Leo Tolstoy – War and Peace
This expansive book can move at a glacial pace, though, also like a glacier its motion never stops. His pastoral vignettes are as vivid as a painting. His descriptions of what is going on in each character’s head are masterpieces of empathy, psychology, and self-awareness—or not, depending on the character. There are also multiple contrasts. Not just between the battle scenes and the domestic scenes, but also between Russia and the West, as shown by the contrast between the Moscow and St. Petersburg social scenes. Evolution is another key theme. He characters age, mature, and change over the course of the book. Even their language changes, with Russian increasingly displacing French as the language of choice for the more “authentic” Russian characters. The amoral or otherwise mostly unsympathetic characters such as Helene and her brother Anatole emphasize their Europeanness by lapsing further into French speech even as Napoleon’s army marches further into Russia.
Tolstoy also uses the novel to advance his pastoral, peaceful, agrarian philosophy, contrasting the happy scenes in those settings with the horrors of war and the cynicism of city and court life. He also advances a “great forces” theory of history, against which individuals are nearly powerless. This theory does not hold up well against actual history, but Tolstoy sure makes it poetic.
Pierre, the protagonist, is an especially interesting character. Tolstoy modeled him somewhat after himself. In the beginning, Pierre is a brash youth, not quite comfortable with his large physical size and awkward both physically and socially. He feels the need to interject his opinions into every conversation, as many young people do. After a few years of life experience, and entering into a marriage with Helene that he realizes ahead of time is a mistake, Pierre has a spiritual awakening and pursues Freemasonry with the same youthful zeal as he pursued his previous opinions. But with a little more age and maturity, he becomes calmer and less intense about it. At the same time, he becomes physically more comfortable in his own skin and his own social manner, though his large size still makes him stand out in a crowd. By nature he is more an observer than a participant, but eventually gets dragged into a battle despite not being a soldier, and is taken prisoner and goes on a forced march. He emerges
Tolstoy also astutely portrayed the effect that nearness to celebrities and power can have on people. Especially early in the book, in the battle of Austerlitz, one of the characters is absolutely mesmerized by the czar’s mere presence, to the point of near-religious rapture, completely losing himself in a wash of emotion and love towards a person he has never met, and does not know who he is. The young man is otherwise a sane and decent person, but he comes off every bit as poorly as Tolstoy intended in this scene. As the characters age and get worn down by life and war, their power-worship becomes less pronounced. But it also never completely goes away.
These scenes of celebrity rapture reminded me, of all things, of the scene in Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius where Eggers and his younger brother Topher briefly meet Bill Clinton at some event shortly after they move to San Francisco. Eggers goes into a near-reverie both during the experience and recounting it. Clinton, like Alexander I, was neither particularly bad nor particularly good as far as presidents or tsars go. Neither left much of a footprint on history, and were generally unremarkable—often a good thing in their line of work, but that’s a topic for another time. Such men should not have such effects on otherwise intelligent people, and yet they do.