Since it’s still the month of the anniversary of Tolstoy’s birth, I’ll continue with some thoughts spurred by his writings. ‘War and Peace’ was not the first Tolstoy novel I read. But it was the one that left the biggest impression on me. Perhaps it was the impact of a novel exceeding a million words on the mind of a Cairene teenager. Perhaps it is the novel’s vast scope: the sumptuousness of Tzarist St Petersburg, the austerity of Russia’s heartland in the winter, the warmth of the culture of that country’s peasants, the mix of fear and glory on the battlefields as ‘mother Russia’ fights to crush Napoleonic ambitions. With or without these elements, it was also Tolstoy’s take on love that grabbed kept mind.
Love isn’t the primary theme of ‘War and Peace’, unless one stretches the definition to argue that ‘War and Peace’ is about nothing but love….love in its myriad of forms: love for oneself, for family, country, life, and a woman. And that woman did leave a strong impression. Natasha is the heroine of ‘War and Peace’, irrespective of the many female characters in the novel. She grows in front of us, on the hundreds of pages of the novel. She grows in age, but also in character, in emotions. She sits at the intersection of the many loves that Tolstoy steers us through. She’s our focus within her family, the one that Tolstoy chose to expose to us in minute detail, I think, to represent a certain segment in Russian society, a segment that’s in the nobility, yet with strong links to the ordinary folk, one that lives in a grand house, yet whose financial situation oscillates between affluence and the brink of hardship. Natasha also sits at the Tolstoy’ian intersection of city and countryside. We see her in, and through her eyes, Moscow, and we also see her in, and through her eyes, the vast Russian rural interior. We see her with the rich and famous, and with the farmers’ wives and daughters. It is Natasha, more than any other character in ‘War and Peace’, who, by being herself, shows us the multiple facets of Russia.
And so, the teenager boy, the one I was when I first read ‘War and Peace’ is struck by literary love. But does he identify with Andre or with Pierre? Each was the man in a love story with Natasha. But those stories could not have been different. Andre, the detached, the warrior in mind and looks, the man chasing destiny and almost craving death, appears to the Cairene teenager as the hero Tolstoy carved to represent the dignity of patriotism, integrity, high values, and rising above the frivolous living of lesser beings. But Andre’s story with Natasha is far from a happy one. The hero is there, lives up to his ideals, draws admiration, gets the girl, but his detachment leaves him a bare-thread character, slowly but steadily withdrawing from our – the novel’s – world. His detachment takes him away from his family, his friends, his home, and from Natasha. It is not surprising that Tolstoy chooses to kill him, a noble death, that fills his father with pride (sitting alongside grief), a death that catapults him even further into the heavens of heroism. But the more Andre lives up to our expectations, the less we can identify with him. The human frailty in him – his melancholic character and failure to understand himself and what he wants – pale against his sacrificing all to defend Russia. If there’s one thing that redeems his humanity is, perhaps, seeking death to crush l’ennui of the mediocrity of his social class. We leave his body on the Russian snow and his memory dwelling in his family’s ancient house.
Pierre’s story with Natasha, on the other hand, is bustling with humanity. We first meet Pierre as the impressionable, naive, yet hungry for life, young man. Like Natasha, he grows in age and character over the pages. His journey, filled with the warm joys of sins, descends him to successive failings. He stands up, stumbles, rises, and falls, and we, amidst the valour and glory and sacrifices of other characters, see in this flawed man, our humanity in all its wonderful imperfections. And he sees it too. He looks at the mirror of time and sees that the man he has become is very different from the one he wanted to be as he returned from France to Russia years earlier. Tolstoy was too noble, too much the product of nineteenth century idealism, to make Pierre accept, let alone relish in, his failings. And yet, as Pierre kneels in front of Natasha, proposing to her, he does not confess his love to her as much as he confesses his flaws. Tolstoy makes him wish, and tell Natasha, that he wished he would have been a much better man so as to deserve her. And yet, it is exactly because of his failings and his growth to see these failings, his ability to transcend some of them, and to tame others, it is exactly because of the richness of his character that we see him as the match to Natasha, with her own failings and imperfections.
Together, Natasha and Pierre are not only a couple in love, as much as two kids who have finally grown beyond their childishness. We remember their naughtiness and transgressions. Some of their actions have left scars, on their souls as well as on our views of them. But in finding a real form of love – human, earthly, passionate – they find redemption, for themselves, and for those who have seem themselves grow as they read and reread ‘War and Peace’. And it is here that we see an angle of Tolstoy’s genius: his ability to take us from an abyss of human failings to heights of spiritual grandeur.