I recently finished Lev Tolstoy’s War and Peace, one of those books I had heard about since I can remember, but I had little idea what was actually in there. As its title implies, the book tackles a lot, from the subtle social intrigue in the St. Petersburg salons of 1805 to Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow in 1812, swatted and harried by peasants and Cossacks. I didn’t expect so much practice reading French. (The translation I read, by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, 2007, reprints the bountiful French passages Tolstoy put in there, sometimes several pages long.) Nor did I expect such a direct skewering of historians and other intellectuals who advocate great man theories of history and who propose that ideas in a culture drive historical events.
Sometimes Tolstoy just stops narrating the action of his 1200-page historical fiction and spends a chapter trying to correct these errors of historical theory. Referring to the French revolution and the ouster of Louis XVI, he gets sarcastic: “At the end of the eighteenth century, some two dozen men got together in Paris and started talking about all men being equal and free. That led people all over France to start slaughtering and drowning each other” (1181). Several long passages throw down a gauntlet to historians directly like this, summarizing with a critic’s voice the big themes getting played out more intimately between his characters.
One main character, Rostov, “knew from his own experience that, when telling about military events, people always lied, as he himself had lied in telling about them; second, he had enough experience to know that in war everything goes on quite otherwise than we can imagine and recount” (647). Rostov realizes it’s both impossible to foresee and recall the way things actually go in big, life-changing moments. Beyond that, we lie about them anyway, fixing the story to fit. Another main character, Pyotr Kirillovich Bezukhov (aka “Pierre”), gets heavy into Masonic rites and numerology, deciding divine clues to his destiny are embedded in a particular translation of the Bible. Through a bunch of textual contortions, assigning numbers to each letter and writing his name “L’russe Besouhof,” he gets his name to match the numerology of Napoleon’s: 666. To him this means God has identified him as the man who must assassinate the French emperor as his army enters Moscow in 1812. The plan doesn’t work out.
Watching Pierre go so far to stretch and fold the evidence to fit his assumptions, I thought we’re all this guy to some extent—hopefully not bending scripture for permission to assassinate anyone—but we all warp the “facts” to fit. Tolstoy seems to sum this thread up with his critic’s voice toward the end of the novel, writing, “reason and will are only secretions of the brain” (1203). For Tolstoy, it seems nobody has access to divine clarity. As a critic he makes clear his annoyance with the mechanisms historians use to order events. Historians are bound to steer us wrong by grouping unlike things, picking arbitrary units of power, and assigning numbers that don’t match what happened.
The point I get from the action of the fiction, though, is it’s not possible to escape being a kind of historian—but each of us can avoid being a terrible one. Instead of making the self-assured contortions Pierre makes, I can reflect on my experience with levity, noticing as Rostov does that people all warp experience when we recall what we’ve done. I can remind myself that my version is incomplete. My wish to show myself in a good light bends how I remember things. My favorite plans may not work out, and that might be for the best.