In high school English class, we learnt about the idea of a “classic” novel, and discussed what made something a “classic”. One characteristic that might not have stood out for me back then, but certainly stands out for me now, is the notion of “timelessness” — that a novel becomes a classic because it is timeless in its themes, ideas and moral messages.
Part of me thinks that it was probably a bit pointless for the teachers to discuss timelessness with teenagers. I mean, we weren’t daft, but we were young, and as much as we probably believed we knew everything about the world, there was undoubtedly a lot that we didn’t know the half of. Besides, even back then, there was a quick succession of crazes and fads and fashions — there’s not much appreciation of “timelessness” when one day everyone’s watching this show, and playing this game, and then next month these things are barely a memory.
Even so, I’d like to think that I had some grasp of this idea of “timelessness”. In high school, I began reading a lot of “classics”, particularly Charles Dickens. It was also during high school that I discovered I really like Jane Austen’s writing. To my younger self, these books were classics because they were beautifully written, the stories and characters were exquisitely constructed, and they were simply captivating. Then there is all the usual stuff about love and friendship and family — the things that people throughout history have always valued.
However, I also read a lot of fantasy and sci-fi when I was younger. There was an obvious appeal in these novels because they were full of action and excitement and wonder. But they also had all those “classic” themes centred around doing what’s right and what’s best for your loved ones. Some of these were even quite well written, but it’s not enough to get them featured on lists of “must-read classics”. All in all, the whole “classics” system seemed a bit arbitrary.
Reading War and Peace, I did think a lot about why it’s considered a classic. In some respects, it’s actually quite niche — all the historical detail and military theory surely wouldn’t have appeal for the widest audience. And warfare changes over time, such that the complications and obstacles they faced back then wouldn’t apply in modern warfare. For example, we now have satellites, which would help immensely with strategising and communications.
Of course, there is the more human aspect of War and Peace to consider as well. There are various characters with various, intertwining relationships, and within these we find all the “timeless” complexities of love and family and friendship. But this is only half of what the book is about.
In actuality, you just have to look at the news of our present time to realise how timeless the “war” half of War and Peace really is.
The bare bones of it is that Tolstoy writes a lot about how scholars and historians of the time had been recording history incorrectly (or at least not with the fullest truth). (Already you know where this is going, right?) There is somewhere in the book where Tolstoy asserts that a French historian will blame the Russian Emperor Alexander for the war, and state that their Emperor Napoleon was a genius for such and such a battle. On the other hand, a Russian historian will paint the opposite picture.
I believe it was the Battle of Borodino — a battle that was absolutely devastating on both sides — that both the French and Russians claimed to have “won”. And Tolstoy doesn’t simply point this out, but he also analysed the battlefield himself, and presented proofs that historians had recorded the very details of the battle incorrectly.
Anyway, back to the original point: Historians, generally trusted by the masses, are actually fallible. Whether they present a skewed view of events because of their own limited perspective or because of ulterior motives, it is unlikely to have a full and complete history from just one source. Tolstoy knew and understood this back in the 19th Century, and he wanted others to know and understand it too.
Yes, it is both sad and amusing to think that this quest for truth, which was going on almost two hundred years ago, is still ongoing — at times ignored, confounded or hindered. Those basic principles of good research practice, which are taught in school, are not applied by the masses — critically analyse the source, verify information against other accounts, consider the possibility for bias and obfuscation.
But having said this, I haven’t personally gone through the historical details in War and Peace to verify if Tolstoy’s assertions are true and correct. To be perfectly honest, I don’t have a huge amount of interest in that particular time in history. But it’s really the tenacity with which Tolstoy pursued this truth that I admire. The passion and determination with which he laid bare this historic milestone in his country’s past — it’s really awe-inspiring.
And by putting these assertions in a novel-like form, they become more accessible to the public. Maybe this wasn’t something that Tolstoy considered when he wrote War and Peace, but I’m pretty sure I would have never learnt this much about the Napoleonic wars in my life had it not been for this book. And while I knew that history books can have their biases, I never realised just how bad it could be before now.
As for the question of timelessness, I think there can be no doubt that War and Peace fulfils this criteria, not just in a high school level analysis of love and family, but in a greater capacity inclusive of truth and integrity.