Jan-Maat's Reviews > War and Peace

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
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An oak tree that I passed on the way into a town reminded me of the scene in War and Peace in which Andrei Volkonsky passes an oak in late spring and sees himself as that tree - its branches bare even while other trees already are showing bright green leaves. He feels, after his experiences in the novel up to that point, old before his time and looking forward only towards the grave(view spoiler)(view spoiler). On his return journey he sees that the oak tree too has finally burst into life and Andrei realises that he has fallen in love with Natasha Rostova.

This is the way in which War and Peace works well. It is the saga of the journey of a few people, all closely connected if not always related, through life, looking for, or in particular moments feeling, its meaning. The problem comes with the nationalistic meaning that Tolstoy finds. Life at its truest and most vital, as embodied by Natasha Rostova's instinctive folk dancing to her uncle's balalaika playing, comes across as unity with a national spirit that can be known through feeling and not thought. As a result the intellectual approaches taken on the quest for the meaning of life taken by Pierre and Andrei can only lead to partial success in moments when they experience a moment of transcendence, as Andrei does on the battlefield, or by exposure to an authentic, genuine (as imagined by the nobleman Tolstoy) peasant who is by nature filled to the brim with folk wisdom uncontaminated by any alien nurture by foreign teachers as happens to Pierre (spoiler alert )after the French capture Moscow in the form of Platon (the Russian form of Plato)(view spoiler) Karateyev.

By implication, and this opinion continues over into Anna Karenina, woman, the entire female gender, at least the Russian ones, are superior to the men in so far as they are closer to the national spirit, but this is because they are not intellectual and don't have the intellectual faculties to interfere with their reception of the national will. This allows Tolstoy to assert both the centrality and importance of women at the same time as kicking them upstairs as it were and removing them from any political role. Their purpose is to feel and thus to be the centre of the family, and by extension, the nation.

Tolstoy's answer to what is the meaning of life is then tied up in his feelings about what it means to be Russian. This was emphasised by the use of French giving way to Russian in dialogue which was progressively dropped in subsequent editions of War and Peace in Tolstoy's lifetime (although in part this may have been due to the lack of copyright law and the Tolstoys trying to outmanoeuvre pirated editions by releasing genuine new editions with authorial changes and the slow development during the nineteenth century of a Russian reading population which was not French speaking). His idea of the nation is immutable while the people that together form the nation are changeable. This could be a contradiction but Tolstoy was above all a man of feeling. It is a solution that feels right, and Tolstoy's skill as a writer is in creating a wave of feeling that carries you over any awkwardness or mere inconsistencies in his views.

In the background of the family saga of War and Peace is the course of relations with France which leads to war and a marked shift by the elite of Russian society towards that universal core of Russian value and meaningfulness and the ascendency of those, like Kutuzov and unlike the German officers, who are closer to that core.

This universal core of value and meaning is best represented by the character of Natasha. Natasha's ability to achieve a oneness at an emotional and instinctual level with the core of 'true' Russian culture or the Russian nation is contrasted with alienation from their own nation of Russia's French speaking elite. Other non-peasant characters approach, or briefly pass through that core on their journey through the novel, peasants of course live entirely within it, but only Natasha at times inhabits it entirely.

True meaning for Tolstoy can only be felt and not thought and may not even be accessible at all for certain nations such as the French.

Tolstoy was writing at a period of the definition of modern Russian nationalism and like many of the other well known Russian novels of the middle of the nineteenth century has come to define both for Russians and non-Russians not just an ideal of Russianness but what it means to be Russian. It is striking then what is left out, you wouldn't guess from reading War and Peace that Russians were simply the most numerous but not a majority of the population of the Russian Empire at the time - non-Russians are largely invisible here. Equally revealing of Tolstoy's own attitudes (and he did write his own 'improved' versions of the Gospels) his picture of Russia epitomises a 'spiritual but not religious' attitude: we see the Enlightenment thinking of the previous generation, spiritual questing, Freemasonry but not much in the way of Orthodoxy.

Tolstoy drew extensively from the lives of his own family and his own experiences in creating this ambitious and nationalistic novel. It ranges from the first years of the 19th century to the war of 1812 and the period immediately after. The battle scenes, and his account of Borodino is a classic, and Austerlitz draw on Tolstoy's first hand experience of war at the siege of Sevestopol described in Sevastopol Sketches , indeed this is novel in reaction to the Crimean War, and not the war with Napoleon. Much of the set up is also taken from Tolstoy's own family history, for instance the Volkonskys in the novel are a fictionalised version of his own Bolkonsky relatives (B and V are neighbouring letters in the Russian alphabet so this wasn't a particularly subtle disguise!).

This is a long, densely populated, but very simple novel. The exterior course of political events is coupled with the interior course of the characters searching for the meaning and value in life, the parallels between characters give the impression that this isn't a group of individuals searching for their own personal meaning but that there is an objective universal meaning and value to be found that Natasha, or Platon Karataev (view spoiler), are in touch with instinctively. The question for meaning and a structure of values arising from that was a constant feature of Tolstoy's life from his fictionalised account based loosely on his own younger years in Childhood Boyhood Youth to his eventual rejection of the bicycle under the influence of a spiritual mentor (rather like the steam train this insidious non-Russian technology encouraged the movement of people out of their traditional communities and was thus a very bad thing (view spoiler)

Tolstoy attempts to both show individual volition and that events are shaped in such a way that one person's decision cannot change the course of events. It could be that he wanted to imply that the nature and extent of the choices we can take are shaped by events and factors beyond our control (and often our understanding) but I suspect he is having his cake and eating it: if he can't reconcile in his own mind free will and determinism he'll just have both instead. And since it is his novel I suppose that's his prerogative.

The lasting impression is though of a simple family saga. Very long and very strong with striking set pieces. It has I feel a kind of a cache, and pure physical bulk (view spoiler) in western Europe which I fear may put readers off, which is a pity because it is quite a self contained book, it is quite careful to tell you what to think of the historical characters and events introduced, and also an enveloping warm bath of a book that has a strong theme of diverse characters searching for meaning and contentment in their lives.

I read this in the translation by the Maudes republished by Everyman in a three volume edition. I have no opinion on the qualities of the translation (view spoiler) but I do recommend strongly not trying to read this in a single volume edition unless you have a handy lectern or a desire to build up the muscles in your lower arms and hands.
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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
June 15, 2011 – Shelved

Comments Showing 1-18 of 18 (18 new)

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message 1: by janet (last edited Aug 06, 2014 11:59AM) (new)

janet This is an excellent critique of Tolstoy. The same issues exist, as you say, in Anna Karenina. However, your review has succeeded in enticing me to read War and Peace .


message 2: by Jan-Maat (new) - added it

Jan-Maat janet wrote: "This is an excellent critique of Tolstoy. The same issues exist, as you say, in Anna Karenina. However, your review has succeeded in enticing me to read War and Peace ."

It is a great book, although I am critical of Tolstoy and his attitudes. All of which reminds me that I haven't finished rewriting this review!


message 3: by Zanna (new)

Zanna What you say about a wave of feeling carrying you over the stony bits is definitely what I felt about Anna Karenina. I don't think I'll read this though. I'm amused that Tolstoy was against bicycles!


message 4: by Jan-Maat (new) - added it

Jan-Maat Zanna wrote: "What you say about a wave of feeling carrying you over the stony bits is definitely what I felt about Anna Karenina. I don't think I'll read this though. I'm amused that Tolstoy was against bicycles!"

initially he liked them and learnt to ride one in old age, but then the error in his thinking was pointed out to him by his religious advisor and turned against them. Its a great book in lots of ways, as writing it is compelling.


message 5: by Zanna (new)

Zanna Oh no doubt, I'm sure it wouldn't be so enduring popular if it weren't great. But life is short and other books beckon, and Tolstoy won't miss me... I should have said, I enjoyed your detailed discussion of the bicycle issue. I come from a small town, not a village, and when I briefly had a job there after finishing my post grad (it was a minimum wage job) I was able to cycle to work, and cycling made me feel so empowered, I could go anywhere on my own steam, I was unprecedentedly free. I see how one could see a threat to the trinity of meaning in 'mir' in that.


message 6: by Jan-Maat (new) - added it

Jan-Maat Zanna wrote: "cycling made me feel so empowered, I could go anywhere on my own steam, I was unprecedentedly free. I see how one could see a threat to the trinity of meaning in 'mir' in that. "

Precisely, you wicked creature! Escaping the bounds of your native culture in such a wanton wheeled manner!

Travel broadens the mind and all that :)


message 8: by Jan-Maat (new) - added it

Jan-Maat Zanna wrote: "books can be bicycles"

quite so, and that is why all books should be banned and no one should be able to read! ;)


message 9: by Zanna (new)

Zanna ; )


message 10: by ·Karen· (new)

·Karen· Your reviews are so seductive. First you draw me in with the personal anecdote of the oak tree you pass on your way to town, then you give me an education. Love it.


message 11: by Jan-Maat (new) - added it

Jan-Maat Thanks Karen! **blushes**


message 12: by Sanjay (new)

Sanjay Varma Great review. I am finishing the book now and, while I like your description of the way Natasha can experience this communion with true feelings directly compared to Pierre and Andrei, I didn't take that to mean that this state of being is the goal, or the best experience. I think that Pierre's and Andrei's total experiences, including the intellectualizing, detachment, and career progression, are being offered as equally representing the Russian, and human, potential and tendencies.


message 13: by Jan-Maat (new) - added it

Jan-Maat Sanjay wrote: "I think that Pierre's and Andrei's total experiences, including the intellectualizing, detachment, and career progression, are being offered as equally representing the Russian, and human, potential and tendencies. "

Thank you, I agree and disagree. Probably because I don't believe that Tolstoy cared for intellectualising, career progression or detachment. Tolstoy is the nobleman who dressed like a peasant but refused to sleep among them because of their smell, unless they were young peasant women in which 'sleep' is a euphemism for to know in the biblical sense, which he did for as long as he had the appetite to do so!

I would agree that Prince Andrei and Pierre are true to their own nature and are in that sense the best Andrei and Pierre that they can be, but my take is that they lack an automatic and instinctual 'Russianness' and so in Tolstoy's world can never be more than 2nd best.


message 14: by Cynda (new)

Cynda I'm currently reading this tome of a novel. Loving Tolstoy's understanding of history. The small things matter.


message 15: by Jan-Maat (new) - added it

Jan-Maat Cynda wrote: "I'm currently reading this tome of a novel. Loving Tolstoy's understanding of history. The small things matter."

hope you're enjoying it, it is a tome but not so bad once you're deep enough in


message 16: by Jan-Maat (new) - added it

Jan-Maat Scarlett wrote: "Reading this before setting off on my pilgrimage last July, I think it indeed helped me a bit to build up my spiritual muscles. :) Just as with your analysis of The Karamazov Brothers, I admire you..."

don't put authors on pedestals, they are people like you and me - even the famous ones with big beards ;)

Equally just because Tolstoy wanted to be a prophet doesn't mean that it is a good idea to accept him as your personal Lord and Saviour - if Prince Andrei speaks to you, then listen to him and not Tolstoy, I think from what you say that you are between Neurosurgery and the Prague Conservatory then it is understandable that the Enlightenment spirit of Prince Andrei is closer than the others to you!

There's long been a thread of criticism that says that Tolstoy's novels have no structure, and there's something to that


message 17: by Jan-Maat (new) - added it

Jan-Maat Scarlett wrote: "Jan-Maat wrote: "Scarlett wrote: "Reading this before setting off on my pilgrimage last July, I think it indeed helped me a bit to build up my spiritual muscles. :) Just as with your analysis of Th..."

Can one ever have enough friendly bacteria? So long as the messy aspirations don't affect your surgical practice or your musical expression that's fine. Kreuzer Sonata is interesting stylistically and thematically, you can see that Tolstoy made a radical change of artistic direction after AK.


message 18: by Jan-Maat (new) - added it

Jan-Maat LostKnight wrote: "Great review."

thank you


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