“War and Peace” Book Note, (continued)

The linchpins of this sprawling book are Pierre, who stands out as a solitary figure, and members of two noble families, the Bolkonskys, who are very rich, and the Rostovs, who are hard-pressed for funds. Readers witness intriguing romantic maneuvering and agonizing, and important couplings that are abruptly ended by death, but the prospectively enduring pairings set in place near the end of the book — Pierre with Natasha Rostov and Nikolay Rostov with Marya Bolkonsky — are recorded with as little grace and sensitivity as if they were figurines being positioned in a doll’s house.

Nicolay had pledged his love to Sonya, his impecunious cousin, who is the most pure and lovely person in the entire novel, but Tolstoy doesn’t comment on, much less describe, how Nicolay leaves her bereft and marries the heiress Marya except to record someone’s appellation of Sonya as a “barren flower,” not a gallant way to treat such a gallant character, Chekhov did much better with his
near perfect Sonya in his play Uncle Vanya.

Tolstoy is eloquent in how great events in history happen: “Nothing was exclusively the cause of the war and the war was bound to happen simply because it was bound to happen. Millions of men, repudiating their common sense and their human feelings, were bound to move from west to east, and slaughter their fellows, just as centuries before millions of men had moved from east to west to slaughter their fellows.” Tolstoy wouldn’t have been surprised to learn that a little over a quarter century after his death, in the time of the Third Reich, it was west to east again, nor that eighty years afterwards, with Russia’s war on Ukraine, it was again east to west.