I’ve never been a fan of Literature – with a capital L – weighty tomes in which the Theme takes precedence over narrative, providing students and critics with rich seams to mine, in search of What the Author Meant.
W&P is packed with incident: battles, affairs, arguments, seductions, fire and executions. Yet so often it’s described at a remove. Tolstoy tells us what the characters are thinking, rather than using dialogue and actions to show us what they’re thinking. Incidents get compressed. The author intent on expressing his Theme overrules the storyteller bringing incidents to life. It makes for a cold, detached experience.
There are moments though: Princess Mary declining marriage; Natasha falling for a cad; Anatole Kuragin’s inflated opinion of himself. Above all, the execution of two Muscovites by French soldiers.
Two more prisoners were led up… evidently unable to understand or believe what was going to happen to them. They could not believe it because they alone knew what their life meant to them, and so they neither understood nor believed that it could be taken from them.
Such characters usually come into a story to affect the hero, to make the reader identify with his or her struggle. They exist only to die and we never learn anything about them. We never learn anything about these two men either but, in that one brief paragraph, Tolstoy takes the time to remind us that they had a life, and that it meant something, if only to them. Anonymity is given a soul. The book will fade, but that paragraph is going to stick with me for the rest of my days.