Henry James famously included War and Peace in his list of ‘big, loose, baggy monsters’, reflecting a wider shift in critical values away from the panoramic vision of the realist novel towards the well-wrought formal intricacy of the modernist novel. A major background to this shift is the more complicated relationship modern authors perceived between the text and the world. Whereas the 19th century realist novel is often held (somewhat simplistically) to take its ability to accurately represent reality as a given, a defining characteristic of the modern novel is its more consistent awareness of its formal limits and constructedness.
War and Peace was published in 1869 – just 21 years before Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, and roughly coinciding with authors, like Flaubert, Zola, Huysmans and Wilde, who display a markedly modern sensibility – yet in some ways it feels decidedly of a different era. This is especially the case when considered against the formally attentive bent the European novel subsequently took with the rise of symbolism and later modernism. Tolstoy’s own work subsequently moved towards symmetry of design and plot with Ana Karenina, which that arch formalist Vladimir Nabokov considered superior to War and Peace.
A gargantuan pseudo-historical omnibus that examines a 15-year tranch of Russian history (not to mention ‘history’ itself) from the God-like authorial perspective of Balzac, Dickens and Thackeray, War and Peace is the high water mark of the outward-looking 19th century realist novel. In retrospect it looks like something of a tipping point, coming towards the end of a period when the novel was still chiefly preoccupied with what Lukács calls ‘the objective totality’ of the world around it, before form and consciousness hijacked it and paved the way for much of the avant-garde art of the early 20th century.
In a sense, the sort of outward-looking, social and historical epic of which War and Peace is the prime exemplar became outmoded by the new technologies that marked the dawn of the modern world. As film and photography gave artists new ways of capturing reality, literature’s task began to move away from directly representing it and became centred on subjectivity.
Fitting obediently into this cultural narrative, in its scope and techniques War and Peace has a strikingly filmic quality. The way that it juggles interlocking storylines, cutting between characters and plotlines, zooming in to focus on intimate detail before panning out to place it in context, is a blueprint for visual narrative. Especially in the first two of its four books (each the length of a longish novel), Tolstoy keeps his commentary and moralising to a minimum, emphasising showing over telling. The result is an incredibly vivid and nuanced evocation of 19th century Russian aristocratic society, which may account for its apparent popularity with historians – Simon Schama provides a glowing soundbite on the cover of my edition, with a more extended dithyramb coming in the form of an afterword by Amazon reviewer and sometime historian Orlando Figes.
Whereas in Dickens or Thackeray, characters – no matter how memorable or compelling – never quite shake off their cartoonish wrapping, Tolstoy had a genius for uncanny verisimilitude. A big part of this is his rejection of easy novelistic shortcuts. Of the principle characters – Pierre, Natasha, Andrey, Nikolay, Pyotr and Sonia – none has a defining trait, is associated with a descriptive or stylistic motif, or serves an obvious function as the vehicle for a particular theme or idea. We may feel like we know these characters in a way that draws us into the novel and causes us to willingly suspend our disbelief, but we do not ‘know’ them in the sense that we can accurately predict what they will say or do in a given situation – a rigidness of character generally only perceived in retrospect or in fiction.
When Pierre erratically rides a horse around the frontline of a battle, or impulsively attacks a French solider who is leering at a Russian girl; when Natasha breaks off her engagement with Andrey and attempts to elope with Kuragin; when Andrey heroically seizes a flag and impersonates a general to ward off enemy fire at the Battle of Austerlitz; when Nikolay gambles away his fortune over a game of cards; none of these events follow the artificial logic that makes up the coherent argument of the conventional novel, wherein characters have rigid personas with predefined ideas and characteristics.
In Dickens, characters are generally reliable – you know John Jarndyce and Esther Summersone will be morally impeccable, you know Murdstone will be a complete bastard, you know Gradgrind will be rigorously utilitarian, you know Silas Wegg will be venal and you know Mr Micawber will be genially profligate, regardless of the situation. In Tolstoy, as in life, a character’s actions only seem characteristic, fitting into the neat logic of the narrative that makes up their identity, in retrospect.
The incontinence of War and Peace’s design, its hectoring morality, its misguided array of Homeric epic similes, and its slightly pompous lectures on the philosophy of history may seem to mark it out as a contrast to the more self-conscious path that modern fiction took in its wake. But in its approach to character and identity, War and Peace helps blaze the fictional trail later explored by Kafka, Proust and Joyce.