Having finished Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace about a week ago, here are some thoughts. I think it is almost impossible to fully review a book this big, but here are some of my reflections anyway.
1) Tolstoy has a funny relationship with history. Writing about 5 years after the events described in the book (Napoleons invasion into Russia in 1812), Tolstoy is aware of what the historians have written on the matter. He brings this into his descriptions of the course of the war but also a more down to earth approach based on his experiences serving in the Russian army. Historians like to explain things in terms of orders, plans and strategies of generals and admirals. His problem with that is that generals and admirals are often a long way from the battle lines, so when their strategies are not implemented, it is difficult to respond to the battle play-by-play. Tolstoy prefers to use other forces such as the spirit of the troops, the ideas of the day, the on the ground reactions of the individual army units. All of this combines to produce events of war that no-one is really directing. Tolstoy takes great pleasure in describing how Mikhail Illarionovich Kutuzov, the commander in chief of the Russian Army, defied all the other general’s wishes by stepping back in retreat. This allowed the French army, which was a long way from home, had suffered heavy losses at the battle of Borodino, and crucially, did not know how to deal with the Russian cold, to effectively defeat themselves. This, Tolstoy thinks, was the work of a master who read all the signs and spirit of the war. Tolstoy seemed to think that the French were always going to defeat themselves in this war, and Kutuzov had the courage and the foresight to enable them to do it for him without risking more of his own soldiers than needed.
Tolstoy’s final chapter (Epilogue II!) is an essay on what are the forces that drive nations to war? What is power and how is it appropriated and allowed to flourish by the people. His conclusion is complex, but he remarks that nations do not go to war simply because of an Emperor’s will. He implies that the ancients might have got it right when they attributed this kind of thing to the outworking and sovereignty of God. It is only relatively recently that this has failed to be a good enough answer.
2) Tolstoy’s characters are complex, well rounded and deep. The central character, Pierre, is portrayed as a likeable buffoon who is lumbering through life trying to find truth and meaning and something he enjoys, and he always seems dissatified with the society of nobility that he is a part of. To him, it seems shallow (and is epitomised in his wife, Helene, who is only interested in social advancement). Pierre’s search for truth leads him to join the Freemasons, to get involved in social improvement for his peasant labourers, to try and make a mark on history buy coming up with a ridiculous plan to assassinate Napoleon. In the end he finds it is the simple things of like that make it worthwhile and fulfilling – having one’s personal needs met and being thankful to God for it, having a deep, true, and real relationships including a secure marriage relationship (in his second marriage after his first wife, Helene, dies), and in his family. For Tolstoy, meaning is as simple as this. (If Pierre had discovered this sooner, the book would be shorter)
3) The book is full of examples of how to and how not to do life. As in one of Tolstoy’s other books, Anna Karenina, it is stability, faithfulness and sense that are promoted. The continual lust for money, power, social advancement are all found to be empty, unfulfilling, and the path to destruction.
For the LORD gives wisdom, and from his mouth come knowledge and understanding. He holds victory in store for the upright, he is a shield to those whose walk is blameless, for he guards the course of the just and protects the way of his faithful ones.
Then you will understand what is right and just and fair—every good path. For wisdom will enter your heart, and knowledge will be pleasant to your soul. Discretion will protect you, and understanding will guard you.
Wisdom will save you from the ways of wicked men, from men whose words are perverse, who leave the straight paths to walk in dark ways, who delight in doing wrong and rejoice in the perverseness of evil, whose paths are crooked and who are devious in their ways. (Prov 2:6-11)