October 28, 2021

Literature Journal

World literature news

War and Peace Lev Tolstoy

What is this book about?

“War and Peace” is a huge saga, telling with equal depth about events of various scales: from the private lives of several families and the specific battles of 1812 to the movement of peoples and history in general. Thanks to the scale of the concept, the accuracy of psychological observations, and the genre universality of Tolstoy’s epic remains the main Russian novel in cultural memory.

When was it written?

In 1856, Tolstoy conceived a story about the return of the Decembrist from exile, but over time he deviated more and more from the original plan. “War and Peace”, which was first called “Year 1805”, he began to write in February 1863. The work was preceded and accompanied by a long study of archives and historical sources, conversations with participants in the Patriotic War. Tolstoy finished the novel in 1869, and publication was completed at the same time.

How is it written?

Thanks to the scale of the novel, Tolstoy gains several interconnected possibilities. Speaking from the position of an omniscient author, he enters into the smallest details of the psychology of his characters, analyzes their not always predictable behavior: we become aware of what their secret thoughts, facial expressions, gestures mean. From the same authoritative position, Tolstoy, speaking about history, makes extreme generalizations: he moves from describing historical events to analyzing their causes. He crosses the style of a family, everyday novel with the style of a scientific treatise.

The manuscripts of War and Peace are 4,700 sheets: Tolstoy repeatedly copied already prepared passages, abandoned many of the original ideas. In the words of Viktor Shklovsky, “Tolstoy wanted to write one novel, but wrote another”: work on the novel changed his views on history and his approach to creating literary heroes. As a result, War and Peace is not only a historical, family, philosophical, but also a moral novel.

How was it published?

Tolstoy began to publish the novel in the “Russian Bulletin” ⁠ in parts – then it was still called “1805”. Since 1867, it began to appear in a separate edition – in six volumes. For the third reprint of 1873, Tolstoy radically revised the novel (got rid of a significant part of historiosophical reflections and French passages), in subsequent reprints he canceled these amendments and made new changes – as a result, as Boris Eikhenbaum wrote, we do not have “the final, undoubted,” canonical “text of” War and Peace “. At the present time the text is being printed after the second edition, but the division into four volumes remains from the third.

What is the innovation of War and Peace?

One of Tolstoy’s main innovations is the unification of the fictional genre of the novel with the historiosophical treatise. According to Viktor Shklovsky, this idea was given to Tolstoy by Herzen, with whom Tolstoy communicated at that time (one of Herzen’s series of articles was also called “War and Peace”), and the very value of including a “social idea” in an artistic text Tolstoy realized after reading Belinsky’s articles … War and Peace puts this idea into practice on an unprecedented scale for world literature. Historical characters in Tolstoy simultaneously become heroes of a literary work and examples for philosophical constructions – a kind of connective tissue between two types of utterance. The philosophical constructs themselves turn out to be, in the words of Dmitry Svyatopolk-Mirsky, “not only art, but also science” 1 ⁠ – in confirmation of this, one can recall that Tolstoy often resorts to logical and even mathematical arguments. At the same time, Tolstoy was primarily an artist, and lengthy digressions, combined with battle scenes, give the text its due epic sublimity of 2. Tolstoy the artist partly accepted the reproaches of his contemporaries, who considered philosophy in the novel inappropriate, and with a radical revision of 1873 he threw out almost all philosophical discourses (and almost all French) from the text. During subsequent reprints, they were restored.

Tolstoy is not only a great creator, but also a great destroyer of old structures

When we think of War and Peace, we divide it not only into “war” and “peace”, but also into fictional and philosophical chapters. With their separation, the elimination of one of these elements, “War and Peace” disintegrates, ceases to exist – but even if we pay attention only to the fictional, actually “artistic” parts, it becomes clear how deeply Tolstoy penetrates into human psychology, sometimes noticing the slightest, mechanical movements of the mind and feelings. Such, for example, is Pierre Bezukhov’s mishearing in a dream: the words of the bearer who wakes him up ⁠ “must be harnessed” turns into a revelation about the meaning of life – “must be matched”. This is the phrase “the island of Madagascar”, which Natasha mechanically pronounces, longing for Prince Andrei who has left. Moreover, Tolstoy does not just show events through the eyes of his heroes: these events have both individual and typical meanings. As Lydia Ginzburg wrote, “in a battle, or on a hunt, or at the moment when a family meets a son who has returned on vacation, all the characters in Tolstoy act according to their characters. But the most important thing for us in these scenes is a battle, or a hunt, or the return of a young officer to his home, as a psychological aspect of our common life ”3 ⁠. Perhaps this is not “the most important thing for us,” but Ginzburg correctly defines Tolstoy’s task: to demonstrate in parallel individual and generalized experience.

This is helped by both fictional characters and real historical figures; another innovation of Tolstoy is that Napoleon, Davout, Kutuzov, Bagration are not mythologized and not copied from biographical writings – they act in the novel on an equal footing with Andrei Bolkonsky, Nikolai Rostov or Anatol Kuragin (as Wolf Schmid writes, “in in the novel “War and Peace” Napoleon and Kutuzov are no less fictitious than Natasha Rostova and Pierre Bezukhov ”4 ⁠); Tolstoy analyzes their psychology on equal terms. A rejection of idealization, even ruthlessness, is a characteristic feature of War and Peace. Even in the central characters, Tolstoy does not hide “bad thoughts” 5 ⁠: in Prince Andrei – arrogance and thirst for glory, in Pierre – the slowness of the mind and readiness to be led, in Natasha – excessive spontaneity and, perhaps, the fragility of the spiritual principle. At the same time, the development, the biographical outline of the characters, who seem unpredictable during reading, retrospectively obey clear logic – just as, according to Tolstoy, individual wills of people add up to events that develop according to the laws of history.