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.

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2 thoughts on “One-Year War and Peace 10.27 – Orders and Reality

  1. I think it’s worth remembering, on this issue, Matt, that Tolstoy himself was quite clear that “War and Peace” is not a novel. And yet, of course, we all still read it mainly as a novel and so, not surprisingly, feel a bit derailed by these chapters. And of course, there’s quite a lot of them overall, so it is pretty important, I think, for each reader to decide how they feel about this type or writing being intermingled with the story. I have to admit that I found it all a bit turgid and hard-going first time around but now, partly because I am ready for it, and largely because we’re reading it at this measured pace, and discussing it every day, I’m appreciating it a lot, lot more. Things in the story now take on a whole different shade for meaning for me, because of these chapters and, much more than before, I am finding myself really reflecting on how Tolstoy’s views about history are played out in the narrative of the story.

    In a way, I think it’s a little bit (only a little bit) like all those Appendices at the end of Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” where we get loads and loads of stuff about the elvish linguistics, and hobbit calendars, and so on. I know it’s quite different because that’s all found only at the end of the book rather than nterspersed throughout, but I find it similar in that it’s a way of helping to create the fullness of the picture that the writer is creating for us. It can seem horribly didactic at first, but taken as part of the whole, it really does make for a very rich tapestry of a world, I think.

  2. I’m glad that Tolstoy did it this way; I think all these philosophical breaks in the story are interesting – it makes you think about life, in particular about society and how things were and how we can compare those issues with what we have in today’s world – and there is, of course, the actual war issues.

    Is it not the same, more or less, as what we are dealing with now? There seems to be a lot of foolishness and egotistic ways of thinking going on with these people who are running the war – it would be interesting to see how people will view our present day writings in another 500 years or so.

    It’s like my daughter used to say – same sheet, different plate.

    BTW – I’ve now read as far as Book 11, Chapter 10 . . . I have 940 characters counted – looks like I just might make that 1,000 mark.

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