Reviewed by Alexander Nemser
The New Republic Online
[Ed. note: This review discusses two books, War and Peace translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, and War and Peace: Original Version translated by Andrew Bromfield.]
In A Moveable Feast, Hemingway recalled sitting at the Cafï¿½ Lilas with the poet Evan Shipman and discussing the Constance Garnett translation of War and Peace. "They say it can be improved on....I'm sure it can although I don't know Russian," Shipman said. "But we both know translations. But it comes out as a hell of a novel, the greatest I suppose, and you can read it over and over." Shipman was right, and most people who have read the novel in English would have agreed with him: despite the flaws in the translation, which may be numerous, War and Peace comes out as one of the great novels in any language.
Reading certain books in translation brings to mind Dante's encounter with Adam, the first man and the originator of language, who, enveloped in light, appeared like an animal moving inside a sack: you get a sense that something is trying to break out, something amazing, but it is all so muffled and tangled that it is impossible to make out what. In the case of War and Peace, the cat has always been out of the bag: Tolstoy's immense story of Napoleon's invasion of Russia has never awaited the final, saving translation that would at last reveal its previously inaccessible and infinite-hearted humanity. It was one of the greatest books from the start.
The new English version by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky is wonderful, a milestone of translation -- but it should be taken more like a newly restored 35mm print of a film, with brighter colors and sharper sound. The sights and sounds are meant to be spectacular in this version: the rustle of a white gauze dress during a waltz, the unnatural thud of a cannonball digging into the ground at Borodino, a troika race through the midnight snow at Christmas, the scar left on a soldier's face by a Turkish bayonet.
The novel is famously, almost impossibly, enormous. It feels like a cosmos unto itself, a complete ecosystem. The book is an entire library: within this volume is a dictionary of received Russian ideas of the nineteenth century, a study in psychosomatics (particularly as manifested in the human face), a pamphlet on historiography (with a supplemental treatise on the philosophy of history), an encyclopedia of Russian military regalia, and several albums of pictures, most notably showing the Russian landscape in all the seasons, and a series of portraits of the Russian aristocracy frontally and in profile.
The action of War and Peace (action in this instance meaning almost the entirety of human life) centers on the fates of two families loosely based on Tolstoy's own ancestors -- the impractical, soulful Rostovs, associated with Moscow, and the dignified, elegant Bolkonskys, associated with St. Petersburg (and both families with the countryside) -- and depicts something like the transition from the generation of Tolstoy's grandparents to that of his parents, who are children at the start of the novel and adults in the midst of family life at its end. Borne on by the grand currents of the Napoleonic wars, the protagonists witness the Russian defeat at Austerlitz, the victory at Borodino, and the burning of Moscow; they catch glimpses of the adored Aleksandr I and of the reviled and admired Napoleon. At the same time they pursue ill-fated and later beautiful love affairs, lose money, dream of the future, act and react without thinking, and face death. They live in history but not by it, laughing off its minor catastrophes and trying to evade its major ones.
Unsatisfied by the distant accounts of historians and the imperfect reminiscences of individuals, Tolstoy chose to write the story of his origins himself, and War and Peace is in a sense a reconstruction of his family's world before his arrival in it. His grandfathers Ilya Andreivich Tolstoy and Nikolai Andrei-vich Volkonsky, whose portraits hung on the wall of his study, lent their features and qualities to Count Rostov (the lax charm, the generosity with money) and the elder Prince Bolkonsky (the severity, the discipline); and the figures of Nikolai Rostov and Princess Marya are based on the writer's own parents. The two remaining male protagonists, Prince Andrei and Pierre Bezukhov, appear to have been modeled on a single historical personage, but of a later generation: Leo Tolstoy himself.
According to his own account, Tolstoy "spent five years of ceaseless and exclusive labor, under the best conditions of life" writing War and Peace, from about 1863 to 1869, when the book was published in its entirety in six volumes. In September 1862, when he was thirty-four, Tolstoy had married the eighteen-year-old Sonya Behrs. She was the second of the three daughters of Lyubov Behrs, a childhood sweetheart of the writer, whom he had once pushed over a balcony in a jealous fit. By the time of their courtship, Tolstoy was already a literary celebrity, having published his autobiographical trilogy Childhood, Boyhood, and Youth, as well as his Sevastopol Sketches, based on his experiences during the campaign against the French in the Crimea, which appeared in the prestigious journal The Contemporary, founded by Pushkin. The young Sonya, who remembered meeting Tolstoy in his military uniform at the age of ten, knew entire passages from his books by heart and had copied out several lines from Childhood, which she hid as a charm under the waistband of her skirt.
Much of Natasha Rostov was perhaps modeled on Tanya Behrs, Sonya's youngest sister: her ability to dance in the Russian style, as Natasha does at Uncle's house in the forest; her singing voice; her dazzled reactions to a ball (Leo accompanied her to one). During one of her visits with the Tolstoys when Leo was writing War and Peace, Tanya suggested that her presence had become a nuisance, to which the writer reportedly replied: "Surely you don't suppose you are not paying for your keep? Why, you are posing for your portrait, my dear."
Before his marriage, Tolstoy had lived an alternately wild and secluded life, swinging between fits of physical desire and impassioned attempts at selfcontrol. Night after night he went out carousing with gypsies and -- like Pierre early in War and Peace, in the company of the troublemakers Anatol Kuragin and Dolokhov -- making trips to "***," the unnameable three-star establishment of nineteenth-century Russian prose. Following one of these visits, Tolstoy wrote in his diary: "Girls, silly music, girls, mechanical nightingale, girls, heat, cigarette smoke, girls, vodka, cheese, screams and shouts, girls, girls, girls!" After a series of evenings like this one, he would return to his estate and castigate himself, and plan countless projects for self-improvement -- music composition, gymnastics, a school for peasant children, religious devotion, literature.
Tolstoy's decision to travel with his brother Nicholas to the Caucasus, his first experience of military life, was in part an attempt to avoid the temptations of the city, particularly the thrill of gambling. He was a compulsive gambler, frequently signing promissory notes for his losses and writing in desperation to his brothers for assistance. At one point, fearing he would not have the money to pay off his debts, he was forced to dismantle and sell the central building of his ancestral home, which was reassembled twelve miles away and later completely demolished for firewood. He experienced firsthand the panicked sensation felt by Nikolai Rostov, during the game with Dolokhov, at the sudden and inexplicable loss of money he did not have.
After they were married, Tolstoy and Sonya settled into family life on his estate at Yasnaya Polyana (the model for Otradnoe, the Rostov estate, in the novel), where Tolstoy had spent the first years of his life, and which he had inherited at the age of nineteen when the family property was divided between the five Tolstoy children, four brothers and a sister. Thanks to his marriage, Tolstoy experienced a dream of family life of a kind that he had never known as a child. He was only twenty-three months old when his mother died, and only nine at the death of his father, and by the time he began War and Peace he had lived through the death of his paternal grandmother, who cared for him after his parents, and of two of his brothers. Settled peacefully at home with Sonya, Tolstoy was able to work without interruptions for the first time in his life. This was in no small part owed to Sonya's abilities at managing the estate, running back and forth with a giant ring of keys, overseeing all the tasks, keeping distractions away from her husband.
As early as 1856, Tolstoy had begun to contemplate a novel that would depict the return from Siberian exile of one of the Decembrists, a group of young idealistic noblemen, mostly army officers, who, having pursued Napoleon back to Paris after the campaign of 1812, returned to Russia to find its social inequality, and especially its institution of serfdom, unworthy in their eyes of the country's newly won military glory. The movement came to a head in 1825, on the eve of Czar Nicholas I's coronation, when its members revolted on the Palace Square in St. Petersburg. The revolt was suppressed, its leaders were hanged, and the remaining participants were sent into exile. Tolstoy originally planned a trilogy composed of three stand-alone but related novels: the first set in 1812, the year of the decisive Russian defeat of Napoleon; the second in 1825, the year of the Decembrist revolt; and the last in 1856, the year of the exile's return after the pardon announced by the new czar, Alexander II.
Vestiges of Tolstoy's original plan for the trilogy can be seen in War and Peace in Pierre's philosophical argument with Nikolai at the end of the novel, in which he employs what would have been recognized as Decembrist rhetoric. The reader's recognition of the political disaster awaiting Pierre, and most likely Prince Andrei's son Nikolenka, lends War and Peace a sense of dramatic irony somewhat like that of The Republic, in which the discussion is electrified by the reader's awareness that not long afterward Socrates will be imprisoned and executed.
After writing the first few chapters of the final volume, set in 1856, Tolstoy put the book aside and began to contemplate the earlier history of his character. He then jumped back in time, first to 1825, then to 1812, then to 1805 -- finding, like one of his hated historians, that the events were comprehensible only when they were related to what came before. But he could not go back indefinitely: in fixing upon this period, Tolstoy selected an age to which he was, through his parents and his grandparents, connected. Later, after completing War and Peace, he tried to write another historical novel, about the period of Peter the Great, but found himself unable to penetrate the heads of his protagonists, settling in the end on the theme of contemporary married life, out of which Anna Karenina took shape.
The decision to set the novel fifty years before the present also defied the literary fashion of the time, championed by Turgenev and Nekrasov, the editor of The Contemporary, which sought to fashion literature into a medium of social change addressing the injustices of its own day. By 1861, the serfs had been liberated by the decree of Alexander I, marking the end of an aristocratic lifestyle that had lasted for more than a century, and so Tolstoy's depiction in 1869 of the relationship between landowner and serf, particularly in the account of Nikolai Rostov at the end of the novel, was self-consciously anachronistic. For readers in our own time, the social world of War and Peace sometimes seems, especially in the terrible context of the revolutionary twentieth century, irreversibly remote, a distant pastoral dream of a life long ago lost; but it is worth remembering that even for Tolstoy the world portrayed in his novel was already gone, and almost mythical. In this sense, both the writing of this book and his life at Yasnaya Polyana were efforts to persist in a tradition that was showing clear and insistent signs of obsolescence.
Between 1863 and 1866, Tolstoy wrote and published the first few chapters in The Russian Herald, under the title "The Year 1805." Along the way the vast scope of the final version began to take shape, and Tolstoy's colossal ambition for the work is evident in an entry in his diary on September 30, 1865, written while composing the novel (Braddon is the English novelist Mrs. Braddon, and The Hunting Ground is an early work by Tolstoy):
A novelist's poetry is contained (1) in the interest of the combination of events -- Braddon, my Cossacks, my future work; (2) in the picture of manners and customs based on a historic event -- The Odyssey, The Iliad, 1805; (3) in the beauty and cheerfulness of the situations -- Pickwick, The Hunting Ground, and (4) in the characters of the people -- Hamlet, my future works....
After the publication of the first several sections, Tolstoy continued his work on the novel, drafting the final chapters and planning at first to serialize the entire book. In a letter to the poet Afanasy Fet, Tolstoy wrote that he hoped to complete the whole book by 1867 (he actually finished two years later) and that the final version would be titled All's Well That End's Well. On Sonya's advice, Tolstoy decided not to serialize the final chapters, and so these sections did not appear until the complete book was published in 1869. For three years, Tolstoy wrote the last chapters of the final version of the novel and substantially revised the earlier chapters, most notably altering the plot to include the deaths of two of the central characters and adding the numerous discourses on the philosophy of history.
War and Peace: Original Version is a translation of what is purportedly Tolstoy's first complete draft, beginning with the sections published in the Russian Herald, before the three-year period of revisions. In the 1980s the Russian scholar Evelina Zaidenshnur reconstructed the later chapters of this "original" draft from Tolstoy's notoriously indecipherable drafts, and published the version in an academic journal, including the variations on single lines and an elaborate apparatus of explanatory notes. In 2000, Igor Zakharov, an ex-philologist turned publisher, pruned the scholarly version of its notes and its variations, and "massaged" the text with elements of several different existing versions of the book, and published it as Tolstoy's original manuscript, purportedly unknown for decades: "half as long and twice as interesting," and without any of the intrusive philosophical meditations or incomprehensible French. The book was harshly criticized in the Russian press for its misleading presentation and its editorial methods. Upon hearing that his version would be translated into English, Zakharov reportedly declared that he "felt like Napoleon."
Although the "original version" is a far cry from the final version of the novel, Andrew Bromfield's translation is extremely good and has many beautiful moments, particularly in the descriptions of landscape. But the circumstances and the presentation of the book in its American incarnation are dubious. For a start, there are the three quotations on the back jacket from Woolf, Flaubert, and Mann, praising Tolstoy. But not one of them ever read the so-called original version, because Tolstoy never published it. Turgenev, on the other hand, who did read the first sections in the Russian Herald, called the book "positively bad, boring, and unsuccessful"; it was only later, after the publication of the complete novel, that he judged Tolstoy to be the greatest writer in Russia. The introduction to the "original version," by Bromfield and Jenefer Coates (who edited the volume), provides no clear account of how the book came into being, hinting only vaguely at the backstory of the Russian edition, and presenting itself more like a newly discovered director's cut than a scholarly supplement to a different and more significant text.
A family drama of love and renunciation interspersed with several impressive military set pieces, Tolstoy's first draft ends after the battle of Borodino, rather like a problem play, with a double wedding at the Rostovs' estate attended by, among others, Prince Andrei and Petya Rostov. At the end of the final version, however, neither character has survived the battle. The writer's decision to depict their deaths was, along with the addition of numerous digressions on the philosophy of history, the central development of Tolstoy's three-year period of revisions, and enabled the transition to the sprawling meditation on happiness and causality in the final version of the novel.
Episodes and characters from the final version flash by in a few lines in the early draft, appearing suddenly and then dissolving into the crowd. In the old soldier who, marched to his execution outside of Moscow, remarks that "it's all the same in the end," we glimpse the beginnings of Platon Karataev, the peasant soldier who re-ignites Pierre's soul during his imprisonment by the French. Many of the elaborations seem to grow out of the increasing complexity of Tolstoy's philosophical positions. The transformation of Kutuzov into the massive, cautious, bear-like representative of the Russian military soul; the disquisition on the fluidity of partisan warfare; the pragmatic Platon Karataev -- each echoes Tolstoy's growing sense of the inability to know anything fully, the impossibility of making reliable predictions or identifying true causes.
In an early scene depicting a strangely calm moment between the two overwhelming situations of war and peace, Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, having reported to Prince Bagration just before the battle of Schongraben, passes a camp in which a sergeant is pouring vodka into the soldiers' canteen caps:
The soldiers, with pious faces, brought the caps to their mouths, upended them, and, rinsing their mouths and wiping them on their greatcoat sleeves, walked away from the sergeant major with cheered faces. All the faces were as calm as though everything was happening not in view of the enemy, prior to an action in which at least half the division would be left on the field, but somewhere in their home country, in expectation of a peaceful stay.
Less than half a page later, Prince Andrei witnesses a man being whipped "crying out unnaturally" and sees
a young officer, with an expression of perplexity and suffering on his face, walk[ing] away from the punished man, looking questioningly at the passing adjutant.
Finally, he rides along the frontline:
Our line and the enemy's stood far from each other on the left and right flanks, but in the center, where the envoys had passed that morning, the lines came so close that the men could see each other's faces and talk to each other.
Pevear and Volokhonsky's translation is the only one in which the word "face" is used to denote all the visages in this sequence, all five times, exactly as in the Russian text. Their version is especially admirable for its attention to such a feature of Tolstoy's style. The example may seem prosaic, but in fact it demonstrates a regular method of Tolstoy's novelistic composition. Such repetition heightens the effects of Tolstoy's battle scenes: conditions of hunger or unease over uncertain terrain, tides of morale and enthusiasm, and experiences of danger are all depicted by means of expressions on the faces of individuals. Soldiers are frequently sketched in this way -- registered almost like an assemblage of colored diodes, which light up in different hues depending on their state: terror, triumph, piety, confusion, fervor.
In a typical reversal of the senses, Tolstoy describes Rostov's attempt to cross the field during the battle of Austerlitz: "Having drawn even with the infantry guards, he noticed that cannonballs were flying over and around them, not so much because he heard the sound of the cannon, but because he saw the uneasiness on the soldiers' faces, and on the officers' an unnatural military solemnity." This sort of observation, obliquely empirical and not reported directly by the senses, jars the reader into a fresh recollection of the humanity of the soldiers. For Tolstoy, humanity is contagious, and it is most readily transmitted through the face. At the end of the scene with Prince Andrei, laughter erupts when one of the Russians, considered an expert in French, speaks a few garbled phrases. With the soldiers close enough to see one another's faces, ironically at the very point of greatest tension, the battle seems ridiculous: "Peals of such healthy and merry guffawing came from among the soldiers that it crossed the line and involuntarily infected the French, after which it seemed they ought quickly to unload their guns, blow up their munitions, and all quickly go back home."
In their introduction to War and Peace: Original Version, Bromfield and Coates announce their decision to vary Tolstoy's repetitions "in the name of stylistic euphony," explaining that while the "hammering" effect works in Russian, English "abhors repetition of this kind." This seems to have been the view of many translators of the novel, and Pevear is right to note his predecessors' tendency in his own introduction. But such "euphony" is in fact a misrepresentation of Tolstoy's style. Tolstoy's device of repeating one word many times in a single passage, or repeatedly employing an entire phrase word for word, is striking and jarring in the original Russian. The effect is deliberate: it is not that Tolstoy could not think of another word, but that he wanted us to be unable to think of another one.
Tolstoy's contemporaries criticized him for the repetitions, and implored him to clean up and harmonize his sentences. The writer Konstantin Leontiev suggested that Tolstoy "throw out of [War and Peace]" all the repetitions: "strange, strange, hands, hands, hastily, hastily, sob, sob, rich lip, rich lip." The repetitions in the novel's philosophical sections, as the Russian formalist Boris Eikhenbaum pointed out, play a role similar to the repetitive digressions that mark new chapters of the Iliad, reinforcing the novel's epic quality. Tolstoy's repetitions have the ironic effect of linking him to both the highest and the lowest forms of literary language -- to the Homeric and the homely. The repetitions additionally imbue the novel with a sense of what it may have been like to listen to Tolstoy speak, as in Gorky's observation that "one must have heard him speak in order to understand the extraordinary, indefinable beauty of his speech; it was, in a sense, incorrect, abounding in repetitions of the same word, saturated with village simplicity."
Repetition is also a means of defamiliarization, the technique by which objects and situations are "made strange" and depicted with an unusual clarity, quite contrary to the way we habitually see (and thus do not genuinely see) them. "The very fact of repeating an item, repeating a word takes it out of line already and renders it strange," observed Viktor Shklovsky, the great Russian formalist critic who pioneered the concept of "estrangement" as an essential technique of literature, and who acknowledged Tolstoy as one of the masters of the device. War and Peace contains scene after scene in which the descriptions seem first counterintuitive and then revelatory: Natasha's trip to the opera, where the stage is shown as "painted pieces of cardboard on the sides representing trees, and canvas stretched over the boards at the back"; Pierre, dazed and intrigued, wandering through the crucial battle of Borodino in a white hat and green tailcoat, looking for the battle; Nikolai's fixation on Dolokhov's "broad-boned, reddish hands, with hair showing from under the cuffs," which appear to grow so large and monstrous that they completely dominate his impressions. Senses are shifted or apparently misattributed. War is rendered with images of peace, peace with images of war. Laughter erupts in moments of solemnity. Bullets whiz by "merrily." Prince Andrei waits outside the room where his son is being born and, hearing the baby crying, thinks to himself, "Why did they bring a baby there?" Again and again the world is seen, very suddenly, with the startling and unclouded truthfulness of Tolstoy's alien but earthly eye.
Much of War and Peace is devoted to clearing away received ideas -- the legacy of Napoleon, the excuse of war for moral atrocities, the elevating quality of Western ideals; and Tolstoy's style is designed to reduce a complex of sentiments rife with preconceptions to a powerful, moving, and finally rather raw feeling. This broaches another virtue of the Pevear-Volokhonsky translation: the decision to keep all the French in Tolstoy's text. In Russian upper-class circles, especially in the early nineteenth century, French was entrenched as the language of culture and sophistication, following Catherine the Great's program of Westernization. Pushkin wrote his first poems in French, and an aristocrat would have been expected to be able to converse freely in the language. (Tolstoy's children were instructed to speak French at the dinner table.)
In War and Peace, French -- the language in which, as Tolstoy observes, "our grandparents not only spoke but thought" -- seems alternately like the Trojan Horse and the perfect symbol of liberalization and progress, a repository of both culture and illusion. The emblematic depiction of the unnatural influence of French comes when Pierre Bezukhov, feeling himself "occupying someone else's place," declares his bewildered, engineered love for the duplicitous Helene Kuragin of St. Petersburg. With the words "Je vous aime," he binds himself to a vast network of social falsehoods, and then spends most of the novel trying to extricate himself from them. The use of French also makes a significant socio-linguistic point, by marking the gap between the classes: as Napoleon's army advances on Moscow, the noble elite in Petersburg start to take private Russian lessons and charge each other forfeits for every French word spoken, and it becomes dangerous for the upper classes to greet each other in the street in Moscow, as they might be mistaken by the crowd for French spies. The supreme embodiment of French and all that it suggests is, of course, Napoleon himself, who is characterized by "the absence of the best and highest human qualities -- love, poetry, tenderness, a searching philosophical doubt." Self-serving, scornful of tradition, amoral, blinkered by ambition, Napoleon represents in Tolstoy's novel a moral and spiritual challenge to the novel's heroes -- and, in a typical, ahistorical Tolstoyan put-down, the invading emperor speaks a bizarre mix of French and Russian.
Tolstoy's temperament evidently bristled at the existence of great men other than himself. He gradually quarreled with much of the Russian artistic world, nearly fought a duel with Turgenev over a minor disagreement, and flabbergasted Tchaikovsky by dismissing Beethoven as a minor artist. Years after War and Peace, Tolstoy wrote an article attempting even to annihilate the literary reputation of Shakespeare. When he was advanced in years, Tolstoy was held by many Russians to be one of Russia's "two czars," the first being the crowned sovereign Alexander II. And he was too large even for the infinite: as Gorky wrote in his memoir of Tolstoy, "With God he has very suspicious relations; they sometimes remind me of the relation of 'two bears in one den.'"
War and Peace is in part a demolition of the very idea of the "great man." History is so overwhelming, according to Tolstoy, because momentous events are the result of many factors -- of so many factors that no single animating force behind them can ever be identified. The leviathan of history has causes for scales, and no one can count them all. The individual is inevitably swept up by a tide of causes beyond his or her abilities to comprehend, let alone to influence. And no single human being could possibly be the cause of something as vast as the Napoleonic campaigns, including Napoleon himself. In one sense, the deepest drama of War and Peace lies in the meeting between the self-contained universe of a single individual and the senseless and immense tide of historical events. This meeting, meaningless for history, leaves the individual shivering. As Mary McCarthy observed, "It could be said that the real plot of War and Peace is the struggle of the characters not to be immersed, engulfed, swallowed up by the landscape of fact and 'history' in which they, like all human beings, have been placed: freedom (the subjective) is in the fiction, and necessity is in the fact."
The purest evocation of an individual come face to face with history is in the battle of Schongraben, when Nikolai Rostov sees the French army advancing and thinks: "Who are they? Why are they running? Can it be they're running to me? Can it be? And why? To kill me? Me, whom everybody loves so?" Tolstoy's development of the problem of historical causation, in the later philosophical interludes produced during the three-year period of revision, could even be seen as an attempt at the novel's end to find answers for the questions that Nikolai asked at its beginning. But he did not find these answers; and there is a chilling and momentous echo of Rostov's baffled voice, many decades later, in Solzhenitsyn, who at the start of The Gulag Archipelago describes a man's incomprehension about his arrest by the secret police: "The darkened mind is incapable of embracing these displacements in our universe, and both the most sophisticated and the veriest simpleton among us, drawing on all life's experience can gasp out only: 'Me? What for?'"
Yet the insignificance of the human, cosmically considered, is not all of the novel's wisdom. Alongside the book's illustrations of the blinkered perspectives of its people, War and Peace revels in the depiction of individual experience, internally coherent and inexhaustible, in the face of that same tide of history. The interior worlds of love and its dreams, of hunger, disappointment, spiritual unity, and the fear of death: Tolstoy reveals all of this, and the immediate impressions of his characters, however self-contained, often expand in significance to fill completely their perceptions. If there is a skeptical and abstract strain to Tolstoy's picture of human life in the novel, there is also a personal and ecstatic one. Each character stands at the center of his or her own universe, and much of the lifelike quality of Tolstoy's narrative stems from its sensitivity to the force of local sensations and desires. Amid the terrifying chaos of battle, a military doctor comes out of a tent carrying in his bloody hand a cigar "between the thumb and the little finger (so as not to stain it)."
And more, every personal universe appears limitless. In the famous scene on the battlefield of Austerlitz, the wounded Prince Andrei experiences his sweeping, almost mystical vision of the "infinite sky" all around him, and then sees Napoleon, the quintessential great man, and finds him inconsequential: "He knew that it was Napoleon -- his hero -- but at that moment, Napoleon seemed to him such a small, insignificant man compared with what was now happening between his soul and this lofty, infinite sky with clouds racing across it." Napoleon cannot conceive of a world of which he is not the center, but neither can anyone else: Pierre, Nikolai, Natasha, and Princess Marya each experience moments of transcendence, visions of the world in its totality, encompassed by the individual soul and encompassing it. These moments are rarely shared between the characters themselves, and Tolstoy shows us not only how his characters glimpse the infinite, but also the relativity of their universal glimpses: where one sees infinity, another sees just the sky.
Dostoyevsky, Gorky, and many others have referred to Tolstoy as a godlike author. If his message is in fact divine, Tolstoy's War and Peace might be compared with God's final words to his prophet Jonah, who desired to see the city of Nineveh destroyed for sinfulness, but fell into a rage at the destruction of a gourd that gave him shade: "Thou hast had pity on the gourd, for the which thou hast not labored, neither madest it grow; which came up in the night, and perished in a night: and should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle." War and Peace can be read as a similar meditation on scale. If one man can ascend to the heavens of experience, and love, and err, and repent, and glimpse for a second the meaning of his own life, imagine the spiritual attainments of entire families, cities, and nations! Again the philosophical problems of complexity and causation seem to arise out of the local character of the narrative -- out of its local infinities -- as though Tolstoy in his philosophical chapters was coming at the same questions raised by the story in a different way. Of what is life composed, and toward what should it be directed when set against the world's immensity? Out of these perplexities arises not only Tolstoy's philosophy, but also his fiction.
In his introduction, Pevear paraphrases Isaac Babel as saying that "if the world could write, it would write like Tolstoy." In fact, Babel actually said that "When you read Tolstoy, it is the world writing, the variety of the world. " The life that Tolstoy portrays is forever a teeming multiplicity, and his secret is to imply even more life than that. Since the spiritual heights experienced by the main characters are so vivid, and since these characters are decidedly not great historical actors, the reader ends up believing that after the hussar mentioned in only a single sentence has ridden out of view, behind the tree line, he may go on to get rich, or to fall in love, or to see God -- but no matter what, his life will continue. The passing, anonymous hussar's life beyond his appearance in this book could even be the subject of another book. It is one of the feats of Tolstoy's art that it makes mortal lives seem so autonomous and so unfathomed. And as in the Book of Jonah, the same is true for plants and animals: when, during the hunting scene, a wolf emerges from the woods and Tolstoy describes how he shudders "at the sight of human eyes, which he had probably never seen before," the entire existence of the animal flashes into view for a second. At times human life recedes into its cherished minor place in the background, and Tolstoy lets us glimpse all of nature, its animated whole.
The artistic recreation of life was among the means by which Tolstoy sought to identify the meaning of his own existence, creating in War and Peace a kind of laboratory for examining its elements and the forces acting on it. Like Pierre Bezukhov, the writer was always being consumed by a new passion, to which he intended to devote himself fully: he would become a diplomat with a degree in Oriental languages; he would marry a Cossack girl and live in an aoul like Olenin in The Cossacks; he would race horses with the Bashkirs in Samara; he would write works rivaling Homer and Shakespeare; he would be the patriarch of a great family; he would become a holy sage and teach the world the meaning of the Gospels; he would become a pilgrim and walk the earth in search of the Truth. In each of these soul-scenarios, Tolstoy saw a vision of another life, a life in which his own could be consummated and made sensible.
After completing Anna Karenina, Tolstoy experienced a religious crisis. Disillusioned with art and literature, he devoted himself to his study of the Gospels, out of which grew his once-notorious teachings of nonviolence and a churchless Christianity. At one point he intended to become a cobbler, taking private lessons from one of his tradesmen and making thick boots for his friends. (On receiving his pair, Tolstoy's friend Sukhotin put them on his bookshelf after the twelfth volume of Tolstoy's collected works, with a label that read "Volume XIII.") The vexation of his later work lies in part in Tolstoy's decision to trade complexity for simplicity and universal usefulness -- in the feeling that he is attempting not to address the truth as he sees it, that he is somehow deliberately misplacing his powers. It is as though, regarding the question of what he actually believed, Tolstoy, in Isaiah Berlin's phrase, "did his best to falsify the answer," and to convince the world of the strength of his faith just as it wavered more and more wildly. It worked: the popular image of Tolstoy is the one that appears in the famous photograph in which he stands next to Gorky at Yasnaya Polyana. Dressed in a heavy, rough peasant shirt tied with a thick leather belt, he stares at the camera, weary and wise, even holy, his streaming biblical beard so white that he seems to be dissolving into the snow-covered Russian landscape.
When Tolstoy was in the Caucasus as a young man, he heard the story of Hadji Murat, a famously brave and violent Avar warrior from Dagestan who decamped to the Russians in opposition to the Muslim cleric Shamil, and then betrayed the Russians, and died fighting against troops of both sides. Very late in life, having disavowed his previously literary works and become himself a destination for spiritual pilgrims, Tolstoy wrote his own account of Hadji Murat's story. At first glance, the story seems to take its cue from Homer, and Hadji Murat comes off as a latter-day Greek hero dying honorably on the field of battle. But there is more to it. The story is also a reflection on switching paths in search of the right one. In a strange way Hadji Murat is a kindred spirit of Pierre Bezukhov, both of them drawn now to one solution, now to another, examining by means of experience all the possibilities, especially the antithetical ones, zigzagging in the hope of discovering the correct choice.
When, in Tolstoy's story, a Russian general speaking at a military banquet about Hadji Murat says, in English, "All's well that ends well," the phrase has taken on a tragic irony absent from its early use as the working title for War and Peace. Hadji Murat dies a warrior's death, but he also fails in his attempt to rescue his family, pinned by the two opposing sides that he has equally betrayed. The story could be taken as an illustration of the impossibility of things "ending well," or even ending at all in the sense of reaching completion. For Tolstoy, what meaning there is lies in the attempt, not in the arrival. The lives of Pierre Bezukhov and Hadji Murat are exemplary for the ceaselessness of their flawed conversions and impassioned recalculations, all of them undertaken at the edge of what may be an abyss.
In 1910 Tolstoy fled Yasnaya Polyana in spiritual despair, and died of pneumonia in transit, at the train station of a provincial town. In his last few days, he began dictating a letter to his English biographer and translator Aylmer Maude, but finished only the first half-sentence: "On my way to the place where I wished to be alone I was" The tragic irony that sounds over Pierre and Hadji Murat finally sounded over Tolstoy himself. Following the promptings of his soul toward an answer for the question that filled his world, he left thousands of pages in which we may recognize our own world, various, blossoming, and inconclusive.
Alexander Nemser is currently studying at New College, Oxford on a Marshall Scholarship. His poems have been published in the New York Times and the Atlantic.
Books mentioned in this post