overnight in 1812. But the literary creation of this mythical time-space was central to the role that War and Peace was set to play in the formation of the national consciousness.

When the novel first appeared, in 1865-66, educated Russia was engaged in a profound cultural and political quest to define the country’s national identity. The emancipation of the serfs, in 1861, had forced society to confront the humble peasant as a fellow citizen, and to seek new answers to the old accursed questions about Russia’s destiny in what one poet (Nekrasov) called the “rural depths where eternal silence reigns”. The liberal reforms of Tsar Alexander II (1855-81), which included the introduction of jury trials and elected institutions of local government, gave rise to hopes that Russia, as a nation, would emerge and join the family of modern European states. Writing from this perspective, Tolstoy saw a parallel between the Russia of the 1860s and the Russia that had arisen in the wars against Napoleon.

War and Peace was originally conceived as a novel about the Decembrists, a group of liberal army officers who rose up in a failed attempt to impose a constitution on the Tsar in December 1825. In this original version of the novel the Decembrist hero returns after 30 years of exile in Siberia to the intellectual ferment of the early years of Alexander II’s reign. But the more Tolstoy researched into the Decembrists, the more he realised that their intellectual roots were to be found in the war of 1812. This was when these officers had first become acquainted with the patriotic virtues of the peasant soldiers in their ranks; when they had come to realise the potential of Russia’s democratic nationhood. Through this literary genesis War and Peace acquired several overlapping spheres of historical consciousness: the real-time of 1805-20 (the fictional setting of the novel); the living memory of this period (from which Tolstoy drew in the form of personal memoirs and historical accounts); and its reflection in the political consciousness of 1855-65. Thus the novel can and should be read, not just as an intimate portrait of Russian society in the age of the Napoleonic wars, but as a broader statement about Russia, its people and its history as a whole. That is why the Russians will always turn to War and Peace, as Mikhail Prishvin did, to find in it the keys to their identity.

Before you plunge in it's helpful to have read Isaiah Berlin's The Hedgehog and the Fox: An Essay on Tolstoy's View of History.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 29, 2005 12:00 AM

May favorite part is the throwaway line where someone says the Germans always have been military incompetents and always will be, because Germany is the battlefield everyone fights their wars.

Posted by: Chris Durnell at August 29, 2005 11:37 AM