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October 23, 2008

homage to war and peace

Tolstoy_Repin_1901.jpg [image: Leo Tolstoy, by Ilya Repin, 1901] Today, I finished reading War and Peace. It was "my first time". I feel exhausted, vitalized, frayed, warmed, enervated, elated. And at the moment, it seems to me quite certain that I will never, ever tackle another novel.

In his "Preface" to The Tragic Muse Henry James passionately queened it over Tolstoy, allowing that novels like War and Peace have "life" but wondered "what do such large loose baggy monsters, with their queer elements of the accidental and the arbitrary, artistically mean?" Against the ragged Tolstoyan panorama, James exalted the narrowed chamber of "composition" and pleaded for "a deep-breathing economy and an organic form".

But, to my mind anyway, it is the extraordinary play with indefiniteness, with the heteroclite and the oddly, eerily, inexplicably conjoined which is one of the most artistically moving facets of the book. As an ambiguous whole, Tolstoy's book is akin to those nights of Pierre's in which "real events mingled with dreams" or to those conversations between Pierre and Natasha in which they find their way into each others' minds "in ways contrary to all rules of logic, without premises, deductions, or conclusions, and in a quite peculiar way." For Natasha, the "line of logical reasoning", the counterpart of James's ethos of considered novelistic "composition", is a sign of falsity.

Pierre and Natasha's conversations proceed, "contrary to all the laws of logic and contrary to them because quite different subjects were talked about at one and the same time. This simultaneous discussion of many topics did not prevent a clear understanding but on the contrary was the surest sign that they fully understood one another."

As it is with two of the main characters, so it is with Tolstoy's compounding and intertwining method. The "looseness" of the book is one of its compelling attractions and interests. Perhaps that may explain in part why Tolstoy, as he meditating on the novel switched from a plan to focus on the genesis of the Decembrists of 1825 back to a study of the period between 1805-1812. (Tolstoy was a grandson of one of the main Decembrist leaders, Sergei Volkonsky.) For it was that earlier period which gave his fascination with a novelistic vitality "contrary to all rules of logic" its fullest chance of historical expression.

One of the most obvious characteristics of the period is a melting and destruction of national limits (and correspondingly of the protocols governing what can and cannot be done in war, as of the boundaries to what can and cannot be imagined) as the "storm-tossed sea of European history" seethes and breaks its banks when "the ferment" arises in Paris in 1789, "grows, spreads, and is expressed by a movement of peoples from west to east" and is succeeded, like an ebbing tide by a "countermovement... from east to west." Only a "large loose baggy monster" could be equal to such turmoil. In a sense one could describe the book about the advent of an epistemological disorder which scrambles the boundaries between disparate entities -- "west" and "east", Europe and Russia, rationality and intuition -- and which it is the work of the novel to unscramble and resegregate.

I wondered what I could do to signal how much reading this novel has meant to me. One striking index of the churning, boundary-destroying nature of Tolstoy's book is its supra-national quality. War and Peace ranges bewilderingly widely across the hemisphere. I decided to make a map -- for myself, but perhaps also for others who are grappling with Tolstoyan geography. It is a mundane species of homage, but not a pointless one. Containing some 200 place-markers, the map must be riven with mistakes, large and small; I know I am full of doubts about some of my topographical guesses. But, as a friend of mine is fond of saying, a job that's worth doing is worth doing badly. So here is "my" War and Peace map; I hope it helps.

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Posted by njenkins at October 23, 2008 10:30 PM

With the exception of interspersed quotations, all writing is © 2007-09 by Nicholas Jenkins