“If the world could write by itself, it would write like Tolstoy.”*
A few weeks ago, I read War and Peace. I was astonished, delighted, transfigured…all the things you’re supposed to be after reading War and Peace. I loved every page, including the dozens of little digressions on the worthlessness of contemporary historians (which culminate in an Ayn Randish fifty-page rant in the epilogue). I will never be the same again, and the person I was before reading the book has already faded away…I can barely remember him. Let’s take all that as a given.
However, there are some things I want to say about it. First of all, War and Peace is always sold as some kind of epic, world-spanning mosaic that slips into the minds of everybody from a dog to Napoleon, and tells the complete story of an entire era.
This is not really true. War and Peace is mostly about a tiny subset of early 19th century Russian society: about fifteen to twenty Moscow- and St. Petersburg-based landed noblemen and women. The book frequently highlights its relatively narrow scope by dipping, for a few sentences or a few paragraphs, into the head of a village headman or a nobleman’s German tutor (or Napolean…or a dog…), but a far greater number of words are expended on the poor financial states of various dissipated family patriarchs.
I’ve found this to be the strange thing about Tolstoy. He continually highlights how the lives of peasants are so much cleaner and spiritually purer than those of their noble masters (though this becomes a far greater theme in his later work). But, because of this, he seems to think of those peasants as leading ahistorical lives. They work, fall in love, work some more, die…and he can dip into their heads here and there, or he can craft a story where they show up as counterpoint to the spiritually impoverished lives of noblemen, but somehow he can’t really seem to create a story, the way Turgenev or Chekhov could, that is actually about the peasantry.**
It’s no wonder that Tolstoy later declaimed on the worthlessness of all art (including his own). If I held his beliefs, then it would be clear to me that a story like War and Peace is quite worthless. Who cares if Natasha Rostov finds a man to love? Or if Princess Marya manages to free herself from her domineering father and create a family life of her own? Or if Pierre Bezubhov can overcome his dreams of glory and manage to find some useful work for himself? Within the ideological and spiritual construct of Tolstoy’s thought (which is somewhat apparent even in this work), it hardly matters. These people are parasites. Some noblemen, ones who are kind but firm, and devoted to running their landed estates, are worthwhile. But even these noblemen are of less worth than even the least of their serfs. It is not just that the characters in War and Peace have strayed from some righteous path…it is that they never possessed a righteous path. Their whole lives, no matter what they do, are wicked.
But it was not really possible for Tolstoy to write about anyone else. In his world, peasants have no stories, and they need no stories. And the townspeople, the shopkeepers, artisans, clerks, are somehow elided. Their concerns are the same as those of the noblemen, but less grand, somehow (there is one notable exception, in Anna Karenina, where he spends a chapter in the head of an Italian painter)…and hence less worth writing about.
This leads to a kind of weird tension in the book. The novel is never shy about telling you exactly what to think of any situation or any character. But then the novel somehow…pulls back. It softens the blow, and admits some light into the situation. It’s like the novel recognizes how futile all of these stories are – how futile this entire way of life is – and is unwilling to finally condemn any manifestation of it too much more than any other.
Which leads me to my two favoritest characters in the book: Vera Rostov and her fiancé Lieutenant Berg. As background, the Rostovs are a massive Moscow family lead by a kindly patriarch who is slowly going bankrupt from gambling debt. But somehow his family is really nice. Everyone is nice. The children love each other and are sweet to each other and their father and mother. And everyone dotes on everyone else, and the parents let their kids marry whoever they want…it’s totes great. Except for eldest sister Vera Rostov. She is a total bitch. You know this, because the first time she is introduced, it says:
[the mom is talking about how when these younger kids are running wild and kissing each other and junk, when Vera interjects]
“Yes, I was brought up quite differently,” said the elder one, the beautiful Countess Vera, smiling.
But the smile did not embellish Vera’s face, as usually happens; on the contrary, her face became unnatural and therefore unpleasant. The elder one, Vera, was good-looking, far from stupid, an excellent student, well-brought-up, had a pleasant voice, and what she said was correct and appropriate; but, strangely, everyone, both the guest and the countess, turned to look at her, as if wondering why she had said it, and they felt awkward.
Now, War and Peace is really, really long. And Tolstoy recognizes this, so for each minor character, he will generally repeat their defining characteristic – like a Homeric epithet – each time they’re introduced (for instance, the wife of one character has a “barely visible black mustache”). And for Vera, that defining characteristic is clearly how much everyone dislikes her without quite realizing that they dislike her. For instance, her second mention in the novel:
[Vera says some stuff]
“Vera,” said the countess, turning to her older daughter, obviously not her favorite. “How is it you have no notion of anything? Can’t you feel that you’re not needed here? Go to your sisters, or…”
The beautiful Vera smiled disdainfully, apparently not feeling the slightest offense.
“If you had told me long ago, mama, I would have left at once,” she said and went to her room.
Or, a few pages later:
The beautiful Vera, who had such an irritating, unpleasant effect on everyone, smiled and, apparently untouched by what had been said to her, went up to the mirror and straightened her scarf and hair. Looking at her beautiful face, she appeared to become even colder and calmer.
A hundred pages later:
“What are you crying for, maman?” said Vera. “From all that he writes, you should rejoice and not cry.”
That was perfectly correct, but the count, and the countess, and Natasha— everyone looked at her with reproach. “Who does she take after?” thought the countess.
There is literally not a single mention of her that does not explain, once more, that she is extremely unlikeable:
“How strange it is, though,” said Vera, finding a moment of general silence, “that Sonya and Nikolenka now treat each other like strangers, on formal terms.” Vera’s observation was correct, as were all her observations; but, like most of her observations, this one made everyone feel awkward.
However, I was sold after the first mention. Vera Rostov was by far my most favorite character. And I couldn’t really understand why. There is nothing in the text to redeem her. She is unpleasant. She makes people feel bad. Her life is even more empty and meaningless than that of her family because she is not even trying to bring some joy into it. And then I realized why I liked her. It’s because she never receives any come-uppance.
Everyone in the family dislikes her, but she neither notices nor cares. Although she is the victim of some of the most harsh moral judgments in the novel (although Napolean gets slammed pretty bad too), something about the novel recognizes that these judgments have no place in her world. By her own lights, she is acting perfectly appropriately, and if there was a novel from her point of view, then it would basically be a Jane Austen novel. In fact, I think this is pretty much the plot of Sense and Sensibility: A level-headed sister who is all exasperated by the flightiness of her family.
The novel recognizes her rightness, and while critiquing her, it also allows her to just…be. But then, it also does something even more incredibly amazing (it’s so good that it’s hard for me to even talk about). It even allows her to become happy.
Vera is engaged to Lieutenant Berg. He’s a minor Livonian nobleman and social climber whose main purpose in the novel is to be the only person who can stand to be around Vera Rostov. His main distinguishing characteristic (his “barely visible black moustache”) is that all he can talk about is himself, but that he does it so openly and happily that everyone around him loves him for it.
Berg always spoke very precisely, calmly, and courteously. His conversation was always concerned with himself alone; he always kept calmly silent when the talk was about something that had no direct relation to himself. And he could be silent like that for several hours, without experiencing in himself or causing in others the slightest embarrassment. But as soon as the conversation concerned him personally, he began to speak expansively and with obvious pleasure.
“Consider my position, Pyotr Nikolaich: if I were in the cavalry, I’d get no more than two hundred roubles every four months, even with the rank of sub lieutenant; while now I get two hundred and thirty,” he said with a joyful, pleasant smile, looking at Shinshin and the count as though it was obvious to him that his success would always constitute the chief goal of everyone else’s desires.
The count burst out laughing. Other guests, seeing that Shinshin was conducting a conversation, came over to listen. Berg, oblivious of both the mockery and the indifference, went on to tell how he, by being transferred to the guards, was already one rank ahead of his comrades in the corps, how in wartime the company commander might be killed, and he, remaining the senior in the company, could very easily become the commander, and how everyone in the regiment liked him, and how his papa was pleased with him. Berg apparently enjoyed telling about it all and seemed not to suspect that other people might also have their interests. But everything he told about was so nice, so earnest, the naïveté of his youthful egoism was so obvious, that his listeners were disarmed.
Obviously, this serves as something of a counterpoint to Vera, who everyone hates because all she talks about is their faults. Berg is a minor participant in some of the novel’s battles, and his little distinguishing feature is harped on too, although less-so than for Vera.
Anyway, all of this leads, about 1/3rd of the way into the novel, to an amazing set of scenes that Tolstoy scholars like to call “The Apotheosis of Vera and Berg.”
First, there is a touching description of the circumstances of Berg’s proposal, and a description of his feelings for her:
And I love [Vera], because she has a sensible character—a very good one. Take the other sister—same family, but something quite different, an unpleasant character, and none of that intelligence, and all that, you know? … It’s unpleasant… But my fiancée … You must come to …” Berg went on; he was about to say “to dinner,” but changed his mind and said “to tea,” and with a quick movement of his tongue let out a small, round smoke ring that fully embodied his dreams of happiness.
They get married off-book, and when we come back to them, they’re planning their first dinner party as a married couple, which includes this lovely appraisal of their feelings for each other:
Berg smiled with a consciousness of his superiority over a weak woman and fell silent, thinking that all the same this sweet wife of his was a weak woman, who could not comprehend all that made up the dignity of a man—Of being a man. At the same time, Vera also smiled with a consciousness of her superiority over her virtuous, good husband, who all the same understood life wrongly, as, in Vera’s view, all men did. Berg, judging by his wife, considered all women weak and stupid. Vera, judging by her husband alone and extending the observation to everyone, supposed that all men ascribed reason only to themselves, and at the same time understood nothing, were proud and egoistic.
And the highlight of the party (and, for me, the whole book) comes when first Vera and then Berg mentally survey their surroundings:
Berg and Vera could not contain their joyful smiles at the sight of this movement about the drawing room, at the sound of this disjointed talk, the rustling of dresses and bowing. Everything was like at everyone else’s house, and especially like was the general, who praised the little apartment, patted Berg on the shoulder, and with paternal authority ordered the tables set for Boston. The general sat down to play with Count Ilya Andreevich, as the most distinguished guest after himself. The old with the old, the young with the young, the hostess by the tea table, on which there were exactly the same cakes in a silver basket as the Panins had at their soirée—everything was exactly the same as with everyone else.
Berg was pleased and happy. The smile of joy never left his face. The soirée went very well and exactly like other soirées he had seen. Everything was similar. The ladies’ subtle conversation, and the cards, and the general raising his voice over cards, and the samovar, and the cakes; but there was one thing missing that he had always seen at the soirées he wished to imitate. The missing thing was loud conversation among the men and an argument about something important and intellectual. The general began that conversation, and Berg drew Pierre into it.
Now…the entire portrait I’ve painted of the two is, if anything, less sneering and disdainful than that of the book. They’re never portrayed as anything other than unpleasant and shallow, and yet…..who has not felt the above-described feeling? That feeling when you throw a party, or set up an event, and everything goes perfectly, and you know it’s going perfectly because it’s exactly the same as a hundred other parties you’ve been to? It really is an exalted, ecstatic feeling. And the passage above – even while sneering at it – calls it to mind perfectly. It’s a real joy. And the glory of War and Peace is that it does not deny its characters these real joys.
Furthermore, Vera and Berg never get let in on the joke. The book has some sense that…it wouldn’t be right. That while we can judge people like them according to our standards, we should never crack open their lives and attempt to force them to live by standards other than their own.
Vera and Berg are never made to understand how empty their lives are. After this party, there is no further mention of them. Their story ends with them smiling and standing, very satisfied, at the threshold of a very successful soiree.
*This epigram was written by Russian short-story writer Isaac Babel. But I can’t claim that I know it out of any great erudition: the quote begins the preface of the version of War and Peace that I read. I read the Pevear / Volokhonsky translation. I don’t know if it’s better than any of the other ones…but it was really good, and I would certainly recommend it.
**Tolstoy has written alot of works, and I can’t claim to have read all, or even most, of them, so clearly I am caricaturing his output a little here. Some of his later stories, like “Alyosha the Pot” are about peasants (although in that one, the serf is the counterpoint to a greedy merchant)…but I think that this claim is generally somewhat valid, especially for the works that Tolstoy is most known for.