Recently, at a Passover seder, my friend turned to me and asked, “So how’s it going with War and Peace?” He had considered joining me in reading the novel, and, though other things got in his way, he was still curious about Tolstoy. I tried to figure out what to say. I have felt so overcome with the novel’s fullness, with the sense that I have been living in two worlds—in my own life and in Tolstoy’s early 19th Century Russia—that I didn’t know how to answer. We were at a seder, after all and I couldn’t see how to express my reactions succinctly. We had a whole Haggadah to get through.
“I’m on page 450,” I told him.
I’ll try to do better here, but the truth is that I’m finding the experience so personally enthralling that I have difficulty putting my feelings into words. As I’ve said before, I often just marvel at the expressiveness of a single paragraph, or sentence. Take, for example, one particularly penetrating description of Prince Vassily. I’ve mentioned him before because, even though he’s not a major character in the book, he’s crafty. Other characters (as well as the reader) have to watch out for his tricks. Here’s how Tolstoy describes the prince:
Prince Vassily did not think out his plans. Still less did he think of doing people harm in order to profit from it. He was simply a man of the world, who succeeded in the world and made a habit of that success. According to his circumstances and his intimacy with people, he constantly formed various plans and schemes which he himself was not quite aware of, but which constituted all the interest of his life. . . . [Let] him meet a man in power, and in the same moment his instinct would tell him that the man might be useful, and Prince Vassily would become intimate with him and at the first opportunity, without any preparation, instinctively, would flatter him, behave familiarly, talk about what was needed. [p. 201]
What I love about this description is how complicated Tolstoy makes this weasel. Vassily doesn’t intend to harm other people, but he has no ability to see beyond his own needs. His desire to manipulate the world around him forms the essence of his character, providing, as Tolstoy says, “all the interest of his life.” He’s not purely evil; he’s much more complicated, and intriguing, than that.
One other thing about that prince. I notice that I used the word “penetrating” to describe Tolstoy’s description of the man. “Penetrating” is a strange word to use when describing an author’s depiction of a character. That word assumes that an observer has developed an astute understanding of another person’s psyche. But Tolstoy created that psyche, so of course he knows everything. When I read the book, though, I forget that these individuals are fictitious. The people who populate War and Peace have a human depth and Tolstoy demands that we continually assess them as if they’re living, breathing, and sometimes conniving, human beings. That’s one way that his novel comes to feel so alive.
The author E.M. Forster, in his book Aspects of the Novel, talked about characters being “flat” or “round.” A “flat” character, according to Forster, is a character who may be memorable but who can’t change and is defined by a set of characteristics. (Here’s is Forster’s famous example: “The really flat character can be expressed in one sentence such as ‘I will never desert Mr. Micawber.’ There is Mrs. Micawber — she says she won’t desert Mr. Micawber; she doesn’t, and there she is.”)
In Forster’s terms, Prince Vassily is a flat character (Okay, I haven’t finished the book, so I could be wrong; but I don’t expect him to change). Being “flat,” however, doesn’t mean that he lacks interest. In fact, he’s continually interesting because we can take such pleasure in watching the various ways in which he engages in his singular talent, which is manipulation.
I’m wondering what kinds of reactions other readers are having to specific characters in the book. Now that we are well into the novel, which ones most intrigue you? What do you think of Pierre these days? What about the ladies’ man Dolokhov who, it turns out, is also a devoted son and brother?
I’m wondering, too, if anyone became confused by the fate of Prince Andrei, as I did. [Warning: Spoiler ahead in this paragraph] At the end of Chapter III, Part One (p. 307), I read this sentence: “Of Bolkonsky nothing was said, and only those who knew him closely regretted that he had died early, leaving his pregnant wife with his eccentric father.” That’s the last sentence of the chapter and when I read it, I took it as confirming that Prince Andrei, seriously wounded in battle, had actually died. Later in the novel, though, we see that he didn’t die after all. The wording of the English translation seems straightforward, but I suspect that I was supposed to read it as more ambiguous. Are there any Russian readers out there? Does the original Russian leave the prince’s fate more open to question?
I love the plot twists, in any case. They keep me open to any possibility and remind me that anything can happen.
I’d love to know what you think.