Finishing War and Peace

August 30, 2020

I’ve finished the novel. 

One disadvantage of reading out-of-sequence is that when I came to the second half, I had already read most of the truly great stuff in that half.  I was then able to skip over those passages as I did my read-through, but that meant that I was only reading Tolstoy’s historical essays and a lot of detailed narrative about secondary battle scenes.  And that became a bit of a slog – which should be expected, when you’re reading only the second-best stuff in any novel.

That said, the historical essays do present genuine difficulties.  I am surely joined by millions when I say that I don’t like this material as much as I do the “novelistic” passages, but let me try to say why.

Some 25 years ago I read the Epilogue, Part II, which ends the book with a historical essay.  But I never returned to it, and plainly it didn’t stick with me; as I read it this time I couldn’t recall my first reading at all.  I am not a philosopher of history, but as I read his essays in the novel, I kept struggling with the natural suspicion that Tolstoy’s ideas about the philosophy of history are out-dated, but not only that.  I also suspected that Tolstoy was beyond his depth here, even in his own time. 

It’s not that his thoughts about all this are easily dismissed.  To the contrary, they nag at you.  He’s onto something, not discovered by himself of course, but something tenacious nevertheless, when he takes apart all the problems with the great-man idea of history and with the idea of free will.  All of this is unsettling in a good way, and as always he’s engaging and intelligent with his questions and arguments.

Kutuzov decides to give up Moscow
(council recreated from the painting by Alexei Danilovich Kivshenko)

But I felt that he was growing increasingly opinionated with each new essay – that he was trying to close off arguments (or trying to close his own arguments).  But he never quite succeeds in this effort.  His arguments remain less convincing than maybe he had aimed for; his mind here doesn’t seem expansive, as it does in the novel-story.  He’s obviously and rightly vexed with the great-man and free-will problems, but instead of taking us through the problems expansively and thoroughly, he keeps looking almost legalistically for one argument after another to pile on, to crush the ideas he’s opposed to. 

And fine, I’m all for crushing unworthy ideas.  But on the one hand, he doesn’t quite succeed in proving that these particular ideas are completely unworthy (his objections seem just a little too quick sometimes), and on the other hand, though he can’t be expected to come up with answers to such longstanding and persistent questions that have bedeviled historians, he doesn’t quite show us anything about how to dig through the problem and begin to find solutions. 

And that’s frustrating.  It’s fine that, when asking why men go to war and destroy each other, he finally says, “We don’t know”, near the very end of the book.  It’s fine because we need to people to say that, and to say why we don’t know; and because even today we don’t know; but to be able to move forward and tear into the problem a little bit is what we want.

When I read Part II of the Epilogue years ago, I took it as a kind of summary of the thoughts of Tolstoy as a historian.  So I read that final line, about accepting “a dependence we cannot feel” (a thought which can lead to God, maybe).  And it felt to me like a closing line that genuinely culminated his thoughts; I duly filed it away mentally as “Tolstoy’s opinion on history.”  But reading the novel through, the final mini-essay no longer feels anything like a conclusion or culmination.  Now it feels merely like where Tolstoy decided to stop writing.  It feels merely like his latest exercise through a problem that he cannot quite close. 

The novel-story, or story-novel, what have you, is something else entirely.  The historical essays have left a little bit of a bad taste, partly because of the way I read them (imagine reading consecutively only the parts of Moby-Dick that pertain to the whaling industry and its details); and maybe someday I need to give them another look-see.  But the novel-passages in this novel have sunk into me, and have nourished.  They’ve left a feeling that I find difficult to describe without sounding corny.  While the historical essays were disappointingly dry, the other parts of “War and Peace” shimmer (couldn’t hold back the corn).

And I hope it should go without saying, that I’m not talking about the kind of effect that comes from sweet glimmering things like beautiful words.  It’s not a banquet of sweetness, “War and Peace”.  I’m talking about the effect that a novel like this, which demands nothing of you except time, can have.  It doesn’t ask you to chew on poetry or ponder great words; all you have to do is be attentive as you read; and the result is you think about and feel life.

Almost at the pace of life itself!

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