We Russians in general do not know how to write novels in the sense in which this genre is understood in Europe.footnote1

Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1865–69) is a massive and infinitely complex work, to which no brief summary can possibly do justice. It is essentially two big books, one historical, the other fictional, combined to provide an account of the effect on Russian society of Napoleon’s invasion in 1812. Since it mixes a number of genres—history, novel, epic—critics have disagreed on how to classify it. Here I will consider it as an example of what it most manifestly is, namely, a historical novel. But War and Peace is a historical novel of a particular kind: it seeks to show that while we cannot escape using ‘history’ as a context for the representation of great events, ‘historical’ accounts of such events cannot in any way explain them. Indeed, War and Peace is a work which at once consummates the historical novel and effectively dismantles it. In the process, it undermines Western European literary realism by questioning the ideology of history on which it was based.

Tolstoy himself denied that his account of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812 fell under the rubric of any specific genre. In 1931 the critic Boris Eikhenbaum said that Tolstoy had begun the work—originally entitled 1805—as a combination of two well-established Russian genres, the ‘family novel’ and the ‘military-historical novel’.footnote2 But from the beginning of Book VII, Eikhenbaum claimed, the book developed into a new genre, the historico-philosophical epic. Thus, we can identify at least three generic strands braided together to make War and Peace: a historical strand (the story of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia), a novelistic strand (the impact of this war on four fictional Russian noble families), and a philosophical strand (discursive digressions on certain abstract ideas suggested by the events, historical and fictional, recounted in the book). It is this combination of strands that makes War and Peace a consummation of the genre of the historical novel. Tolstoy not only composes a historical novel, he submits the genre to analysis in the light of his own philosophy of history. This critical-philosophical dimension was utterly lacking in the great historical novelists preceding Tolstoy: Scott, Manzoni and Dumas.

Although War and Peace is very long, the action it describes extends over a relatively short period of time, the seven years between the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805 and Napoleon’s exit from Russia on December 5, 1812. The action is roughly divided between a story of the military campaigns, battles and manoeuvring of the war, and an account of life in Russian high society as it was affected by the war. The one tells of efforts to win land, power and glory by military means, the other of efforts to win love, power and wealth through the means provided by ‘society’. The two stories never quite converge, but then there is no reason for them to do so, since they are about the same thing: the similarities between ‘war’ and ‘peace’.

Issued originally as a serial publication between 1865 and 1869, most editions of War and Peace divide it into several books with sub-sections or chapters. There is very little continuity from book to book (although they are chronologically organized) or from one sub-section to another. The segments constitute rather a series of vignettes, anecdotes, small histories (here are three in a row from Book VIII: ‘The Rostovs at the Opera, Helene in the Next Box’, ‘The Opera Described’, ‘Anatole and Dolokhov in Moscow’). These vignettes sometimes resemble the faits divers of contemporary newspapers. Characters do not develop from one episode to the next but rather simply reappear from time to time with a whole new set of attributes. But then again, the whole action of the book covers only a scant seven years. There are some moments of revelation: Bolkonsky has one, Pierre has several; and one character, Natasha Rostova, actually grows up—but there are no significant, lasting character changes amongst any of them. Rather than development, most of the characters undergo a kind of refiguration, with new traits being added and old traits rearranged, as they suffer one disappointment or frustration after another in both ‘war’ and ‘peace’. It is not a happy novel, even though Tolstoy originally planned it as a kind of comedy in which all would be well that ended well.

The sections that make up War and Peace constitute a series, but not a sequence. Sequentiality distributes meaning across a narrative space hypotactically, gradually distinguishing between what is important and what is unimportant among all the data in the text, and pointing everything to a denouement or point of completion in which the dominant significance of the events related can finally be grasped or understood. Typically, a historical treatment of events consists of the attempt to reveal sequence (narrative emplotment) in place of what appears to be mere seriality (the chronicle). But Tolstoy resists sequentiality because he is dealing with history: he does not believe that history has a plot. In order to resist the lure of emplotment, then, he reverts to chronology as the gross organizing principle of his portrait of life in Russia, 1805–12.

Thus, Books I to VI relate events of the years 1805–10 and consist of a rather straightforward account of military and diplomatic relations between France and Russia, descriptions of some early battles between Napoleon’s Grand Army and a Russo-Austrian alliance, and the introduction of the principal fictional characters representing the Russian nobility. The book begins without an introduction, just as it will terminate some 1,400 pages later without an ending. We are plunged immediately into a social scene in St Petersburg, a soirée at which the career of the upstart Napoleon Bonaparte is being discussed. We are introduced to Pierre Bezukhov, who will turn out to be the principal fictional figure of the book, but given virtually no background on him (he is illegitimate but his mother is never mentioned, and we are told nothing about his childhood or upbringing). He is anything but impressive—and remains so until the end. He does very little, but a great deal happens to him.