War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy—Goodreads Review

Originally published on Goodreads.com.

Consistently within people’s choices of the top five novels ever written, War and Peace follows the impetus and results of Napoleon’s Russian campaign, presenting events through their impact on the book’s characters and reinterpreting them according to the unnamed narrator’s metaphysics. Its breadth of cast, scale of scenes, and consistently near-perfect choice of analogy for the moment show Tolstoy as among the best at his craft, and the book rightly belongs on any list of necessary 19th-century reads.

Part of the Russian Naturalist-Realist school, Tolstoy eschewed the selectivity, emotion, and idealization of early 19th-century Romanticism for a presentation of life as it is. As such, Tolstoy’s depiction of life is brutally, even cynically, accurate: his presentation of his characters—with faults and all—undercuts their values and desires in a way that shows even the best characters as all too human. His multi-faceted depiction is not a painting that omits the accidents and highlights the essentials of the subject but a photograph that presents the subject as-is, depicting the warts as being as essential as any other quality. Thus, his style of representation conflicts with one of the central premises of the novelistic form, as such, and at several moments the book comes off more as a piece of journalistic history than a plot-based novel.

Nonetheless, the selectivity of the novelistic form breaks through: though the narrator’s external focus and refusal to speculate into the deeper psychology of his characters make it take a while, he does layer his characters through the book. However, because of the book’s core thesis—that human action is impotent in the face of a people’s collective history—War and Peace depicts less a “conflict-climax-resolution” plot than a “things happen to characters and they concede to change” progression. The fact that the climax of one of his main characters (only implicitly presented as the protagonist, though his being such is debatable), Pierre, involves conceding the impossibility of achieving one’s values is indicative of the work as a whole.

As a metaphysical novel, which seeks to give a complete understanding of human life, War and Peace moves between specific scenes of the lives of the characters and broad discourses on the philosophy of history. The latter explains the presentation of the former: because Tolstoy’s narrator sees human life not as a result of individual choice, values, and will, but of historical determinism, the individual values, desires, and choices of his characters do not influence where their lives lead. He more often presents his characters as passively reacting to things that happen to them, rather than actively achieving their values through consistent choice and integrity amidst unforeseen obstacles.

War and Peace was worth reading, though I wouldn’t include it in my top ten novels. Personally, I wouldn’t want to confuse length for profundity. While a broad view of life and a humble view of one’s own self and presumptions are good and worth fostering, Tolstoy’s didactic elaborations on historical philosophy are not only patronizing (all historians got it wrong, guys), but implicitly nihilistic, in that they argue that the characters, values, and choices he spends 1300+ pages describing (and, implicitly, the reader and their own values and choices) are ineffectual in the grand scheme of things.

The effect this has is not one of wisdom in the fact of historical determinism (which the narrator at several points calls God) but of nihilism. His characters cannot achieve their ideals because such a thing is not possible according to the book’s metaphysical assumptions. When a character does choose a value, the narrator presents them as implicitly naive—as if reality will teach them better. Frankly, I’ll never forgive him for how he treats his implicitly Romantic heroine, Natasha—not in how her life changes (notably because of a FAILURE to pull off a chosen course of action, itself a result of misplaced Romantic idealism on her part), but because of how he undercuts her even in her character’s climax. The narrator can allow no character to have a moment of aspiration that is not in some way tainted by some failing. Because of the book’s consistent assumption of determinism, the implicit capacity of humans to achieve virtue despite their natural deficiencies or vices—the central premise of the novelistic form—is not only absent but argued as being impossible.

Thus, for all its wonderful breadth, description, and narrative quality, War and Peace eschews the previous Romantic conception of mankind (that mankind’s essential nature inheres in our highest ideals and virtues, with deficiencies and mundanities being mere accidents) and presents the opposite view: that that which is low, imperfect, and impotent is the essential in man, with greatness being at best an anomalous illusion, at worst a pretext for and enabler of evil. Rather than being wisely accurate, the book’s perspective comes off as cynical and degrading, if not deeply vicious, in that the prescribed passivity before the impulses of collective history would, later in the century and early in the next, enable worse depredations than those Tolstoy depicts in his lampooning of Napoleon.

(*Of course, my review should not be taken as an implicit endorsement of Napoleon, though I think Dostoevsky does a better job debunking the value of his legacy than does Tolstoy; to Tolstoy’s credit, the central conflict of War and Peace is contained in its first lines, with Napoleon being an antichrist figure and symbol of the European movements threatening to upend the values and social structure of Russia—which, nonetheless, are presented in collectively deterministic, not individual, terms).