You should be able to hear my sigh of relief and contentment all the way from here.
Because I have, ten months after beginning it, finally finished War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. I have chatted in the salons of Petersburg, marched with the army in long columns of men, horses, and wagons, danced in Moscow, hunted in the countryside, wandered bewildered across the battlefield of Borodino, watched Moscow burn and generals fumble. I have puzzled over battle plans, watched friends and enemies die from bloody wounds, wondered who and what Napoleon really was, and chuckled philosophically by the fireside, while the children played in the next room. I have found meaning where I never expected to find it; I have blushed and wept and whispered. I have taxed my mind, trying to understand why. I have lived what Tolstoy wrote.
It's that kind of book.
War and Peace isn't considered a classic just because it's a long book, and sometimes difficult to read. War and Peace is a classic because it is a real book, seething with the lives of men and women, and throbbing with ideas that are still relevant in 2007. It took me a long time to read this book, and I sometimes neglected it for weeks at a time, in favor of lighter reading, but I never once thought of abandoning it (as I did The History of Henry Esmond).
Tolstoy adds a lot of philosophy to his novel, and sometimes it seems that he spreads it pretty thick. It's possible to find the progression of the story interrupted by chapters and chapters of philosophizing. But Tolstoy is laying out his historical story as a grand illustration of his primary belief about history itself, which hinges on the relationship between power, causes, actions, free will, and necessity, all of which he methodically explains in the last chapters of the book, after all the interesting characters have been thoughtfully disposed of, happily ever after. (I never did figure out what became of Boris.)
Pierre remained my favorite character throughout, even when he plunged into Masonry and when he behaved like an idiot, "disguising" himself with a peasant's coat and plotting to murder Napoleon. When everything was stripped away from him, he finally finds the meaning that he has been looking for.
He could have no aim, for he now had faith--not faith in any sort of rule, or words, or ideas, but faith in a living, perpetually manifest God; formerly he had sought Him in aims he had set himself. That search for an aim had been simply a search for God, and suddenly, in his captivity, he had learned, not by words or reasoning, but by direct feeling, what his nurse had told him long ago: that God is here and everywhere. In his captivity he had learned that in Karatayev God was greater, more infinite and unfathomable, than in the Architect of the Universe that the Freemasons acknowledged. He felt like a man who, after straining his eyes to peer into the remote distance, find what he was seeking at his very feet. All his life he had been looking over the heads of those around him, while he had only to look before him without straining his eyes.
Throughout War and Peace, Tolstoy continually emphasizes that neither Napoleon nor Aleksander are "great men" or "geniuses," though they have both been so called. He points out over and over that they had no great plans, and that the greater number of the plans they had and orders they gave were never carried out. He tells this whole story in part simply to illustrate that some force, other than the free will of men, determines what happens in history, while at the same time, emphatically rejecting the idea that any Deity is responsible.
Which brings us to the last chapters, which I have found both tedious and fascinating at the same time. I'm not going to pretend I understand all his arguments, and I don't by any means think that I agree with him on all points. However, as he postulates the understanding of history according to certain principles about why things happen and what causes move history, using Napoleon as a recent (for him) example, and comparing how he is judged to how historical figures from which time has given us more distance, and therefore perspective, are judged, I found myself reflecting on the manner in which we judge Hitler and Stalin, as compared to the way we judge Bill Clinton or George W. Bush.
Tolstoy's contention is that current or recent history appears to be caused by the will, command, and power of key figures, but the better perspective of time and distance, which show us the results of actions as well as bring to light a better understanding of the conditions under which men were acting, reveal that actions were not the will of any capricious leader, but the more inevitable actions, necessary at the time. For example, if you saw a man pull out a gun and shoot another man, your judgment at close range would be that the man is a murderer and deserves the punishment of a murderer. Later, you may learn that the dead man was in fact a hunted criminal who had injured many, and the man who shot him was a policeman under orders to "shoot to kill." Tolstoy's point is that at close range, we are more likely to assume men are acting or their own volition, and time is required to understand "the big picture," which often (if not always) reveals that there was a necessity driving them which was not understood at the time.
Well, it has been a long time and an ambitious project. I would love to bask in the glow of accomplishment, having finished such a considerable book. But I'm not. Just wait until I share what I'm reading next!