Alison's Reviews > War and Peace

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
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Mar 29, 09

Read in March, 2009

What kept this book from being 5 stars for me were the essays, especially the last long one, on history and greatness and war and destiny. I'm with Tolstoy on his denunciation of greatness, grandeur, heroism, and any kind of personal attainment, in war; I'm interested in how he relegates battle wins and losses, the movements of people across continents, and policy decisions to chance, depriving them of the grandeur otherwise imposed by hindsight. That's all good stuff. However, I'm totally unsympathetic to his efforts to discover fate, purpose, and God in whatever he *doesn't* consign to chance: many things just happen, but the rest of them--or maybe all of them, because he waffles on this point--are fated by God's inscrutable but nonetheless binding purposes. More often than not, the things that are favorable to Russia represent destiny, and the things that aren't, like, say, Napoleon's invasion, occur by chance. Sometimes he uses the word "history" to mean the work by which historians describe the past; sometimes he uses "history" to mean the past itself, or, egregiously, the agreement by all religions and philosophies, all that have ever existed (!), that a divine purpose exists. His arguments resort to sophistry and the kind of intellectual arrogance of which he accuses "all modern historians"; the inconsistencies in his arguments are apparent even paragraph by paragraph. Which is disappointing, because his anti-war stuff--and, for that matter, the book in general--are otherwise so compelling. But if I want to hear that kind of religious crap, I'll go visit the in-laws.

Apart from that, though, it's an amazing book. Of course.

With that said, it's interesting how Tolstoy's ideas on history and influence and the deeds (or lack thereof) of individuals play out against the narrative, because, in that narrative, individuals do matter--individuals are the matter of War and Peace, even, and especially, in war. Perhaps they do not matter historically; perhaps the narrative is meant strictly as a non-history, as fiction in some kind of absolute sense, and the inclusion of real people who lived and died in the lives of the invented characters is a comment on the making of fictions and histories. It's wonderful that the scene where pre-adolescent Natasha acts up at her parents' dinner party, demanding her dessert (pineapple ice cream!!!) before it's time, is more "real" (whatever that means), than the Tsar is, and that, despite all his noise about the insignificance of battles, the battle scenes are so terribly exciting. Perhaps it's all a brilliant commentary on how a fictional character can be made to appear as though it were not only in and of the world, but also containing a whole world in itself--that fiction creates truth in a way that history can't (I won't put "truth" in quotes in the previous clause, because Tolstoy was a big fan of truth). But, because of the obvious inconsistencies in the destiny/God stuff that Tolstoy wrote, I'm not wholly convinced that I can ascribe any of these intentions to him, that he didn't just write the narrative in his gorgeous way *in spite of* himself--or rather, with an entirely different, exclusive, and perhaps even unthinking engagement with his philosophical ideals. I don't know.

So, am I accusing him of being out of control of his material? Kind of, kind of not. That kind of accusation makes me feel kind of uneasy, first, because the guy was a master of the novel form, and secondly, because I hate any kind of implication that the material of a novel can exist somehow outside the author's intention or ability. But I am definitely suggesting that he expressed much more complex, interesting, and even (or therefore) ethically engaging material in the form of narrative, than he expressed in the essay sections. Nikolai Rostov's idiocy on the battlefield tells us more about what is wrong with war than the essays do--especially those essays that would tell us that we can learn nothing about war from the history of an individual on the battlefield.
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