Monday, August 15, 2011

Would you believe, WAR AND PEACE ?

The question I was always asked when I said that I was reading WAR AND PEACE was, "Why?"  And I think that's a most excellent question:  why, indeed?

Well, it's a book one is "supposed" to read; yet I never had.  (We students would like to say, "We read in it, but we did not read it…”);

I loved the film, THE LAST STATION, about the sort-of cult that based itself on Tolstoy's writing, and wanted to read one of the books that prompted this;

I wanted to better understand why the Communists never banned the writings of “Count” Tolstoy; and

I read in Hemingway's A MOVABLE FEAST that he'd considered it a great book; and as its style is so different from Hemingway's own, I wanted to see if I could figure out why. 

So now, 3973 pages later, I'm going to try to answer these questions!

Let me begin by saying that I don’t think of WAR AND PEACE as a novel at all; and in that, I'm in good company, for Tolstoy himself didn’t think it was a novel and claimed that ANNA KARENINA was his first.

In fact, the romantic stories of Natasha and Andrei and Pierre and Helene seem mere adornments to the book, an excuse to describe battles and to pontificate on philosophy:  they are not "real" people, but mere personifications of Tolstoy’s philosophies.  And he does not care about them, hastily discarding them once he has laboriously made his point.

From the very beginning of the book, you know that to whomever else Natasha and Pierre may be engaged or married, they will wind up together:  and they do. 

Pierre is in an unhappy marriage with the beautiful and much-admired, flirtatious Helene, and it is this unhappiness that leads him to wander about, ostensibly to learn the meaning of life. 

To that end, he joins various religious groups; tries social experiments on his serfs; engages in war; and “enjoys” heroism and poverty.  And just as he finishes his "journey" by deciding that the purpose of life is to live it (!) he finds out that Helene has died.  Suddenly.  Without reason.  In one passing sentence. 

This is not a novel...

If anything, it is a political and philosophical tract - and a needlessly long one at that!

On the political side, it stands firmly against war and authority of any kind: neither kings nor generals nor organized religion have his respect.  The best that he can say of them is that they are the products of circumstance; and often enough, he treats them with contempt. 

To illustrate these points, he spends many hundreds of pages describing in detail the battles fought between the Russians and the armies of Napoleon.  The difference between victory and defeat is invariably attributed to the “chance” emotions and determination of the fighting forces:  those foot soldiers on both sides who serve mainly as cannon fodder.

People like Napoleon and Emperor Alexander are described as vain and often stupid; and that the “brilliance” attributed to them had been written with hindsight and remains dependent on which historian is doing the describing...

A church of any kind is no better, as it also tries to exert authority over “the people,” while Tolstoy makes clear that the people need to be free, and should listen only to God. (Although God is also an “authority," Tolstoy nevertheless seems to see no contradiction here.)

This, of course, is the philosophical side of the book. Told in more hundreds of pages, Tolstoy espouses his belief that “the people” should live lives free from all those in authority; and that in any case, it is they – and not the Napoleons of the world – who cause the flow of events which we refer to as “history.”

Here – as throughout the book – Tolstoy explains, explains, explains as though he’s giving a geometry lesson:  if this happens, then that must happen; if this is the cause, then what came before was the cause of the cause.  And he does this over and over again — until he finally decides that we can’t really explain anything that happens because we are unable to go back far enough in our study of causes!  Surely, he might have done better than that...!

Now to the questions with which I began:

Of course the Communists liked Count Tolstoy:  he was for ‘people-power’ – and the fact that they became the “Rulers” Tolstoy despised was easily ignored by them.  Worse still, the cult of “equality” and self-abnegation which centered around Tolstoy ultimately played into the hands of Communist leaders.

As for Hemingway: Tolstoy here displays one of Hemingway’s favorite motifs, that of “grace under pressure.” 

Andrei, for example, was a selfish man, ever bored and filled with discontent; then, by experiencing emotional and physical pain and by facing death, he is transformed into a loving, kind and soulful man. 

Pierre, too, is transformed by the difficulties he experienced and becomes more self-assured.  He is even physically transformed: from a fat, hard-drinking oaf, to a charming and thin man who looks like…well, like Henry Fonda in the film, WAR AND PEACE!

But the writing!  Again and again, Tolstoy shows us how people - hundreds of people! - think and act; and then he explains it to us!  There is no nuance – and no expectation that we might be able to interpret a person’s emotions, a leader’s behavior, the tragedy of a burned and looted city – on our own.  Everything is explained in minute detail, as if to a child.  

Compare Tolstoy to Dickens.  Dickens shows us the lives of individuals – even if some are drawn as caricatures – and we are allowed to draw our own conclusions about them, and about the reforms necessary to improve life in the England of his day.

Or compare him to Shakespeare.... 

Tolstoy hated Shakespeare, and had this to say of him:
“I remember the astonishment I felt when I first read Shakespeare.  I expected to receive a powerful aesthetic pleasure, but having read, one after the other, works regarded as his best:  KING LEAR, ROMEO AND JULIET, HAMLET and MACBETH, not only did I feel no delight, but I felt an irresistible repulsion and tedium…[and am] of firm, indubitable conviction that the unquestionable glory of a great genius which Shakespeare enjoys, and which compels writers of our time to imitate him and readers and spectators to discover in him non-existent merits…is a great evil, as is every untruth.”
For me, when I substitute the name “Tolstoy” wherever the name “Shakespeare” was used or implied, I find that it describes exactly how I feel about Tolstoy and his writing…!

So:  Tolstoy said it for me perfectly....

15 comments:

Freckles said...

I knew a man once, who used this book as a way to assert intellectual dominance over his family. He would interrupt conversations he could not contribute to, with the question: "Yes, but have you read 'War & Peace?'" Well, yes we have. Called your bluff. Hated it. Now what?

Great post!

Farshaw's said...

You're quick...!

judith.pollock@languageatwork.com said...

Helen, I love this. Especially since I (re)read War and Peace last year and heard the same chorus of “Why?!”- some of which from myself…..now I understand why I found it so hard to slog thru it. This is going to be fun!

Farshaw's said...

There are so many "whys" in my head...!

Bonnie S. said...

Helen, I love your blog!  It provides answers to many literary questions.  I am enjoying this latest one on Tolstoy so much.  I just started to read it and realized that more time needs to be set aside to truly absorb your views.  I hope many read and benefit from your writings!

Adam S. said...

Phew, this was so helpful. I feel like I can now devote myself to reading 3973 pages about something else :P But I do love reading about your thoughts and you write so well! Post another one, and another!

Fern said...

I really enjoyed your blog and I wanted to thank you. Now I can take War and Peace off my bucket list! Give me Romeo and Juliet or even Rhett and Scarlett.

Ester said...

I've always known that You are a gifted writer. tt is a pleasure to read your blog, so keep on writing and sharing with me.

Jo said...

Ooooh!! WAR and PEACE....and there was I for years thinking it was a book about Warren Pease...now I won't need to watch the movie as I guess he won't be in it! :-)

George said...

Helen you are truly amazing and your blog is terrific. However, since I don't read books I didn't join...

P. J. Grath said...

A small group of us got together a couple of years ago to read ULYSSES and have stayed together through several other works so far, one of them being ANNA KARENINA. The sister of one of the members saved us from WAR AND PEACE (I'm sure the edition I read when young was abridged) by assuring us that ANNA KARENINA was much the better novel. We had a wonderful time with it. But you probably need a break from Tolstoy before you'll be motivated to read more of him! Thanks, Helen, for sending me the link to your blog!

Farshaw's Fine Old Books said...

You're the second person to suggest ANNA KARENINA and I guess I owe it to Tolstoy to check it out -- but not just yet!

Thanks for reading and posting.

Mary Jo said...

Great blog, Helen! Now that you've thrashed War and Peace, tackle The Little Prince, another vastly over-rated novel, in my opinion. I read W&P in my 20s--unabridged--and was grateful for the small booklet that accompanied my volume to help me keep track. I never had the slightest desire to re-read it, but I loved Anna Karenina have read it a few times. But The Little Prince--I do not get that book.

P. J. Grath said...

Mary Jo, you can't mean THE LITTLE PRINCE by Antoine de St.-Exupery. Can you? Do you? I avoided it through four years of high school French, certain that it couldn't live up to its hype, but when I finally read it as adult it instantly became one of my favorite books. More allegory than novel, perhaps. Helen???

P. J. Grath said...

Okay, I am coming back at Helen's suggestion, and I must admit that I NEVER READ THE UNABRIDGED VERSION of WAR AND PEACE and am sure I would be bored stiff by the accounts of battles, as indeed I was even in the abridged version. Yes, he pontificates. Still, the main characters were real to me. I couldn't help believing in them. ???