A "loose baggy monster" Henry James once called Leo Tolstoy's 'War and Peace'. At over 1300 pages, with no clearly defined plot and featuring some 500 characters, it certainly takes a while to figure out what holds this monster together and makes it one of the undisputed masterpieces of world literature.
'War and Peace' starts in 1805 in St. Petersburg's high society, where the talk (mostly in French) among the aristocratic families is of Napoleon's conquests in Europe. Of much more imminent importance, however, are the soirées and balls they attend, and the endless gossip of who is marrying who and what promotion so-and-so's son is making. While their behavior becomes increasingly escapist as Napoleon marches eastwards, Tolstoy observes the soap opera goings-on in these social circles with great irony and psychological insight. To quote just one example, from a description of a soirée and the social skills of its hostess, which also illustrates Tolstoy's mastery of the art of long sentences:
Just as the foreman of a spinningmill settles the workers down and then strolls about the place on the lookout for a breakdown or any funny noise from a spindle, the slightest squeak or knock that would bring him rushing over to ease the machinery or make an adjustment, so Anna Pavlovna patrolled her drawing-room, walking over to any group where the talk was too little or too loud, and easing the machinery of conversation back into its proper, steady hum with a single word here or a tiny manoeuvre there.
Among the host of characters that are introduced, a few of the young people stand out. Count Pierre Bezukhov, illegitimate son of the old count who has just died, finds himself inheriting his fortune but has no idea what to do with his new wealth and status. Prince Andrey Bolkonsky, meanwhile, has just married but flees family life, leaving his pregnant wife to join the army in its campaign against Napoleon in Austria and Prussia. These two, the dreamer Pierre and the cynical Andrey, are the closest the book gets to any main characters. They become great friends in spite of their opposite world views, as both in their own way wrestle with the same philosophical questions of how to live a moral and worthy life while being fortunate enough to be able to ignore the wrongs and unjustness of the world.
Another central character is Countess Natasha Rostova, only thirteen when she is introduced, brimming with life and hopes for the future and already promising to become the talk of the town as a debutante. (And indeed, with her naive charm she will determine the fate of both Andrey and Pierre.) There are several memorable scenes of Natasha dancing, one of which at her first ball, but the most typical of her character is when she and her brother Nikolay after a hunt in the country stay at a neighboring estate and their host, referred to merely as 'Uncle', starts playing the guitar.
Here was a young countess, educated by a French émigrée governess - where, when and how had she imbibed the spirit of that peasant dance along with the Russian air she breathed, and these movements which the pas de châle [a French shawl dance] ought to have squeezed out of her long ago? But her movements and the spirit of them were truly Russian, inimitable, unteachable, just what 'Uncle' had been hoping for. The moment she took up her stance with such a confident smile, so proud of herself and full of mischievous fun, any misgivings that may have momentarily affected Nikolay and all the onlookers - would she get it all wrong? - were dispelled. Everyone was admiring her.
However, all these personal stories start acquiring real depth only when war reaches the Russian border in 1812, and Napoleon, having conquered most of Europe, invades Russia in what still stands as one of the largest military campaigns in European history. By this time many of the book's characters are in the army, but Tolstoy also presents many historical characters - Russian and French generals as well as Napoleon himself - in order to describe events 'firsthand'. Though still retaining his ironic tone in depicting the political intrigues in the Russian army, the story now becomes much more historical, zooming out to discuss a single, still baffling question: Why was Napoleon's army, almost 700.000 men strong and proceeding unstoppably until the Russians had to yield even their capital, Moscow - why was this army forced to retreat and reduced to a fraction of its former strength, without any decisive victory for the Russians?
To answer this question, Tolstoy offers a theory of history that ends up encompassing all his characters' fates, their soap opera lives now illustrating an overarching and unescapable philosophy of life. The best way to explain this, as Tolstoy does, is by taking war as an example and asking: How is a battle decided? History shows that numerical strength is not always decisive, nor is the genius of generals. What Tolstoy shows is that battles are not even directed by generals, their outcome is completely unpredictable, dependent on thousands of smaller events and decisions made in the spur of the moment by the soldiers and officers amid the chaos of the battlefield.
Therefore, to say "Napoleon won the battle of X" is at most a figure of speech (taking Napoleon as a pars pro toto for the French army), but even that has little bearing on the reality of the battlefield. Historians, however, usually present one cause for a given event, which they find by studying not the battle itself but the surviving documents about the battle drawn up by officers and generals who pretend they are directing events.
The human intellect cannot grasp the full range of causes that lie behind any phenomenon. But the need to discover causes is deeply ingrained in the spirit of man. And so the human intellect ignores the infinite permutations and sheer complexity of all the circumstances surrounding a phenomenon, any one of which could be individually construed as the thing that caused it, latches on to the first and easiest approximation, and says 'This is the cause!'
There are no single causes behind historical events, and there never can be, other than the one grand cause behind all causes. But there are laws controlling events, some of them beyond our ken, some of them within our groping grasp. The discovery of these laws becomes possible only when we stop looking for causes in the will of individual men, just as the discovery of the laws of planetary motion became possible only when men stopped believing in the earth as a fixed entity.
Thus Tolstoy shows history to be infinitely more messy than historians make it seem. The French army didn't march on Russia because Napoleon ordered them. Rather, his order to march on Russia happened to coincide with the thousands of private and shared reasons of all the soldiers to march eastwards. And by the same token the French army was defeated, not by the Russian army or by the Russian winter, but by an infinite number of circumstances which almost randomly came together to drive the French army out of Russia.
Extrapolating from this, Tolstoy goes into a lengthy argument on free will versus necessity, which drives home his point that people aren't at all free to choose their destiny because their lives are governed by an infinite number of causes, only a few of which are knowable or influentiable. This is the historical determinism that will lead Andrey to die from war wounds and Pierre to marry Natasha, and all the other characters to end as they do. But while the novel concludes on such a philosophical note, perhaps Tolstoy's greatest genius is that within his own rather fatalistic theory his characters still manage to be heroes.
Surviving all history's puppeteering, Pierre finds what is probably the best strategy within Tolstoy's worldview:
Outwardly Pierre had changed hardly at all. To look at he was the same as before. He was just as absent-minded as he had always been, and he seemed to be permanently preoccupied with something that wasn't there, something that was all his own. The difference between his former state and the one he was now in was that in the old days, when he was oblivious to everything that was going on around him and what was being said to him, he would wince and furrow his brow in an apparently vain effort to see something that was a long way away. Nowadays he could still be oblivious to everything that was going on around him and what was being said, but at least he looked at what was going on around him with the ghost of a smile, however ironical, and he also listened to what was being said, though he was obviously seeing and hearing something very different. In the old days he had seemed like a nice man who had seemed unhappy, which inevitably kept people at arm's length. Nowadays a smile of joy de vivre played constantly about his mouth, his eyes shone with sympathy for others, wondering whether they were as happy as he was, and people enjoyed his company.