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  • Brett Willis

War and Peace - Leo Tolstoy

I want to talk about the original WAP: War and Peace. A book that was literally almost named All’s Well that Ends Well (spoiler, it absolutely does not), War and Peace is, broadly, about Napoleon and his French Army’s failed attempt to conquer Russia in 1805. Writer Virginia Woolf described the book’s intensely Russian author, Leo Tolstoy, as “the greatest of all novelists.” The book itself has been called, by someone I can’t for the life of me find (though I know I read it somewhere), “the encyclopedia of human emotion.” It has also been referred to by my two-year-old daughter as “horsey book.”

There is no actual way—let alone a simple way—to encapsulate War and Peace. It’s like asking someone to summarize New York City. My version of the novel, translated by Constance Garnett, runs a slim 1386 pages. It contains, as that above quote describes, about every single emotion, in detail, that a person can experience in a single lifetime. According to five-time Nobel Prize for Literature nominee Maxim Gorky, “Tolstoy contains the whole world.”

I don’t disagree.

So would I ever suggest anyone read this book for themselves? Probably not? But I will try to express why I loved it. Beyond hand waving and general platitudes about the grandeur and majesty of such a mighty tome, I do have one way that I can encapsulate the power of the book, for me. It comes from a pithy line, spoken by the long-suffering (as most women are in this novel) Princess Marya.

“When everything is understood, everything is forgiven.”

-Sad, sad, Princess Marya

What do I take that to mean? The more we know about our fellow people, the more we’re exposed to why they are the way they are, and the more we (in most cases) come to forgive them for their flaws.

Below, I’m going to deal out some spoilers. Yes, I’m letting you know that I’m going to be spoiling a book written in 1867. You have been warned.

Let’s look at Pierre Bezuhov. He’s one of probably 25 significant characters in the book—though if anyone is a protagonist in War and Peace, it’s him.

What if I told you that Pierre is a goofy, imposingly tall, semi-fat dude who enjoys a bit too much drink, gambles, and, at one point, ties a bear to a policeman and throws them both into the river? (Yes, this happens in the book.)

You’d think: kind of a jerk. But maybe he’d be fun at a party.

And then what if I told you Pierre is a bastard son. That he spent his childhood and teens nearly entirely neglected by his father, the venerable Count Bezuhov?

Oh no, poor Pierre. Maybe we forgive his acting out.

Then, what if I told you, to Moscow’s and your surprise, the venerable Count Bezuhov, on his deathbed, actually gifts Pierre one of the greatest fortunes in Russia? All right, our friend Pierre’s not doing as bad as we thought. Dude is rich as h*ck.

Let me finish up the exercise by telling you that Pierre is actually also trapped in a loveless marriage. Despite Pierre and his wife being of the same social station, despite his wife being a beautiful and highly regarded woman, Pierre feels as though he’s made a great mistake. And indeed he has, as his wife, soon after their nuptials, plans to marry two other men while she’s still married to Pierre, thus making a mockery of her rich and goofy husband.

What do you think of Pierre now? Hard to say, right?

I mean, it’s still hilariously irresponsible that he tied a cop to a bear. It’s still not great that he gambles and drinks too much (and he even recognizes that). I feel bad for him about his wife situation. But, then again, he’s fabulously wealthy. And what would you say about Pierre as a person if I told you that he later becomes religious, doesn’t stick to it, then goes on a Quixotic quest to assassinate Napoleon, only to end up having a nice dinner with a French officer instead? Harder and harder to say.

With each layer, more and more nuance builds up in Pierre the character—in Pierre the person—so that we literally can’t judge him anymore. We see that he’s fumbling along with the hand he’s been dealt. And sure, we can have opinions on individual actions he’s taken, but we can’t judge him as a “good” or “bad” guy. He is simply “guy.”

This is the case for nearly all characters in Wet ass Peace. They are confronted with the undiluted dram of life: navigating the social mores of a fancy party, losing a son, living in a loveless marriage, the highest pitch of happiness, facing mortal danger for the first time, falling in love without knowing it’s happening, even the process of accepting that you’ll soon die. And in every circumstance, they react not as we hope they would, but as people realistically do.

Because of that, as I learned something about each character, I also learned something about myself.

Another interesting dude is Anatole Kuragin, who is as close as we get to a true villain in this novel. Here’s Tolstoy describing how Anatole thinks of himself.

He was not a gambler, at least he never greatly cared about winning money at cards. He was not vain. He did not care about what people thought of him. Still less could he have been reproached with ambition. Several times he had, to his father’s irritation, spoiled his best chances of a career, and he laughed at distinctions of all kinds. He was not stingy and never refused any one who asked him for anything. What he loved was dissipation and women; and as, according to his ideas, there was nothing dishonorable in these tastes, and as he was incapable of considering the effect on others of the gratification of his tastes, he believed himself in his heart to be an irreproachable man, felt genuine contempt for scoundrels and mean persons, and with an untroubled conscience held his head high.

Bear in mind, this guy tries to steal, and besmirch, the fiancé of one of the book’s more noble characters, Prince Andrey. But here, we see that Anatole hardly views himself as a scoundrel. Much the opposite, he thinks of himself as fit to judge other people for their actions.

Napoleon, (or, Tolstoy’s fictional estimation of Napoleon) our novel’s larger threat, thinks of himself and his actions in a similar way.

“…it had long been Napoleon’s conviction that no possibility existed of his making mistakes. To his mind all he did was good, not because it was in harmony with any preconceived notion of good or bad, but simply because it was he who did it.”

I’m not asking you to sympathize with Napoleon or Anatole Kuragin. But I think they are two shining examples of how Tolstoy helps us understand how people can become who they are, and act like they do. Indeed, how it would be possible for any of us to become such a villain, or to be one already without even knowing it.

Another angle of this same idea—the more we understand, the more we forgive—is that people just can’t help being themselves. Tolstoy makes a hard case for our susceptibility to circumstance at the end of the book: basically speaking straight to the reader without the help of any characters to filter his authorial voice. He says.

“If we examine a man alone, apart from his relations to everything around him, every action of his seems free to us. But if we see any relation of his to anything surrounding, if we perceive any connection between him and anything else, a man speaking to him, a book read by him, the work he is employed in, even the air he breathes, or the light that falls on the objects around him, we perceive that every one of those circumstances has its influence on him, and controls at least one side of his activity. And the more we perceive of those influences, the smaller the idea we form of his freedom, and the greater our conception of the necessity to which he is subject.”

As an example, if we say that one man drowned another man, we’d think only of the perpetrator’s freedom to act. We’d think, “that guy sucks!” But if we understood that the perpetrator was also drowning, was simply flailing while trying to stay alive and in the process drowned the other person, then we’d have a different perception. He was acting under circumstances. The same with a woman stealing bread. With no other context, she’s not the best. But if we know she’s stealing bread because war has displaced her from her home and her children are hungry, then we understand.

The same goes for adding nuance to good deeds. If we hear that a person gave $2,000,000 to charity, we think, “wow, good thing!” But if we knew that that person had excess assets due to insider trading and only wanted a tax break, we’d think “I no like so much.”

The whole book reminds me of a Chinese proverb, called “Sai Weng Shi Ma” (“The Old Man Who Lost His Horse”). To paraphrase, it goes like this:

An old man’s horse ran away and the villagers said to him “what a shame!” And he said, “we’ll see.”

Well, the horse came back and brought with it a new female wild horse and the villagers said “what good luck!” And the old man said, “we’ll see.”

The old man’s son took a liking to the new horse and, while riding it, was bucked off and broke his leg, crippling him for life. The villagers said, “what a shame!” And the old man said “we’ll see.”

Then the emperor’s army came through to conscript all of the young men of the village for war, but, because of his injury, the old man’s son was left alone to farm with his father, and the villagers said “what good luck!” And the wise man said, “we’ll see.”

Good luck, bad decisions, good decisions, love, pain, joy, all of it is subject to time and circumstance. And War 2 Peace illustrates, in breathtakingly vivid detail, just how sweeping and complex life truly is.

That all being said: the book is not pure perfection. Because Tolstoy was a dude of his time, he is not the most charitable, nor understanding, with the thoughts of women. Sometimes, to my man’s eye, he seems to get the emotions of his female characters very right. Sometimes, very, very wrong. To get my drift, here’s a sample excerpt (and I’m lightly paraphrasing) “All women become more excited and lively when a man is in the room.”

It is also a story about nobility and nobles. Peasants are often referred to en masse, as if they work off of a peasant hive mind rather than as individual people. And I’m sure there was some truth of cultural connectivity among serfs working for a lord, but it’s taken pretty dang far in places. So, not knowing my Russian social hierarchies perfectly, I can’t truly assign fault to Tolstoy. But it certainly is the truth that he treated his less wealthy characters (except for one notable exception in the war prisoner peasant named Platon, who basically enlightens Pierre as to the little joys in life and then promptly dies) let’s say, with decidedly less subtlety than those with oodles of hot, stinkin’ rubles. I’m not going to say Tolstoy thought this way because he was born on a rolling estate called Yasnaya Polyana (Bright Glade) to a princess and a count. But then again, maybe all that had an impact.

From my perspective, War and Peace’s length is necessary to prove its ultimate gist: that we are all subject to myriad factors outside of our control, and we can only do our best with what we have and who we are. Moreover, that we must also reserve our judgment for those that might not be acting in what we think of as the most honorable or noble of ways, because we have no idea what they have gone, or are currently going, through.

IN SHORT: War and Peace is brimming with raw and truthful depictions of some of the most intense experiences human life has to offer and is also very, very, very long.

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26 oct 2021

Thank you Brett, for this clear, thoughtful analysis of some of the threads in a book that I have not dared to tackle but whose mere presence by this renowned author has intrigued me. I don't know how you've managed to pry open such a long, dense work in such a short space! Kudos!

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