Beginnings

I am usually interested in how authors begin their works and why they begin as they do.  Tolstoy begins War and Peace unusually, especially for a work written in the 1860’s.  Instead of setting the scene from which the action will then follow, or describing the characters that will occupy central positions, we, the readers, are more or less plopped down in a scene of little consequence, with a couple of characters of questionable interest, Anna Pavlovna Scherer, Prince Vassily Kuragin, and a few other members and visitors to Russian high society.  We know nothing about the characters.  Indeed, and almost outrageously, most of the characters turn out to be minor.  The conversation, although quite pertinent to broad outlines of the book, is stilted, pretentious, provincial, and conducted in French. The society Tolstoy introduces here is privileged, but is also far from the most elite of the country.  These characters are wealthy but culturally alienated from much of their surrounding world. Why begin in this marginal way?  What is Tolstoy up to?

War and Peace opens at a critical time in Russian history, the time leading up to Napoleon’s epic invasion and retreat.  All the characters know something big is immanent, and that nations are set to collide, but that is not where the action begins.  Instead the readers are set into high society, and its somewhat stilted banter.  Perhaps the best way for a reader to understand what Tolstoy is doing here is to start by examining our own reactions to the first few pages.  Tolstoy is dispensing with an introduction that in the course of things would be gratuitous.  More to the point, he is immediately engaging the reader emotionally.  A painting is not preceded by an introduction.  Similarly, the opening of War and Peace just opens a world for the reader’s imagination to slip into.  But this is Tolstoy’s world, and this beginning offers us a few clues about this world’s sensibilities.

Even as characters discuss events and political perspectives from 200 years ago, it is hard to remain strictly neutral in one’s reactions to their dialogue.  Most of the societal characters are self-aggrandizing wind bags and posers, at least to some extent.  (Unlike those in similar situations today.)  It all seems somewhat artificial, even a bit phony.  (Again, unlike today.)  In short, even though the reader is mildly interested in what is going on, he or she is developing a certain suspicious attitude towards the society of the Russian aristocracy.  Few readers are probably neutral towards most of the characters which Tolstoy introduces.  And most of these characters are at least slightly absurd.  Why would Tolstoy initially foster such an attitude in his readers against the members of his own class?  (Perhaps we should return to this particular question later.)

Although the action does not begin with war or the scenes that lead to war, either politically or militarily, these matters are clearly on everyone’s mind, and Tolstoy introduces his great subject this way.  Although the political situation in the world is unstable, and change seems inevitable, everyone is at the same time pursuing their own relatively petty interests in society.  This is like a little statement of a motif in a symphony that a composer will return to many times as he develops it.  And perhaps just as importantly for thematic purposes, Tolstoy introduces war and national conflict first from the perspective of historically insignificant characters instead of through the political and military elite of the states that will collide in conflict.  So Tolstoy begins by introducing his readers to his great subject, war, peace, and history, through the real agents of transformation, the individual people, or atoms, of history.  With Tolstoy, history moves from the bottom up instead of from the top down.  It would therefore be misleading to start with Napoleon, or the Tsar, or some other such character.

So in the first few pages, Tolstoy actually accomplishes much, despite seeming to be preoccupied with trivialities.  He introduces his large concerns of war and peace, and implicitly historical development itself; he suggests an attitude towards high society, and those who seek its status; and he introduces us to a number of characters, including a few that will bring us deeper into Tolstoy’s world.  At first, it seems like a slow, even cumbersome introduction, but it is amazingly economical, especially for such a long book.  And as the reader progresses into the book, setting seamlessly transforms into action.

Modern Departures

Tolstoy’s approach to his beginning now seems modern, and is widely accepted.  That is, others now do it and it does not seem unusual.  Consider, for example Robert Altman’s film Nashville.  I loved this film when it first came out.  That was several years before I read Tolstoy.  I saw it again recently and feel that it holds up.  Its technique is pure Tolstoy.  Or consider TV’s Seinfeld.  As the show itself admitted, even boasted, it is about nothing.  But neither Nashville nor Seinfeld is really about nothing.  They are both about everything while claiming to be about nothing.  That’s how Tolstoy begins War and Peace.  

(Incidentally, Anna Karenina begins in an analogous way.  This great exploration of family happiness and personal meaning is structured around Anna’s adultery.  But the book begins with the somewhat minor affair carried on by her brother and the turmoil it introduces into his household.)

2 thoughts on “Beginnings”

  1. There were precedents for such beginnings, and such casts, in the historical novel by Tolstoy’s time. Sir Walter Scott’s historical novels, the two that I’ve read, start without any anticipation of the Jacobite risings that form a good deal of their backgrounds. They have brief appearances by the great or near-great, but the chief characters are of the middle class and small importance. The Charterhouse of Parma takes some pages to get around to anyone who will appear in the later parts of the novel.

    But of the major characters in War and Peace, only the Rostovs neither make an appearance or receive a mention in the opening reception. Prince Andrei is there, and his father and sister are discussed. Pierre is there, and the woman who will be his first wife.

    Absurdity: Prince Andrei is not absurd on his first appearance, though he is far from being the man he will eventually be. Pierre is absurd, but he has the native intelligence and good will to which eventually will be added the perspective required to let him use them effectively. Of the rest of the characters, most are in one way or another absurd; Prince Andrei aside (if he is aside), the only way to avoid absurdity in this novel is to be beneath it: as a child, a muzhik, a low-ranking officer or enlisted man, a woman. So Prince Andrei’s wife is not absurd. She is limited, she is intimidated by her husband, she is apparently silly; but she has no pretensions that her limitations can contradict. Marya Bolkonsky is perhaps absurd, as patsy for her father and patroness of God’s people; yet she is forgiven ahead of time. One other exception to the absurdity is Dolokhov, who has status, intelligence, and will enough, but who makes no pretension to morality. He is not absurd, unless briefly the day before Borodino.

    Do the characters understand that something big is on the way? The great commander of the 18th Century, Frederick the Great, said that a war wasn’t profitable if most of your population knew that it was going on. A man of fifty would have been approaching middle age by the time of the French Revolution, and likely had his opinions settled pretty well by then. Even after Marengo, would he have understood that this was no longer the age of cabinet wars?

    1. Technique

      I suppose there are precedents for the way War and Peace begins. I have not read Sir Walter Scott. I have read The Charterhouse of Parma, but I don’t remember it well. What I remember mostly is that I would not care to read it again. It was largely a jumble to me; nothing really emerged. I guess I just didn’t get it. (It is quite the contrary with Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le Noir, which I regard as an outstanding literary achievement.) Perhaps the form of a play is a precedent, where there is not much in the description of settings nor in the introduction of characters. People just appear and start talking, leaving the audience to form its own impressions and draw its own conclusions. Compare the beginnings of Volume One Part One and Volume One Part Two. The latter begins much more conventionally, more like most novels. Tolstoy switches techniques. Why?

      Tolstoy also switches the way he introduces characters. Some just enter the action immediately, with little or no introduction by the author, as the characters in the beginning, and some are introduced by the author at some length, such as Prince Andrei’s father, old Prince Bolkonsky, in Chapter XXII of Part One. Tolstoy even switches technique in narration perspective. Sometimes we are told the story from the perspective of a particularly observant fly on the wall. Other times we are told the story from the perspective of a writer who knows the various characters’ innermost thoughts. Towards the end, the narration even switches from fiction to essays on the philosophy of history. This is an unusual book. No doubt Tolstoy switches techniques as his purposes change, and he adopts new techniques to his changing purposes. As readers, and critics of his work, we wonder how, and how well, his techniques work. If they seem invisible, or if not invisible, welcome, they must be working well.

      Old Prince Bolkonsy gets a nice conventional introduction, but Prince Andrei and Pierre, two of the book’s main characters, get practically no narrative introduction when they are introduced earlier in the book. Perhaps this is because they figure in so much of the action, and their characters transform. The old prince, however, will not change; his ways have long been set. Also, settings are important for Pierre and Andrei in ways they are not for the old prince. Pierre and Andre react to their surroundings and slowly shape themselves in relation and reaction to their changing world. The old prince is long over this phase of life, and is fully formed, and not much a part of the wider world any longer.

      Absurdity

      The book opens almost like a comedic play devoted to social criticism. Anna Pavlovna’s soiree offers many examples of contrasting absurdity. (Tolstoy here nearly adopts the fly-on-the-wall narrative technique, allowing readers to draw their own impressions of the characters, although he certainly guides our perceptions, just as a playwright would.) The whole situation is somewhat absurd, and so, therefore, are all of its participating characters. Anna Pavlova loves to orchestrate and manage things, and makes a show of her political feelings, but she has little real power. Most characters are pretentious, fatuous, or social schemers. Princess Bolkonsky, Andrei’s wife, seems good natured, but limited. Although she is just recently married, and now pregnant, her husband no longer loves her. So she is rather pathetic, while still attractive. Ugly Prince Ippolit, peering through his ridiculous lorgnette, telling pointless fragments of stories, with his irritating snorts and laughs, and his improper interest in the prettier women, is comically absurd. A dislikable nothing, he is the most absurd of all.

      My understanding remains that when we first encounter him, Prince Andrei is largely absurd. Furthermore, I think that Prince Andrei himself would reluctantly agree with me. He has fallen out of love with his new and pregnant wife. He is by his own admission unhappy. He is so unhappy with his life that he is about to run away from everything to join the army. (Tolstoy himself fled from his estate at Yasnaya Polyanya and his life there, just before his death, essentially alone in a train station.) Prince Andrei seems to have no particular pursuit or purpose in life. If these are not the trappings of absurdity, what more might it take? Yet they are hardly uncommon trappings. Perhaps everyone must pass through these or similar difficulties before they find themselves and establish some meaningful purpose in life. Prince Andrei’s will be a particularly arduous but illuminating path.

      Prince Andrei’s absurdity, if we can now call it that, is painful, and potentially even tragic. Because he is unhappy in his absurdity, however, there is hope for him. His unhappiness reflects his awareness that life offers more and deeper meaning than he has, or has prospects of achieving. His unhappiness is a catalyst to change. Most others in the early settings in the book are perfectly content in their absurdity. Their absurdity consequently remains hopelessly fixed.

      Those of us who have read the book before may be reluctant to regard Andrei as absurd. He is, in many ways, the book’s most compelling character. He is impressive and prepossessing from the start. Most of us who have read the book before and thus gone through all his experiences admire him, and even love him. But when we first meet him, he is undeniably troubled.

      Of all the encounters at Anna Pavlovna’s soiree, the warmest and least stilted occurs when Prince Andrei comes to Pierre’s rescue as several of the guests pepper Pierre with argumentative questions following his defense of and admiration for Napoleon. Pierre, the least socially adept one there, is probably the only person at the soiree that does not annoy Prince Andrei. This and their subsequent meeting later at Prince Andrei’s residence show the two have had a long and genuine friendship. With such a true and rewarding friendship, neither character can be completely absurd.

      Once Prince Andrei begins his military service, he seems more engaged with life, and therefore somewhat happier, but he is still at least partially absurd. His life is unsettled, and his perceptions of the world are unrealistic. Consider, for example, the thoughts he entertains once he learns that the French have captured the Thabor bridge and are on the march, thus threatening the assembled Russian army, and more. (The capture of the bridge is far from the only example of widespread military absurdity depicted in Second Volume.) Prince Andrei imagines himself returning to the Russian forces, informing them of their peril whereupon they turn to him for guidance and he then directs their salvation thus becoming the next Napoleon. Prince Andrei is here at least modestly, albeit somewhat commendably, delusional. He has no such realistic prospects. Nonetheless, he acts honorably and courageously, elects to join Bagration’s seemingly hopeless forces in the time of their greatest danger, and performs admirably in battle. So Prince Andrei is growing up rapidly.

      The contrast between the Anna Pavlovna’s soiree and the gatherings at the Rostovs’ is striking. Compared to the previous settings, going to the Rostov’s is like waking up on Christmas. People genuinely care for each other. It is noteworthy that this is our first exposure to children. Children have their natural reactions to each other and their surroundings. This natural and real spontaneity is something most of the soiree attendees have lost, with the notable exception of Pierre. Even the adults at the Rostov’s are more connected with the true pleasures and pursuits of life. Absurdity here would not be conventional, it would be absurd and out of place.

      George writes “the only way to avoid absurdity in this novel is to be beneath it”. I think there is something to this. In ways reminiscent of Rousseau, Tolstoy is suspicious of society and tends to be idealistic about children, muzhiks, and many low-ranking officers and enlisted men. High society and other elites are perilous insofar as the rules here seem quite opposed to what is natural and pleasant in life. Still, there are important exceptions. Kutuzov may be an exception. The Rostovs are not beneath anything. They have almost everything. They are well-to-do, respected, and happy. Perhaps their bonds with each other are so strong, and so rewarding, that they have avoided the beguiling corruptions of society. At this point we must wonder whether Prince Andrei and Pierre will also manage to become exceptions.

      I don’t mean to harp too much on the theme of absurdity. War and Peace is not a statement in existentialism. Yet there are roots of existentialism here. War and Peace, in no small measure, is about finding meaning in life and our various struggles to do so. The absurd is meaningless, yet it is ubiquitous. People become captivated, even obsessed with social absurdity. Maybe it is competition, from the seemingly benign competition of social gatherings and status, to the grand competition of military movements, that all alienate us from one another and the fulfillments that life offers. I don’t know. In his own life, Tolstoy struggled with depression and feelings of failure and absurdity. He was constantly searching for the right way to live, for a life that might be true and fulfilling. He was, therefore, acutely sensitive to the absurdities of our world. His struggle is the struggle of his most admirable characters, and presumably of his readers.

Leave a Reply