Reading for Saturday, 31 January
It will always be somewhat of a debate point, I think, in literature circles as to whether Leo Tolstoy absolutely killed his book at this point, by getting stuck into too much philosophy (this accusation levelled by the same people who can’t stand the cetology chapters in Moby-Dick). Or is he actually being absolutely brilliant by taking this philosophical turn?
It’s a tricky call. In a strictly novelistic sense of the word, I think it’s a bad idea. Tolstoy’s built up this massive, three-dimensional world that lives and breathes like the world you live in, and then kinds of grinds it to a halt (like a projector that’s stopped working at a cinema) to come out and deliver a lecture on the nature of history and the impotence of so-called “great” leaders.
But then, by the same token, what makes War and Peace so three-dimension is that Tolstoy is often philosphical about life. Many little observations have been made throughout the book about life that have been so spot on, that it then makes the fictional parts of the story feel more real.
So thus a real historical/philosophical discussion, while it breaks up the flow of the novel (after all, we’re starting to feel Andrei’s angst here and the battle is just around the corner) actually helps remind us that it’s very real events that Tolstoy is dealing with here. And his writing style reads so smoothly and easily (I still marvel at how simple it is to read Tolstoy, compared with, say, Dickens – but yet you can get so much out of Tolstoy) that it’s not like the chapters are boring to read.
So I think this is where we need to remind ourselves that War and Peace doesn’t operate on the level of a regular novel and surrender ourself to the flow of prose. (After all, what else can you do?)
Which brings us to this chapter where Tolstoy carefully reproduces Napoleon’s orders to his army at the Battle of Borodino and proceeds to systematically pick them apart to show that they couldn’t have been obeyed and that Napoleon had no idea what was happening on the day.
I’ll continue this train of thought in the next chapter, which picks up nicely from this one.