We’re done War and Peace! We finished ages ago, actually — two whole months. It took me about that long to get over my disappointment with the ending. It wasn’t where all the characters ended up; my reading group predicted everyone’s final couplings and fates very accurately (almost like we are a bunch of narrative-obsessed editors…). I will be mad forever that Dolokhov didn’t get a proper ending, but the rest made sense. The main book ends with the hope that Pierre and Natasha will become engaged. The moment is bright, shining, like the comet that appears in the sky when Pierre first realizes his love. Then, there’s a 100-page epilogue where we skip forward in time, right into the mundanity of married life. Even that is all good, or at least not unexpected: husbands and wives misunderstanding each other, children waiting to grow up, disagreements, cozy family life.
But we move from that final scene of domestic life right into a long-winded rant about the nature of history and great men. Oh, Tolstoy. He can’t let anything be subtext. He has to show us through the characters and then restate it again in repetitive paragraphs like he’s winding down a history paper. I imagine it was daunting to figure out how to end this beast of a novel. But that was certainly a choice.
I’ve been thinking about endings ever since. Can War and Peace actually end? I don’t mean that in an I’m-so-clever-war-is-the-human-condition kind of way. I mean that maybe the kind of project that Tolstoy was attempting, an accounting of how we create and interpret history, can’t end. He didn’t intend to write about the Napoleonic Wars at first. He wanted to chronicle life in Russia after the Crimean War, but to do that, he felt that he had to go back to the 1820s and the Decembrist revolt to fully understand his character. And when he got there, he went back again to 1805 and Napoleon — a turning point in Russian history that he felt had shaped the characters he had in mind. The same way the novel seemed to him to keep beginning further and further back in the past — with ancestors and scandals all needing to be excavated and explained for context — I feel this book could go on forever.
And I’d keep reading it. I loved the process of reading little bits every day, fully settling into the world, even on the days that were all history and no narrative. It reminds me of Jane Smiley’s The Greenlanders, one of my favourite novels, which was written in the tradition of a Norse saga. The Greenlanders has a wider scope than War and Peace as it meanders from generation to generation in the same frustrating and sometimes unsettling way that real life does, but it is also saying something about form. Rather, it’s using form to reveal something about a moment in time that we think is gone.
In The Greenlanders, it’s the rhythms of saga storytelling, not history. But still there’s something soothing about the rhythms of both: a little bit here and there, with characters dropping off or coming back, backstories not explained. You get to know neighbours the way you might if you met them at a party: shallowly, trying to think of bon mots. You know the facts of their existence (family, social position, ambitions) but not, perhaps, how they feel about any of it. Later you might wave to them across a field. Some characters leave the story abruptly the way, in real life, they might die or move away or just slip out of your life. Other characters have histories that you never learn. These are the rhythms of real life, too, and so eventually it feels like the moment in time we thought was lost, that we’re reading about in the past tense, is happening here and now. The stories we choose to tell about the past, and the ways we tell them, reveal much more than the actual events under discussion.
So why stop at 1805? What would it be like to go back and back and back again until we’re at the beginning of everything? And what would it be like to see into the future? We have this misguided belief that history unfolds along straightforward paths behind and in front of us, routes we can take in either direction. To understand one thing, go back and understand the thing that came just before. And then the thing before that. Tolstoy has quite a lot to say about all this in the epilogue. He’s keenly aware that he’s creating history himself with this book, arguing against the French interpretation of the Napoleonic Wars and showing us his own view of Napoleon. He himself said it wasn’t a novel. Would it be a stronger book if it were all narrative and no history? The editor in me would love to tell Tolstoy to cut out the long rants and trust his readers to understand the subtext. But the point of the book is that we’re watching Tolstoy create his own history even as he’s arguing that the way we do that is all wrong. The tension there is delicious and so human.
So his project is doomed, and it can’t end because, as he writes, “Life did not stop, and one had to live.” The living is telling yourself a story in order to keep going, to misquote Joan Didion. I said in my first post about this book that the plot felt almost irrelevant, and that is still true. Whatever section of history Tolstoy chose — whatever year he ended up in, if he went back to Catherine the Great or even further — he would have something to say about the way we create these stories that we think of as inescapable truths. Because we tell them always, not just in “unprecedented times.” Pierre’s story about himself to the end is that he’s awkward and at war with his own impulses. Would that be different in 1795 or would he be just as awkward at some other party? Nikolai’s is that he’s a dutiful son who does the right thing — even as he is absolutely not doing the right thing. No matter the year, that’s what Nikolai thinks he is doing. As for Sonya, she’ll be self-sacrificing whether or not she has anything left to sacrifice. Someone who participated in the original #TolstoyTogether readalong made the brilliant point that all of these characters think they are in different kinds of stories: a romance, a tragedy, a war epic. That explains their actions and the mistakes and missed connections as everyone blunders along in their own kind of story. They have to believe in their private narratives to keep going. Life doesn’t stop, and we have to live.
I miss War and Peace, but now we’re moving on to Bleak House. Writing about Anna Karenina recently, Brandon Taylor said, “I have to read a novel like three times before I really get it.” This will be my third time with Bleak House, and I can’t wait to give it the War and Peace treatment, a chapter a day. I haven’t read it in a decade, though I often say it is my favourite novel (when people ask). The last time I read it was a distinct period in my life that I’ve mythologized over the past ten years. To put it another way, many of the stories I tell about myself stem from that time. So here we go.