Tolstoy was a great novelist, not much of a philosopher and
pretty much a disaster as a theologian. There are many, and
I am among them, who consider War and Peace to be among
the very greatest of novels, if not the best of them all.
I have just finished reading it for the eighth time, prompted
by a new English translation. With refreshing candor in this
age of political correctness, the translator Anthony Briggs
commends his own effort by saying that previous English translations,
all being done by women, fail to capture the earthiness of
the military scenes. Well, he does get the famous four letter
word into the text. I could compare the translations only
in terms of my remembered pleasure in reading them all. Briggs
has not rendered the others obsolete but he deserves our gratitude
for what had to be an enormous task.
There are books of which it is said that they are difficult
to put down. That can be said of War and Peace, with
the addendum that it is equally hard to pick up, weighing
as much as it does. I read the Briggs translation in a hard
back edition and getting comfortable with it requires some
of the skills of the Sumo wrestler. But how would we notice
pleasure without the contrast of pain?
The novel turns around Napoleon's invasion of Russia, occupation
of Moscow and then, after a few months, his long and disastrous
retreat, followed by the Russian army he had hitherto driven
before him. The antecedents, events and consequences of this
are lavishly considered both on the home front and on the
battle field. Not content to simply tell the story, Tolstoy
wants to interpret its events for us, to philosophize about
them. His ruminations about history swing wildly from a kind
of Hegelian Cunning of Reason view of the role of the great
actors in historical events and an appeal to Providence. His
main point is that we can never hope to comprehend such events.
They are mysteries.
On the theoretical level, Tolstoy dismisses the notion that
the actions of human agents are free. But of course a story
whose characters were fatalistically determined would contradict
the basic assumption of fiction. What he is denying is that
our projects turn out to have the effects we intend, that
the invasion of Russia had intelligible causes and that it
was the result of planning. Only a consequentialist could
object to this. For all that, the extended historical essays
which make up the final chapters make for tough going. But
who can resist the thought that generals called great are
those whose orders are not carried out?
Tolstoy intrigues us because he came to regret his literary
achievements and to regard them as almost sinful excursions.
In What is Art? he develops an anti-aesthetics and
in Confession, published in 1879, he gives us the history
of his religious opinions, his rejection of Orthodoxy and
espousal of a version of Christianity which has little to
do with Christ. He became a sort of Dostoievski character
in his old age, a half mad mystic who longed for simplicity
in the most complicated way. He and his wife exchanged diaries,
incredibly enough, and Leo came to regard his fleshly desires
as per se evil, not a solid foundation for a happy marriage.
At the end, he fled home and wife and died in a railroad station,
resolutely refusing entry to his wife. Ah well, even
Homer nods. None of these later cranky and idiosyncratic efforts
can detract from the glory of War and Peace. But it
is an odd thought that one loves the novel so much more than
its author came to do.