War and Peace
War and Peace (Novel)
Genre: fiction, history
Author: Leo Tolstoy
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War and Peace (pre-reform Russian: Война и миръ; post-reform Russian: Война и мир, romanized: Vojna i mir [vɐjˈna i ˈmʲir]) is a novel by the Russian author Leo Tolstoy, published serially, then in its entirety in 1869. It is regarded as one of Tolstoy’s finest literary achievements and remains a classic of world literature.
The novel chronicles the French invasion of Russia and the impact of the Napoleonic era on Tsarist society through the stories of five Russian aristocratic families. Portions of an earlier version, titled The Year 1805, were serialized in The Russian Messenger from 1865 to 1867, then published in its entirety in 1869.
Tolstoy said War and Peace is “not a novel, even less is it a poem, and still less a historical chronicle.” Large sections, especially the later chapters, are philosophical discussion rather than narrative. Tolstoy also said that the best Russian literature does not conform to standards and hence hesitated to call War and Peace a novel. Instead, he regarded Anna Karenina as his first true novel.
Free Reading Highlights:
In 1951, after reading War and Peace for the twelfth time, the Russian writer Mikhail Prishvin (1873–1954) noted in his diary that he felt, at last, that he understood his life. Like all great works of art, Tolstoy’s masterpiece has the capacity, on each successive reading, to transform our understanding of the world.
On any first reading, War and Peace is bound to dazzle with its immense panorama of humanity. The whole of life appears to be contained in its pages. Tolstoy presents us with a cast of several hundred characters. Yet to each one he brings such profound understanding of the human condition, with all its frailties and contradictions, that we recognize and love these characters as reflections of our own identity.
Tolstoy has an extraordinary clarity of expression – a quality which Anthony Briggs has happily maintained in this superb translation. Tolstoy might write longer novels than anybody else, but no other writer can recreate emotion and experience with such precision and economy.
There are scenes in War and Peace – the unforgettable depiction of the Battle of Austerlitz, for example, or the ball where Natasha Rostov meets Prince Andrey – in which Tolstoy manages in a few words to sketch the mental images which allow us to picture ourselves at the scene and seemingly to feel the emotions of the protagonists. There are passages, like the death-scene of Prince Andrey, in which Tolstoy may give to his readers the extraordinary sensation that they too have felt the experience of death; and moments, like the wonderful description of the hunt, when Tolstoy lets them imagine what it is like to be a dog.
Tolstoy once said famously that War and Peace was not meant to be a novel at all. Like all great works of art, it certainly defies all conventions. Set against the historical events of the Napoleonic Wars, its complex narrative development is a long way from the tidy plot structure of the European novel in its nineteenth-century form. Tolstoy’s novel does not even have a clear beginning, middle and end, though it does, in one sense, turn on a moment of epiphany, the year of 1812, when Russia’s liberation from Napoleon is made to coincide with the personal liberation of the novel’s central characters.
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 (for example, the political or the economic) to develop their 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’. 1 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: $ Everything Pierre saw on either hand looked so indistinct that, glancing left or right over the landscape, he could find nothing that quite lived up to his expectations. Nowhere was there a field of battle as such, the kind of thing he had expected; there was nothing but ordinary fields, clearings, troops, woods, smoking camp-fires, villages, mounds and little streams. Here was a living landscape, and try as he might he could not make out any military positioning. He could not even tell our troops from theirs. (Vol. III, Book II, ch. 21)
Having served as an officer in the Crimean War (1854–6), 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 the rank and file. By using these dispatches, historians are able to impose a rational pattern and ‘historical meaning’ on the battle, although neither was apparent at the time of fighting.
As a novelist, Tolstoy was interested most of all in the inner life of Russian society during the Napeolonic 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 like 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.
In Tolstoy’s text the novel opens, for example, in the French language of the Petersburg salon – a language that Tolstoy gradually reveals to be false and artificial (the novel’s most idealized characters, such as Princess Marya and the peasant Karatayev, speak exclusively in Russian, or, like Natasha, speak French only with mistakes). Tolstoy shows the aristocracy renouncing haute cuisine for Spartan lunches of rye bread and cabbage soup, adopting national dress, settling as farmers on the land and rediscovering their country’s 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 nineteenth century, whereas Tolstoy has it happen almost overnight in 1812. But the literary creation of this mythical time-space was central to the role which War and Peace was set to play in the formation of the national consciousness.
When the first part of the novel appeared, in 1865-6, 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 (Nikolay Nekrasov) called the ‘rural depths where eternal silence reigns’.2 The liberal reforms of Tsar Alexander II (Emperor of Russia 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 and drafted 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 thirty 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 realized 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 realize 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.
English readers will learn more about the Russians by reading War and Peace than they will by reading perhaps any other book. But they will also find in it the inspiration to make them think about the world and their own place in it. For War and Peace is a universal work and, like all the great artistic prose works of the Russian tradition, it functions as a huge poetic structure for the contemplation of the fundamental questions of our existence.
Above all, War and Peace will move readers by virtue of its beauty as a work of art. It is a triumphant affirmation of human life in all its richness and complexity. That is why one can return to it and always find new meanings and new truths in it.