War and Peace: Tolstoy’s very large and very mixed bag

Austerlitz, Smolensk, Borodino, Moscow… Tolstoy portrays a number of battles in the course of War and Peace (1869), but there is one that television simply cannot dramatise. It rages throughout most of the novel, between the narrative and Tolstoy’s unwelcome penchant for philosophising.

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War and Peace is famous chiefly for its length. Who knows where it would sit in the literary canon if it were, say, only 500 pages long? The Vintage Classics edition prints forty lines per page (four more than Penguin Classics) and yet the page count still reaches over twelve hundred. No writer can sustain a novel over so many pages without, at times, dropping in quality. Every novel has peaks and troughs; War and Peace has vertiginous mountains and black, abyssal valleys. Nowhere in the literary canon is there such a comprehensive collection of intrigue, thrill and tedium.

Perhaps Charles Dickens’s Bleak House (1852-3) compares, which reaches over one thousand pages in the Penguin Classics edition. This novel, too, varies in quality. But Dickens never digresses from his story with dry philosophical musings on historiography. Typical of his disciplined style, he remains fixed to the narrative.

war and peace

The Vintage Classics front cover of ‘War and Peace’

Ironically, the deeply nationalistic Leo Tolstoy would probably not have taken too great an issue with a contemporary Englishman patriotically declaring that Dickens is a superior writer. Tolstoy casts Napoleon Bonaparte as both foolish and vain; he makes l’empereur purely human, something 19th-century French historians seemingly refused to do.

Tolstoy adroitly dismantles the notion that single historical figures have any agency over the socio-political course of their respective societies. This dismantling is interesting, but not enough to warrant frequent distraction from the narrative. Perhaps 19th-century Russia didn’t have a word for ‘overkill’.

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Paul Dano as Pierre Bezukhov in the BBC’s recent TV adaptation of ‘War and Peace’

The novel’s failings in consistency are counteracted by Tolstoy’s brilliance at characterisation. There are few characters in the literary canon who offer more depth and complexity, who attract more empathy, than Pierre Bezukhov. He enters the novel as a corpulent, nervous, job-seeking youth, and is instantly captivating. Through his various experiences of inheriting great wealth, marrying, divorcing, becoming a freemason, spectating and fighting battles, his active mind and tempestuous emotions are always open to us.

However, once we finally leave the characters behind – some dead, some married – Tolstoy concludes War and Peace with forty pages of pure philosophy. It is a bad conclusion to a very mixed but, overall, great novel. After sitting shoulder to shoulder with the narrative for over one thousand pages, philosophy finally ousts narrative entirely. It stands triumphant, the lone victor, and it is entirely unwelcome.

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