Tolstoy Versus Napoleon

The thing about a book like War and Peace that first makes an impression on you is its size. The book itself is B-I-G. People often make the comment that Russians, especially writers like Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, are particularly gruelling because they insist on drawing you through the grinding minutiae of their characters’ everyday lives. As a result, many people are shaken off the tree while they are still in its lowest branches.

As you may be able to tell from reading this blog, I am a bloody-minded reader. I always look at books of this kind and, perhaps from a sense of inferiority, refuse to give up. I have found, with books like Anna Karenina and The Brothers Karamazov that they require such an immense scale to adequately demonstrate the arc of their character’s lives. To go back to the tree – if you keep climbing, sure you’re looking at branches and bark for a while. But once you get to the top, even half-way up, the countryside is spread out before you as far as the eye can see.

War and Peace is certainly a book set on an enormous scale. It is the story of a number of characters whose lives, over a number of years, are driven by the gears of the Napoleonic war machine. In order for Tolstoy to make his point, you actually need all the detail. By the time you hit halfway, Tolstoy himself weighs in and gives you plainly the philosophy the book has been working toward. At the beginning of Volume Three, Tolstoy lays out his attitude to history and the roles of ‘great’ men. He makes the point that we’re all instruments of history and a battle occurs because everyone involved decides to take part. Napoleon never even fired a shot at the battle of Borodino (p784).

The portrait of Napoleon himself is not an attractive one. By not seeing him for some time, it creates a sense of expectation, a la Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. When he appears in person, however, it is not as a guru of the sinister; Tolstoy’s Napoleon is actually a ridiculous little man. It seems that all great writers, when trying to give you perspective on a person, reach for satire. Essentially, Napoleon is a highly emotional, egotistical little sociopath. “It was obvious that Balashov’s person did not interest [Napoleon] in the least. It was clear that only what went on in his soul was of interest to him. Everything that was outside him had no meaning for him, because everything in the world, as it seemed to him, depended only on his will.” (p.619).

This is a belief aided and abetted by historians, which Tolstoy has sought to debunk. In fact, War and Peace is comprised of the intricate intertwining of a broad range of people who move in and out of one another’s orbits, each knowing life to be definitely the way they experience it, and being utterly ignorant of any other way. Each is as responsible for history as everyone else around them.

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