“If the world could write by itself, it would write like Tolstoy” (Isaak Babel, 20th century Russian author)
War and Peace runs to 1721 pages on my kindle, taking in 7 of the most dramatic years in European history (1805-1812). The narrative is as broad as life itself, moving from dazzling Petersburg ballrooms, to Moscow stately homes, to country estates, to the battlefields of Austria, Germany and ultimately, Russia. The characters, of whom there are over 500, ranging from Napoleon and Tsar Alexander, to Dron the peasant and Karataev the soldier, each have a significant role to play, and Tolstoy masterfully explores the thoughts, fears and motivations of them all, from the Emperor who conquered Europe to a dying peasant prisoner of war. And it could be argued that the peasant Karataev plays the greater role – revealing to the troubled hero Pierre a happiness he’s been searching for throughout the novel. There is no emotion which isn’t felt by someone. Characters experience the most profound joy and the most devastating grief, there is love, lust, anger, hate, malice, innocence, kindness and cruelty. The narrative travels through all the seasons, all weathers, there is construction and destruction, defeat and victory, new life and death. It’s a story about life, and fittingly, as its central theme it has life’s biggest questions.
Pierre’s search for happiness is a fascinating exploration of the meaning of life. Pierre, who I can understand only too well, struggles greatly to decide what to do with his life. The son of an immensely wealthy count, the world really is his oyster. He could take up any career he likes. He just has to choose. And that is his problem. Faced with almost unlimited possibilities, he finds that wherever he turns happiness proves elusive. He inherits an enormous fortune, and the responsibility depresses him, he marries a woman reknowned in society for her beauty and intelligence, but he cannot bear her, he turns to Masonism, hoping to find meaning in religion, but is disappointed. He frees his peasants, but philanthropy too doesn’t really satisfy him. His insatiable curiosity leads him to the front line at the pivotal Battle of Borodino, while his burning desire to do something meaningful prompts him to seek to assassinate Napoleon. His life story reads a bit like the book of Ecclesiastes – he tries everything, and everything turns out to be meaningless. In a brilliant paradox, he only finds inner peace, freedom from his own tormenting thoughts, when he becomes a prisoner. It is then that he meets the peasant Karataev, who, in every situation simply accepts what fate has given him and seeks to make the best of it. The peace Pierre saw in this possession-less, friend-less, family-less man made a lasting impression on him, and he was never the same again.
Pierre is not the only character struggling to find contentment. His friend, Prince Andrew, has the same goal, but he seeks it in a very different way. After finding that the one great aim of his life – to do something truly heroic and receive the praise of men, was utterly meaningless, he has an epiphany. Looking at the sky he realizes that there is another plane of existence, almost unattainable but to which we must strive. Its very un-attainability makes the prince despair of and retreat from life itself, only to find that true life, in the form of love, wouldn’t leave him be. A lifelong skeptic, he finally finds meaning in Christ’s timeless command “love your enemies”, but alas, it is already too late.
You could say that all the characters are searching for meaning in one way or another; in service of the Tsar (Nicholas), in adventure (Petya), in romantic love (Natasha), in orthodox religion (Princess Mary), in self sacrifice (Sonya), in career (Boris), in achievement (Berg) and the list goes on and on. All experience highs and lows, some find happiness, others don’t, others slip away quietly and we never find out. But what all these characters have in common is that they come across as real people – three dimensional individuals each doing their best to make something of their life.
Tolstoy did not consider War and Peace a novel – he considered it a historical epic. It’s meant to be a history, and it is broken up by essays in which Tolstoy attacks the historians of the day. He disapproves of their exclusive focus on the great men, the Napoleons, Kuznetsovs and Alexanders, an approach which overlooks something much more profound and mysterious – the force which impels men to go from West to East and then to go from East to West, the force behind the whole of human history. For most of the book, Tolstoy deals with individuals, each seemingly acting according to their own free will and unique character. However, when Tolstoy takes a huge step back and considers the forces governing history, he seeks to show how dependent men are on that mysterious force, which Tolstoy considered divine. This paradox between fate and free will is never really resolved, but it doesn't need to be. War and Peace (which could be translated War and the World) is a novel about life, and life is full of paradoxes - love and hate, passion and reason, fate and free will, War and Peace...