It’s been reported that the Bombay High Court has asked Vernon Gonsalves, an accused in the Bhima Koregaon case, to explain why he kept “objectionable material” such as a copy of Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace at home. After all, said the judge, it’s “about a war in another country.” The Pune police had earlier claimed Tolstoy’s book was part of the “highly incriminating evidence” seized from Gonsalves’s house in Mumbai last year.
It’s worrying that people should have to explain the contents of their bookshelves. It’s also unusual that War and Peace has been singled out in this manner. It’s often been cited as one of the best novels ever, written in instalments spread over six years from 1861 onwards. In 2015, there was even a marathon War and Peace broadcast in Russia, during which celebrities and members of the public read it aloud. Notably, this included cosmonaut Sergei Volkov who took part from the International Space Station.
An Intimidating Novel
War and Peace is noteworthy for another reason: it’s one of those books that most people have never read or finished, despite having a yellowing copy on their shelves for ages. After all, it’s well over 1,000 pages, containing hundreds of characters who appear and re-appear across intersecting plotlines, with many digressions on the nature of history, and not one but two long epilogues. If that wasn’t enough, a lot of the dialogue is in French, especially during the opening ballroom scene, as it was widely spoken by Russian aristocracy at the time. War and Peace may not as long as the combined volumes of Proust’s
In Search of Lost Time, but it can seem as intimidating.
Is the book, then, unreadable? Is it even worth reading? The question arises in the first place because the popular notion of a novel is that of a contemporary Western one: a volume of a manageable size, with a few fictional characters and events, following a defined arc. When it comes to War and Peace, this definition misses the point. Tolstoy wanted to create something uniquely Russian, a receptacle into which he could pour his thoughts about the state of his countrymen at the time he was writing it. This included his feelings about love, life and, significantly, the nature of individual actions against a wider historical backdrop. He chose to do this by following the fates of five families during the Napoleonic Wars.
The author said as much to the novel’s early detractors, some of whom called it “a disordered heap of accumulated material.” In an essay entitled What is War and Peace?, he waspishly wrote: “It is not a novel, still less an epic poem, still less a historical chronicle. War and Peace is what the author wanted and was able to express, in the form in which it is expressed.” He went on to assert that “there is not a single work of artistic prose in the modern period of Russian literature, rising slightly above mediocrity, that would fit perfectly into the form of the novel, the epic, or the story.”
A “Not In Order” Project
It could well be that this conception of War and Peace “just grew”, like Topsy in
Uncle Tom’s Cabin. As Andrew Kaufman has pointed out, Tolstoy “just kept on writing, creating new characters and scenes, revisiting familiar characters in fresh contexts, exploring metaphor after metaphor in his quest to contain in words that which is not readily contained.”
Tolstoy began by wanting to write about 1850s Russia; then thought of incorporating the Decembrist uprising of 1825; then went back further to the French invasion of 1812; and finally included the years that led up to it, stopping at 1805. It seems clear that a conventional, well-ordered novel was the last thing on his mind.
Yes, the theorising can be stodgy. But Tolstoy’s incomparable ability to capture even the smallest moments in the lives of his characters, and their responses to them, is what makes War and Peace memorable and universally relatable. Pierre Bezukhov’s heartbreak, Natasha Rostova’s dance, Andrei Bolkonsky’s vision of an infinite sky: all these and more are what led Isaac Babel to exclaim that when he read Tolstoy, he felt as if the world was writing itself.
War and Peace, as Kaufman says, is about human beings trying to live meaningfully in a country being torn apart by war, social change, and spiritual confusion. It’s worth reading.
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Sanjay Sipahimalani is a Mumbai-based writer and reviewer. here.