16 September 2015

History and its Limits: Tolstoy’s War and Peace

By Kathryn A. Kopple

Famously, Henry James detested historical novels.  At best, he regarded them as derivative, and at worst, he thought them cheap.  The historical novelist appropriates materials from sources far removed from first-hand experience.  The historical novelist works not with character, which is for James the novel’s true subject, but types.  The historical novelist never knows when to quit and instead produces cumbersome narratives better used as doorstops.  He spared no one his withering appraisal of historical fiction.  Leo Tolstoy—to whom the word genius is ascribed with such regularity it begins to feel as if it were part of his name (the Genius Leo Tolstoy)—did not escape James’ cudgel.  For James, Tolstoy was guilty on all charges.  He also committed one other unpardonable error. He allowed himself as a writer to be constrained by a concern peculiar to historical novels:  fidelity to his sources.  Historical realism, for James, is the enemy of artistic freedom.

This is not a mere quarrel over two different approaches to literature.  Tolstoy is a writer who does not allow himself the luxury of imagining that freedom exists in an essentially unfree society.  Individuals may enjoy greater or lesser privileges, but privilege is not freedom.  On the contrary, privilege is exhibit A in demonstrating the extent to which individuals are not the masters of their own existence.  In his major works—War and Peace and Anna Karenina—Tolstoy does not deviate from his worldview.  Even the most influential men—those who appear to wield absolute power over the fate of nations—are not free.  In War and Peace, Tolstoy takes it upon himself to demonstrate how no-one escapes this rule, not even legendary figures such as Napoleon Bonaparte.  

In the 19th century, Napoleon Bonaparte survived the maelstrom that followed in the aftermath of the French Revolution, seized power, and declared himself the emancipator of his country—and then of Europe.  Of course, he had his enemies.  But, he had far more supporters.   The conclusion drawn by historians goes something like this:  Napoleon was a great hero.  He did what great heroes do:  change history.  He could do all this because he was exceptional, and only the most exceptional persons know what to do with power.  Use it.  Tolstoy understood how such conclusions could be arrived at:  unchecked power is freedom at its absolute limit. But, Tolstoy would have none of it. He understood freedom defined by absolute power as abhorrent as well as false. He thought it the baldest lie.

Bonaparte had been dead less than a decade when Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy was born in 1828.  By the time Tolstoy publishes War and Peace (1869), he was an aristocrat in his mid-thirties, married, who has put behind him, by all accounts, a colorful and checkered youth.  He had fought in both the Chechen and Crimean wars.  His writings about his war experiences, together with other works, earned Tolstoy the reputation of being one of Russia’s most gifted writers.  It is in War and Peace that Tolstoy offers up a portrait of Bonaparte that is contrary to the legend of the great man.  For Tolstoy, there are no great men.  And not simply because great men, like all humans, have flaws, but because historians are either enthralled or duped by the very idea of greatness.  When Tolstoy attacks Napoleon, he does not do so out of a particular disdain for the ruler (although, certainly Tolstoy had no love for the emperor).  He seeks to exorcize the spirit of Romanticism that deifies people to the detriment of all rationale thought.

But, there is a long process of initiation before readers of War and Peace can appreciate the extent to which Tolstoy struggled with the concept of freedom. The author lived during times of reform and repression. Serfdom had not yet been ended but there were attempts, not to mention significant setbacks, to reform. Reformists from the upper-classes fought for greater liberty and were put down by the tsar. Foundational institutions—marriage, for example—were riven by hypocrisy and void of virtues. And then there was the Church, with its self-proclaimed power over heaven and earth, which instilled superstition in the masses while doing very little to improve the conditions of poor. Everywhere Tolstoy looked, people were punished for thinking for themselves. War and Peace addresses this dilemma on a scale that can only be described as epic.

Tolstoy is such a good writer at creating convincing characters and story lines—extraordinarily good—that it can be tempting to become irritated with his habit of inserting exposition where the reader expects the narrative to chug along on its tracks, as if it were a well-oiled machine. And important authors have criticized him for his digressions, sermonizing, and belief system. There is a temptation to skip the boring parts of War and Peace, as they say, and get on with the story. But, at a price. War and Peace takes the reader through the military campaigns beginning with the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805 through France’s invasion of Russia in 1812. The war ends with the French army’s retreat after the Battle of Borodino, where some 70,000 lives are lost. The French arrive in Moscow to chaos—much of the city is in flames. The exposition makes it possible for the reader to understand why the beautiful city had to be destroyed in the most objective manner possible. For this task, Tolstoy settles on a detailed description of a dying beehive—and it is but one example of how the author asks us to consider the true complexities of historical events, so much so that the instigator of this destruction can never be named.

Kathryn A. Kopple is the author of Little Velásquez, a novel set in 15th century Spain.