War and Peace Redux: Making History

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Sharing just my initial reactions are not enough for War and Peace, given its length and depth. I feel I should think about it some more. I’m ready to do so, now that I’ve let it sit for a week.

I think I needed that week. I have not read much at all this week so far (about 70 pages since I finished War and Peace last Tuesday morning). I’ve organized my thoughts into discussion questions for my book group (which met Wednesday night), and now I’m returning to the novel after a few days where I honestly didn’t think of Tolstoy, the War of 1812, or Napoleon at all.

Revisiting the novel through my initial reaction on finishing it and by reading all of your comments has been beneficial in organizing my afterthoughts. Emily says that when she feels impatience with a book, she slows down and asks herself, “Huh, this is an interesting choice the author is making…wonder what that’s about.”  That is exactly what I didn’t want to do for this particular novel, but she’s right.

As I reflect on the novel, I see how the historical bits are integral to the tome. Tolstoy was capturing the entire (upper-class, at least) Russian people during the war. If I were his target audience (a Russian of 1865), I probably would have loved his insights in to how the battle of Borodino progressed. I would have appreciated the political discussions, and I’d have felt at home with Kutuzov, since he was (at least from Tolstoy’s fictional or political bias) a Russian hero.

I don’t read a lot of historical fiction, and this may be my problem in approaching the text: I don’t particularly like historical fiction any more1 and I don’t know how it works normally (i.e., in modern but literary historical fiction).

For you historical fiction readers (anyone? anyone?), I’d love to know, does the author jump in and describe why and how the battle (for example) is progressing as it is? I have noticed that Pulitzer-Prize winning The Killer Angels is about Gettysburg (a battle that I’ve been fascinated by), but I have not yet read it. I’ll have to pick it up and see how a modern author treats a legendary battle. In War and Peace, Tolstoy goes so far as to inform us that he has visited the battle field for his research; he includes a map of how the map must have happened, given the terrain of the land.

Here’s another question for readers of historical fiction. In modern historical fiction, does the author include asides about the historical and/or political development or happenings? Beyond the Blossoming Fields did this (thoughts here); I was also rather annoyed by that author’s inability to determine if he was writing a novel about Ginko Ogino (a historical figure) or a history of medicine in nineteenth-century Japan. Once again, Tolstoy seems to be going a step farther in his political asides. It seemed to me that he’s making sure we know why Pierre’s comments are politically scandalous, for example, and he’s illustrating the political environment with the language change (French goes increasingly out of favor with the aristocracy, because it was seen as unpatriotic.)2

And finally, one more question. In modern historical fiction, does the author ponder the deeper impact of how he’s describing history? Iris commented on how Tolstoy seemed ahead of his time in weaving history into the story. I’ve said twice just above that Tolstoy went a step farther. That extra step is, I think, the reason Tolstoy’s War and Peace is a classic, besides the fascinating story of Natasha and Pierre and Andrei and Marya. Although, remember that I am not a historian, and I don’t know when the first historical fiction novel was written. Was Tolstoy first?

Regardless of the history of historical fiction, Tolstoy is experimenting with both the writing of fiction and the recording of history. He’s rewriting history for us, but that is what historians (that is, writers of nonfiction) do as well. His point is that no one really know what happened in the past and why. I believe that is what the horridly boring second epilogue is about. He’s pondering, after all is said and done, “What is history? How does one determine what really happened? Which historian do you trust? Why not believe in Natasha and Pierre as well?”

In that sense, I find it very interesting that Karen’s college professor made them read the entire novel and then they didn’t discuss the second epilogue at all. My guess is, the teacher doesn’t get it either? Or just doesn’t care? Don’t worry, then, Erin, if you don’t “get it” on your first read! Apparently none of us really do. I don’t think anyone needs to read that second epilogue to enjoy the story, honestly, because it’s completely outside of the story. Tolstoy is trying to figure out history. So Allie, if you too don’t get it on the first read, don’t be discouraged and just enjoy the story part. Tolstoy still hasn’t figured out what actually has happened either. I think he’s trying to figure out history as he writes about it.

What other books have you read that seem “ahead of its time”? What made it so novel ? (Feel free to groan at the pun!)

Tomorrow morning (I think), a spoilerific post about the women in War and Peace.

  1. I loved it when I was younger, even in high school. But now, I’d rather read either a novel or a nonfiction account, take your pick.
  2. In the end, I liked the fact that Pevear and Volokhonsky did not translate the French and German inline in the text but rather kept their English translations of those in the footnotes. It helped me follow who was being foreign (German) and who was being aristocratic (French). I thought switching down to the footnotes would bother me, so I was pleased it did not.
Reviewed on January 25, 2011

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • Tolstoy wasn’t the first to write a novel set in an earlier historical period, for sure—one example that leaps to mind for me is Daniel Defoe’s Journal of a Plague Year, which was published in 1722 but set in 1665 (and based on actual journals, casualty figures, etc. from the real 1665 outbreak of plague in London). And then, pre-novels, you’ve got Milton setting Paradise Lost in the Garden of Eden, which he may or may not have viewed as “historical”…? And Shakespeare’s History plays, of course, which play fast and loose with actual events but do tie themselves loosely to real-life monarchs.

    I don’t read a lot of modern historical fiction, but I’d tend to think that the best specimens do, as you say, “ponder the deeper impact of how [the author is] describing history.” Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, for example, while it doesn’t include blatant Tolstoy-style asides, is certainly concerned with how Cromwell, More, etc. fit into (and drive) the evolving social atmosphere of Renaissance England. Maybe Tolstoy helped set the bar on this?

  • The first standard answer to “What was the first historical novel” is Walter Scott’s Waverley (1814). Why not Defoe or Shakespeare? Because they did not inspire the writing of other historical novels. Waverley caused an international explosion of historical novels – they became enormously popular almost immediately.

    James Fennimore Cooper’s novels are Scott moved to the American forest. Pushkin, Gogol, Balzac, Dickens, and Hugo are all relatively early writers of historical novels. By the time Tolstoy wrote War and Peace, the historical novel was 50 years old, a mature genre, one that had gone through stages.

    If I asked your questions about Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables (1863), the answers are Yes, Yes, and Yes. Tolstoy certainly knew Hugo’s massive book.

    I hate to tell you this, but everything about Walter Scott on Wuthering Expectations has become essential reading, now that you are the Official Classics Book Blogger.

    • Amateur Reader, I missed something — Why am I the “official classics book blogger”? As for the historical novels, I really groan at the thought. Definitely giving Walter Scott a try — I have Ivanhoe on my shelf, is that an ok place to start? — But I’m not excited about Scott of Cooper. Was bored about of my mind with The Deerslayer as a teen — got through about 100 pages. But hey, I was a teen, so maybe it’ll be better now that I’ve read more…

      I feel silly having asked the question about historical fiction: these books are obvious ones I should have remembered.

      • You’re representing all of classics book bloggerdom at the BEA. A heady responsibility!

        Why on earth do you have to read Walter Scott? You have to read about Walter Scott. Your questions are from literary history, not literature.

        But if you do read Scott, for heaven’s sake, do not start with Ivanhoe, a trivial boy’s book. Waverley, for its place in literary history, or The Heart of Midlothian, for its Strong Female Character.

        • Amateur Reader, I’m starting to get rather nervous about “knowing” enough about the subject….I’m trying to think I”m representative of the classics bloggers not of the classics in general.

          And I hear you on the Walter Scott. Just downloaded the ebook of Waverley to the kindle ap on my phone 🙂 May not get to it for a long time, but it’s there when I want it. Will revisit your posts before May, too 🙂

          • I can’t imagine who would know more about the variety of book blogging on classics. The Classics Circuit must give you at least a peek at everyone who’s interested, every different way people have of addressing the subject. Go get ’em! Knock ’em dead! Etc. Sorry, I should save my encouragement for May.

  • ooo, awesome post. i haven’t read “war & peace” but i’m interested in the discussion – i’ll be checking back to see how people answer your questions. i’m not a reader of historical fiction…i read a lot of history, and a lot of fiction, but i don’t like to mix the two. i plan to read ‘war & peace’ since ‘anna k’ is one of my favorite books…but this sounds like a tougher one to get through, with the added history and asides. still, the way you describe tolstoy’s historical description & thoughts on the author’s influence on history sound really, really interesting. for now, for me, in a theoretical sense…but one day, when i read ‘war & peace,’ it’ll be fun to think about these issues more. i hope.

    • Ellen, I used to like historical fiction, but lately I’ve been like you — not wanting to mix the too. I remember liking Anna K. Wondering if I just wasn’t in the mood for W&P because it really is a fascinating story, history tangents nonetheless. Anyway, I do hope you someday get to W&P, so many people just LOVE it.

  • It was exactly that second epilogue you remarked upon, plus the fact that “Tolstoy was capturing the entire (upper-class, at least) Russian people during the war.” is also something, history, especially at the beginning of the twentieth century, usually dealt with only “big men”, as in politicians, theologians, etc. Of course, the upper-class is a group of relatively “big men”, but to focus on a group of people I find in itself surprising.

    Yes, Walter Scott is the name that is always stated as the first to write historical fiction. It is even said that when history started to develop as a discipline, Walter Scott was the example that was followed, but I’m not 100% sure about that.

    Anywaym your second afterthoughts made me very curious to read the book. Even if it is that long.

    • Iris, it is a very interesting book in terms of the context and the ways he treats history. I’m just not sure I want to reread it any time soon! I WILL read Walter Scott, just not excited too….

  • I don’t read enough historical fiction to weigh in on your questions, and I haven’t read enough of War and Peace yet to weigh in on the rest of your post. But, I did read your post, and I’ll be thinking about your points as I read!

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