On Looking Into War and Peace

by Mark Wallace

War and Peace, many say, is the greatest novel of all time. Until now I had been classing it among the novels I had technically read, but not really. In my teenage years, I went through a period of reading as many of the classics of world literature as I could lay my hands on. Some were memorable reading experiences, others less so. War and Peace was in the latter class: I read it, but so quickly and superficially that I could remember almost exactly zero about the plot and characters of the novel. At the time, I had an always-read-to-the-end policy, and it was that, more than anything, that made me persist with War and Peace. Now I am much more likely to read a book until I get a general sense of what it’s about and then put it aside (how many books end in ways that aren’t wholly predictable and generic, anyway?). This means that whether or not I have read a book is often a difficult question, as I mentioned in an earlier post. I look into books, reading the beginning or the relevant parts (using the index, in the case of non-fiction books) and then putting them aside. And rather than reading a book cold I usually am performing a reading that is in some way academically motivated – there is at least a possibility that the book could inform my research in some way. This means that what I do read, I engage with more seriously, which precludes the tokenistic reading that the always-read-to-the-end policy sometimes produced.

And so my return to War and Peace was really like reading a new novel. And this time reading it closely. I’m reading Rosemary Edmonds 1978 revision of her 1957 translation. It runs to a colossal 1444 pages in my Penguin Classics edition. At the beginning, it includes a list of Principal Characters, which is handy, although it only gives about  25 characters out of the huge cast of the novel. But still, that’s an important help, because a problem with reading Russian novels is the naming, and how hard it is to get a handle on the names. For example, there’s a character here called Princess Anna Mihalovna Drubetskoy. Sometimes the narrator will call her Anna Mihalovna, sometimes the Princess, sometimes Princess Drubetskoy. Similarly she will be addressed differently by different characters. Further, she’s not the only Princess in the book, so the character being called the Princess in one scene may be a different character from the Princess in the next scene. Still further, she’s not the only Anna – another prominent character in the early part of the book is Anna Pavlovna. There’s a lot of multiple uses of names: more than one Anna, more than one Nikolai, more than one Natalia. And that’s just in the opening chapters! It’s sobering to see that Edmonds includes a note in which she says she has simplified the naming by removing the Russian patronymic and dispensing with feminine terminations.

Russian conventions of naming and addressing  are so alien that reading a 19th-century Russian novel is complicated. Evidently, their use of the term of address “Princess” was different to other nations. It sometimes seems that half the population (the female half, to be precise) are princesses. That is partly why a quick reading of War and Peace won’t do. I have been noting the entry page of each character and writing it down by their entry in the character list, so if confused I can refer to it, and read Tolstoy’s description of them on their first appearance. Tolstoy is careful about physical apprearance, so once one gets the name straight, one quickly builds up an image of the character. He also uses appearance as information about character, as in this description of Maria, another Princess and daughter of Nikolai Andreyevich Bolkonsky (earlier in the passage, she has been described as having a “plain, sickly face”):

[T]he princess’s eyes – large, deep and luminous (it sometimes seemed as if whole shafts of light radiated from them) – were so lovely that very often in spite of the plainness of her face they gave her a charm that  was more attractive than beauty. But the princess never saw the beautiful expression of her own eyes – the expression they had when she was not thinking of herself. Like most people’s, her face assumed an affected, unnatural expression as soon as she looked in a glass. (Bk. 1, Pt. 1, Ch. 22)

Though to the point I have read, Maria has featured little, this description will, I am sure, turn out to be indice of a nature that is beautiful, gentle and so forth. More uncharacteristically in the context of what I’ve read so far, the narrator also engages in some general theorizing on humanity, specifically on people’s faces when they are looking at themselves.

That last element is uncharacteristic because in the first 112 pages of the novel, Tolstoy’s approach is undoubtedly cinematic and objective. The narrator doesn’t editorialize (so far) and he rarely gets into characters’ heads. He always describes in great detail what is happening, and leaves the reader to interpret the characters from their behaviour. This is especially apparent in the scenes set in large gatherings of Russian high society (which is a large proportion of the scenes). If Tolstoy wants to convey what a character is thinking in these scenes he doesn’t get into their heads to do it – he doesn’t focalize through the characters, in narratological terms. His technique is quite different, as in this exchange:

“Vera”, she said to her elder and obviously not her favourite daughter, “how is it that you have no notion about anything? Can’t you see that you are not wanted? Go and join your sister, or…”

The handsome Vera smiled disdainfully, evidently not in the least mortified. (1, 1, 11)

Here we are being told how both characters feel, but not through internal focalization. Rather, because “evidently” or “obviously” they feel this way. This is very economical, as Tolstoy doesn’t have to interrupt the scene with backstory, a short clause gets it across nicely. A student of narratology might ask, evident to whom? Obvious to whom? In these scenes there is no centre of consciousness, but it is as if the heterodiegetic (i.e. doesn’t take part in the story) narrator is a sensitive observer who is reading the expressions and body language of the characters for clues to their natures. But he is not omniscient, as he is not able to get into the heads of his characters, being confined to what is readable, to what they seem (1, 1, 20) to be saying.

This approach makes for an interesting effect in an early climactic scene, the death of the old count, father of Pierre. Pierre is probably the most central character in the novel, but even his interior is not directly accessed by the narrator:

While the count was being turned over, one of his arms fell back helplessly and he in vain endeavoured to pull it after him. Perhaps he noticed the look of horror on Pierre’s face at the sight of that lifeless arm, or some other thought might have flitted across his dying brain at that moment, in any case he glanced at the refractory arm, at Pierre’s horror-stricken face and at the arm again, and on his lips a feeble piteous smile appeared, quite out of characters with his features, seeming to deride his own helplessness. Suddenly, at the sight of that smile, Pierre felt a lump in his own throat and a tickling in his nose, and tears dimmed his eyes. The sick man was turned on his side with his face to the wall. He gave a sigh.

“He is dozing”, said Anna Mihalovna, observing one of the nieces approaching to take her turn by the bedside. “Come…”

Pierre left the room. [End of Chapter] (1, 1, 20)

This is an intense scene. It comes during a portion of the novel that is focalized on Pierre, but even so Pierre’s reaction is only recorded in its physiological manifestations. He wears “a look of horror” and tears dim his eyes. The closest to an analysis of Pierre’s emotional state comes with the phrase “he felt a lump in his own throat and a tickling in his nose”, but these are strictly physiological phenomena, and even visual ones. The lump in the throat, at least, could in principle be seen by the careful observer that is Tolstoy’s narrator. As for the other main character in the scene, the dying count, the narrator – once again, not omniscient – can only speculate as to his thoughts and emotions: “Perhaps he noticed the look of horror on Pierre’s face…” The cinematicity of the scene makes it easy to see what is going on, but it also leaves a lot of ellipses. It is both unsatisfying and compelling. Ending a chapter in this way, one wants to know more. There is not only a plot in motion regarding the count’s will, but the silence around Pierre’s emotional life creates another source of interest. It remains to be seen how this is to be developed. Will the characters be filled out with greater internality as the book progresses? Is it desirable that they should, or does the surface objectivity of the style to this point present a more realized view of humanity

As of now, War and Peace is a book I can’t give up. I didn’t pick it up with the intention of reading it all, just to get a feel for Tolstoy’s style and his worldview, but the quality of his observation, and the promise of unexplored depths in all of the characters, as well as the feeling of  the author’s generalized affection for those same characters, means I will continue to read with attention. It still seems unlikely that I’ll read all 1444 pages in this reading, as I do have a life to lead (well, kind of) and other more important (research-wise) stuff to read, but already I’ve come away with a lot more than the first time I read this, and there’s so much more I could write about the novel, did not this post already exceed  my standard post lengths. There’s a great quote on the Wikipedia War and Peace page from Isaac Babel:

“If the world could write by itself, it would write like Tolstoy.”

That’s one hell of a compliment, but not one I’d care to argue with at this point.