To say that War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy is about a bunch of aristocratic Russians during Napoleon’s 1812 invasion is like saying that Games of Thrones is about politics. This is a grand, epic story. There’s war and peace, love and death and a cast of thousands. But wait, there’s more! Here are the reasons I love this book.
I want to tell you my favorite passage. It’s when Pierre, fat, clueless and near-sighted, decided that he wanted to see the battle of Borodino. Because he is socially prominent, he is allowed to wander around the battlefield while others dodge bullets and shoot cannonballs with purpose.
He finds himself on a fortification looking far off at the battle. “The officers said that Napoleon or Murat was there. And everybody looked eagerly at this bunch of horsemen. Pierre also looked, trying to guess which of those barely visible men was Napoleon. Finally, the horsemen rode down off the barrow and disappeared from sight.”
This passage excites me. I want to, and have, read it to perfect strangers. Nothing in my life has described how I feel when I’m bird watching as well as this. Like Pierre, I am very near-sighted. Also, at five feet, zero inches, many things, including branches and other people’s heads, block my view. So, I’ll be out with a group of birders. Someone will spot an interesting bird, which, I remind you, is much teensier than Napoleon. It might be an elf owl, a Colima warbler, even something as big as a zone-tailed hawk. They ooh and aah among themselves.
“See the white eyebrows and cinnamon at the edge of the facial disc?”
“There a small rufous spot on the top of the head.”
“I can see the two white bars across the black tail.”
I can’t even see the bird, much less the markings. I try to walk around the edge of the group as there’s no hope of looking above anyone’s head. This makes their kindly attempts to describe the spot –“see where the two branches make a V?” — even less accurate because the angle is different now. Then, someone will chime in, “Oh, it flew.”
Of course, in a story as long as War and Peace, many events happen. The remarkable thing to me is that people’s feelings change dramatically, but not necessarily caused by the events. As an example, Natasha as a teenager, falls in love with Andrei. They become secretly engaged. She is then seduced by the villainous Anatole, almost despite herself. “As soon as Natasha saw him, she was seized by the same feeling as in the theater, of vain pleasure at being liked by him, and of fear because of the absence of moral barriers between them.”
When her plan to run away with him is foiled, “… she sobbed with that despair with which people weep only over a grief of which they feel themselves the cause.” Shortly afterward, she discovers that Anatole was already married. She becomes distraught with guilt and loses her will to live.
For months, doctors visit and give her all sorts of medicines, “pills, drops and powders.” Natasha is thin, pale, withdrawn. She doesn’t eat. She doesn’t sleep. Then Tolstoy writes, “despite the absence of her accustomed country life, youth had its way: Natasha’s grief began to be covered over by the impressions of ongoing life, it ceased to weigh with such tormenting pain on her heart, it began to become the past, and Natasha started to recover physically.” (The doctors, and the family, believe that the medicine finally kicked in.)
Something like this happened to me. During college, I had been dumped by a boy from Connecticut. It hurt to hear that word. “Christmas in Connecticut” was a movie I couldn’t bear to see listed on the TV Guide. This guy drove a Volvo. Every time I saw one on the road (thank goodness they were quite rare in those days), my grief renewed. Some months later, I was driving and realized that I wasn’t paying attention to the makes of cars any more.
This book makes me wonder if life isn’t more arbitrary than I think. Sometimes, things just change. Most books tend to ascribe cause and effect to what the characters do. I tend to see my life in those terms too. All the major characters, Natasha, Andrei, Pierre, Nikolai make sharp turns in their lives. Sometimes, there are reasons. Sometimes, not. For myself, it’s made me less judgmental of people who seem to make illogical decisions. I give myself more slack too. Consistency isn’t some moral prerogative, I tell myself.
Tolstoy spends an inordinate amount of time writing about his theory that history is caused by millions of individuals doing what moves them: survival, greed, glory, love. Yet, put all these people with free will together and you get a historical movement. OK, OK, I get it. Like the characters’ actions, events are not pre-determined. It’s the mass of little people who make history, not Napoleon or Tsar Alexander I or General Kutuzov. He hits you over the head with this one idea, like he’s trying to convince himself.
War and Peace tells a spellbinding story, unwinding over the breadth of Russia in a time of turmoil. It also expresses the inner workings, desires, hopes, thoughts and connivances of the myriad characters in the most charming and unexpected ways. You never know what people in it will do. At the same time, Tolstoy marvels at the mystery of how the collective actions of these same people can seemingly become a mass movement.
I think each reader will also have his or her own takeaways in charming and unexpected ways. It’s sort of like when you strap on your binoculars, stuff your field guide in your pocket and go bird watching. You never know what you’re going to get.
TELL ME: What actions or decisions have you made that, on the face of it, wasn’t logical?