In one of his most famous essays, Friedrich Schiller distinguished between naïve poets and sentimental poets, the former writing spontaneously without planning anything and the second being very self-aware of their writing and the problems raised by their work.
Having read the first volume of “War and Peace”, I could not help but think that Tolstoj must be necessarily included in the naïve category, only to realise that this cannot be possible, that a writer like Tolstoj would have known where his story would go. While reading the first volume of Tolstoj’s grandiose effort, I constantly had the impression that the author was consciously writing about the pursuit of one’s happiness in life, but that he did not always have a clear-cut idea of where and how Pierre, Prince Andréj, Nikolaj Rostòv or Nataša could find it. I might be terribly wrong, because Tolstoj kept revising and rewriting episodes of the book for a very long time, so he must have had some idea of where he was going.
At the centre of the story there is history of course: the Napoleonic wars that saw Russia fighting alongside Austria against the French play a big role in the 'war parts', but it is the ultimate meaning of history that is at stake in this book. What is history and can common people ever be a part of it? “War and Peace” is also a huge canvas of Russian aristocracy, of its falseness and affectation above all. Ironically enough, while princes and counts converse in good French, Russia is at war with Napoleon, who is regarded as a charlatan of an emperor and cannot compete with his Russian counterpart, Alexander I. At the centre of the question, there are ideas about Russian identity and the influence of Europe. The characters in the story seem to be more spontaneous when they speak Russian or when they try to live a genuine, simple life that does not involve discussing politics or philosophy. It is not by chance that every major character is looking for happiness, whether through masonry, marriage or war achievements.
“War and Peace” has many, maybe too many characters. For at least 300 pages you need to write them down on a piece of paper and constantly look at it. In spite of this, some of them really stand out: Pierre, the clumsy, illegitimate son of a wealthy count, who is lost and confused to the point of entering masonry was created with tenderness and affection by Tolstoj, who clearly saw much of himself in him. Then there is Prince Andréj Bolkonskij, a young officer with a pregnant wife and an eccentric father, and two siblings, Nikolaj and Nataša. He is a somehow idealistic young man who is in love with his orphan cousin Sonja to the despair of his impoverished parents, while Nataša, still a child at the beginning of the book, grows into a very beautiful young woman who is at a loss regarding her marriage. There are also some purely depraved characters like Hélène Kuraghina and her brother Anatole, libertines who clearly represent the moral corruption of the society of the time (Tojstoj wrote the novel in the 1860s, but set it in the earlier decades, which he probably found more interesting because of the historical events).
This is a complex novel which blends history with a family saga literally throbbing with life. It contains elements of philosophy, social sciences, politics and god knows what more. So far it has been an enriching experience to read it, but it has been rather demanding. Sometimes it feels like you are reading a very long director's cut, where episodes do not apparently lead to anything important or where you simply miss the point the author is trying to make, but I think it is just because Lev Tolstoj sometimes is in over my head.