Tolstoy’s “War and Peace”: Beyond Words

There are books you avoid because their heft intimidates you and there are books you avoid because you doubt they can possibly live up to their reputations.  Then there are books you avoid both because you fear them and because you can’t imagine a work of literature achieving the perfection so many attribute to it.  For me, ten years ago, Crime and Punishment was such a book.  Until about a month ago, Les Miserables was such a book.  And until today, War and Peace was such a book.  Now, I get it.

Tolstoy didn’t write a novel.  He created a world.  He outdid historians in his depiction of the Napoleonic wars and their effects on Russia and Russians.  He elucidated the aristocratic lifestyle.  He philosophized and quested for meaning and purpose in life.  He revealed the constrained circumstances of Russian women who depended on marrying well to advance.  He expounded on the ineffability of human life and historical events.  Etc.

The powers of language are always suspect in this book.  Tolstoy writes now with precision, now with force, now with delicacy, yet from his argument–sometimes subtle, sometimes explicit–that life and history defy description emerges the idea that language itself is deficient and even dishonest.  Tolstoy takes feeble words as his tools, pieces them together, and in doing so transcends their limitations and creates something that is far larger than its constituent parts.  His underlying thesis (or, rather, one of his underlying theses) is that no essay, no historical tome, no library of a million essays and historical tomes can describe or explain a historical event, be it large or small.  You can’t tell what happened; you have to show it, and even then you’ll leave out almost everything. 

I know almost nothing about Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, of what it meant to be a Russian before, during or after the invasion.  I know almost nothing about who or what drives history, about who or what causes people to be good or bad, smart or dumb, brave or cowardly.  But about all of these things I know infinitely more than I did before I picked up War and Peace.  Which is saying a lot and almost nothing at all. 

I leave off with two quotes by Tolstoy that sum up his book better than I can:

“The subject of history is the life of peoples and of mankind.  To grasp directly and embrace in words–to describe–the life not only of mankind, but of one people, appears impossible” (p. 1179).

“What is War and Peace?  It is not a novel, still less an epic poem, still lesss a historical chronicle.  War and Peace is what the author wanted and was able to express, in the form in which it is expressed” (p. 1217).