War and Peace

Magnet-like, War and Peace resists an audience. Brick-shaped with an inane title, those who lift its cover are further beaten back: “the most daunting of Russian novels,” warns the introduction – “as vast as Russia itself.” I chose it to launch Ten Tomes because it seemed uniquely unreadable; with Tolstoy as a trophy, the next nine would be a breeze.

TolstoyBut the book is more nuanced than its name suggests, and its plot is relatively contained. Defiantly chronological, it hones in on four families and two cities; for its word-count, its scope is oddly slight. Everything is personal – even vast things are presented from one character’s point of view. And if that character is Napoleon? All the more existential. Tolstoy pipes up only about history, asserting the impossibility of ascribing causality to events in the past. As a historian, I almost took notes; but, paradoxically, it was in these discursive passages that the book was most novelistic. When nothing was happening, I was caught up.

The characters in War and Peace can seem like types – the mischievous sister; the grumpy Dad – but there’s something true in this. In life as in nineteenth-century novels, people are stable expressions of themselves, far more predictable than characters in, say, contemporary cinema. My friends are like Tolstoy’s Muscovites: accreting, not dissolving; redeemed by their flaws.

Here’s my favourite paragraph, because it reminds me of myself:

Later Pierre often remembered that time of happy insanity. All the judgements of people and circumstances he formed for himself in that period of time remained for ever true for him. He not only did not subsequently renounce those views of people and things, but, on the contrary, in inner doubt and contradiction he would resort to the views he had had in that time of insanity, and those views always turned out to be correct.

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