The man at my local bookshop asked me what I was reading and when I said, “War and Peace” his eyes lit up. “Oh,” he said, “I’ve always wanted to read that, what’s it about?”
At the time I was only half way through the novel and didn’t feel ready to offer an opinion but threw out a one-liner based on what I had read so far. “Chance is not a synonym for genius,” I said.
Having finished the book I now know that as a pithy one-liner that is not actually a bad stab at summarising the book, but War and Peace is thirteen hundred pages long so is obviously about more than just that. War, Tolstoy tells us, seems at some level to be a highly organised human endeavour. The prevailing wisdom is that we have the art and science of warfare which together dictate the extent of the possible, from which plans are developed at the highest level. We then have a chain of command from the general at the top threading through armies and divisions and regiments and companies all the way down to individual foot soldiers on the front line, and at every link in this chain well-trained officers and men obey orders in a highly disciplined manner to execute to a degree of precision unrivaled in human civilisation the strategic plans devised by the clever person in charge, from which the desired tactical objectives are achieved. Which is, obviously, all entirely due to the sheer genius of the Commander-in-Chief.
The only trouble is that warfare, as War and Peace amply demonstrates, is not like that at all. Who is meant to go where and what they are supposed to do when they get there is, admittedly, sometimes planned out to a surprisingly high degree, but what actually happens on the ground in the midst of battle is, by comparison, utter chaos. Tolstoy demonstrates this with, among other things, a highly detailed account of the Battle of Borodino, an important battle during Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812, a battle so important that the two sides concerned cannot even agree on which date it was fought much less who won. The French think it was fought on the 7th September and that they won because they held the field at the close of play, but the Russians think it was held on the 26th August and that they won because they were not defeated.
At one point in the novel Napoleon is depicted on a hill overlooking Moscow requesting a special escort for his decisive advance on the city while his advisors are anxiously conferring as to which of them should advise his Excellency that the Russians have withdrawn and French soldiers have already entered the city. It then becomes a little problematic to argue that the city was taken in accordance with the plans detailed by the military genius who knew nothing about it.
And, big clue in the title of the novel, War and Peace also says that it is not just war that is like this, but that life, in general, is like this. History, Tolstoy argues, is not an ordered sequence of events each consequent upon some prior event so that for any given event we can look back and find its cause and the reasons why it happened. No, history is really the simultaneous occurrence of numberless unplanned acts by people acting entirely at random in, they hope, their own interests. Which will no doubt come as something of a surprise to those people who think they are running our country.
Having got that far I asked myself why it was that in order to make this point Tolstoy concentrated on the upper classes? In telling his story he stuffs it full of princes, counts and the landed aristocracy and their wives, daughters and mothers but there is very little of the ordinary citizenry, what we today might think of as the ninety-nine percent. There are footmen, grooms, ostlers, serfs, peasants and sutlers in War and Peace but they are largely there to serve their masters, to be grooms and footmen and so on rather than to be people with hopes and dreams and desires. Why is it, I asked, that these people are not cited as examples of the populace thinking their lives are occurring in accordance with some highly organised scheme of cause and effect?
The answer, of course, is complex, and I will mention just two reasons. The first is that these people already feel as though their lives are not under their control. The serfs and peasants of Tolstoy’s Russia are not in control of their lives but are merely actors in a drama being directed by their masters. An important scene where Princess Mary Bolkonskaya tries to give the serfs some grain to relieve their suffering emphasises this point. The grain is a reserve known as Landlord’s Corn, and the serfs have an existential fear that if the Landlord’s Corn is given away there will no longer be a landlord and they will of necessity cease to have a home. They need there to be a landlord for them to serve and Princess Mary cannot simply end the play by benevolently giving away her corn.
The second reason is that even the aristocracy, the ones who think they are in control, are not in control of their own lives anyway. They have this rather quaint idea, not unique to the Russian nobility but shared with the aristocracy of many nations, that they are participating in some kind of developmental breeding programme where they choose partners for their sons and daughters based on their heritage, their education, their dowry, their degree of social integration and acceptance and on their manners and courtly demeanour. They think the fact that their daughter can sing light opera and play the piano means that she will be the perfect bride for a properly educated noble man who appreciates these values. But the reality of life as it is lived rather than as it is dreamed about is that love knows not the meaning of piano playing or manners or adherence to the constantly changing rules of fashion. Men and women fall in love at the drop of a hat, when two eyes meet and detect that indefinable spark of recognition that lights the fires within.
It is to demonstrate this point that in the novel Pierre, Count Bezukhov, marries the beautiful, talented, rich but exceedingly ill-matched Princess Helene Kuragina and spends virtually the rest of the novel regretting it. That his marriage was made precisely in accordance with “the rules,” but turns out to be an utter failure makes Tolstoy’s overall point that there are no rules. And since there are no rules life cannot therefore be a game played in accordance with them. Life, Tolstoy says, all of life, not just the War part but the Peace part too, is not a game being conducted according to some set of rules comprehensible to the enlightened few, it is a continuous sequence of random events.
Tolstoy wrote this novel one hundred and forty years ago, and it is widely considered to be one of the finest works of literature, it regularly appears on “Best of…” lists or the top 100 novels lists or those lists of books you absolutely have to read before you die. Which does kind of beg the question: Why don’t we believe him? If it is such a fine piece of literature that proffers so clear, compelling and comprehensible a point, why is it that we still tend to believe that we are in control of our lives? How can we simultaneously believe that War and Peace is both brilliant and wrong?
That, my friends, is why we have Dostoevsky, and Hardy, and Trollope and Hemingway and Balzac and Flaubert, to name just a few. If we already understood the answer to that we wouldn’t read fiction. If we knew the answer to that we wouldn’t need Madame Bovary, The Idiot, Far From the Madding Crowd, For Whom the Bell Tolls or any of the other thousands of novels that deal with the utter perplexity of life and the contradictory nature of us mere humans. We believe in logical rational thinking but allow our actions to be driven by our emotions, we believe one thing and do another, we change our minds and follow our noses and this makes us unpredictable and inexplicable and it is these very qualities that make us infinitely interesting as the subjects of fiction. If we weren’t like this we wouldn’t want to read or write about us.
If Alex Garland‘s film Ex Machina (2015) starring Alicia Vikander as an artificially intelligent robot ever came true, the robot us would not sit round fires telling our stories or peck away at keyboards writing novels about ourselves, we would not sit night after night at kitchen tables composing poetry or arise in the pre-dawn hush to write songs of hope and desire because these are the creative outputs of what it means to be human. In a utopia stuffed full of robots there would be no art and that explains why we need both war and peace and also why we need War and Peace. Life without them would be an intolerable perfection.