Tolstoy’s Uncommon Sense and Common Nonsense


Arts & Culture

Aleksey Kivshenko, watercolor illustration of Alexander I and Napoleon meeting in Tilsit in Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, 1893. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Once upon a time, five people with strong opinions were invited to view an old tree and offer their thoughts.

The first one said: “I’m a big-picture person. At first glance, I can say this tree is too big for its own good. We need to lop some limbs off.”

The second one said: “It’s not the architecture of the tree that bothers me but the parts that make up the whole. Anywhere I direct my attention, I can see ten or twenty imperfect leaves.”

The third one said: “This tree is much too old to be relevant. Its life began when the world was wrong in many ways: patriarchal, despotic, undemocratic. Why should we care about something growing out of that history?”

The fourth one said: “The world is still wrong in many ways. A tree like this does little to solve the political, socioeconomic, and environmental issues of today.”

The fifth one said: “I am not a tree person. Roses and nightingales are worthy subjects of my attention, and I consider it an insult to my talent to be asked to look at a tree.”

Anytime one talks about War and Peace, one is reminded of the tree’s critics. Fortunately, a majestic tree has no need for a defender.


Our literary litmus paper is made, at least partially, by the impressions and memories of our senses. If a book were full of details never seen, heard, smelled, tasted, or felt by us, we might be more mystified than a goose or a cockapoo would feel when confronted with our literature, which to them must be outlandishly vague. Yet greedy readers—I count myself as one—crave more than a confirmation of experience: we want writers to articulate that for which we haven’t yet found our own words, we want our senses to be made uncommon.

Books that I feel drawn to and reread, War and Peace among them, are full of uncommon sense and common nonsense. (Uncommon nonsense makes exhilarating literature, too, in Lewis Carroll’s case, but uncommon nonsense does better to stay uncommon: in less skillful hands, it becomes caprice or parody.)

One imagines that Tolstoy did not seek to write about uncommon sense. He simply presented the world, and the world, looked at closely, is often extraordinary. A line I never tire of in War and Peace: “The transparent sounds of hooves rang out on the planks of the bridge.”

Colors are regularly described as “muted” or “loud,” but sounds that are transparent make a reader pause. The ringing hooves take me back to my early childhood in Beijing, where cars were scarce, and flatbed horse trailers passed in the street, carrying coal, lumber, produce, and sometimes people huddled together. Forty years later, I can still hear those horses walking down the narrow path outside our apartment on winter mornings as I lay awake, the sky dark but for a thin patch of paleness in the east, a predawn color called yu du bai (fish-belly white) in Mandarin. And there—when the outdoor and indoor were visible with shapes but not colors, when the tip of my nose turned cold if I let my head surface from the burrow between the quilt and the pillow (the heating in the building was turned on only from 7 P.M. to midnight), when, contrary to reality yet common to children’s perception, the world was still new and I was old enough for everything—there went the tapping of the hooves, clippity-clop, clippity-clop, a sound like no other, metallic, clear, yet without any harsh or sharp edge. Transparent—yes, and tangible.

“One who sees so much and so well does not need to invent; one who observes imaginatively does not need creative imagination,” Stefan Zweig said of Tolstoy. One who sees so much and observes imaginatively also makes the best demand of his readers: to read unhurriedly as one must live unhurriedly, with imagination, which is akin to reverie.


Although moments of uncommon sense abound in War and Peace, they are no more than the grace notes in the novel. Tolstoy’s interests were in humans and their limitations, in nations and their histories. Readers, whether they are reading during the Stalingrad battles (Vasily Grossman), or in a cramped high school dorm in Beijing in the eighties (a friend of mine), or, as during A Public Space’s first Tolstoy Together group, at the beginning of a pandemic (three thousand readers from around the globe, many under lockdown), must have no difficulty finding their worlds reflected in War and Peace: the man-made and natural catastrophes; the egomanias and incapacities in those designers of national and international schemes; the boundless human indifference; the inevitable human kindness; deceptions and strivings in marriages and in families; friendships and loves lost and found. The most absurd element of human absurdity, ironically, is that the absurdity is one of the most universal features—it would be a truly strange world if our absurdities turned out to be rare and unique. What binds people to one another more sturdily than our common nonsense? Even the Greek gods would have been forgotten had they been sensible.

“Anna Mikhailovna was already embracing her and weeping. The countess was also weeping. They wept because they were friends; and because they were kind; and because they, who had been friends since childhood, were concerned with such a mean subject—money; and because their youth was gone.”

Tears in literature do not necessarily move the readers as they move their shedders. If I am asked to name five unforgettable scenes in all the books I have read that involve a character’s tears, I may be able to offer only one example: the passage featuring Anna Mikhailovna and Countess Rostova is one of the moments in War and Peace I often reread. Their tears touch me because they are secondary characters in a book with more than five hundred characters; because neither of them is quite sympathetic—they can be called selfish, snobbish, calculating, manipulative, vain, and they do not hesitate to mistreat and abuse people of lesser power or status; because they are mothers, and they interfere with their children’s lives in the name of love; because life cares little about their love for their children—Anna Mikhailovna, widowed, has nothing to rely on to advance her son’s career but her cunning, and Countess Rostova’s many children have been taken by death too soon; because they are lifelong friends; because their friendship, destined to be lifelong, is cut short not by one or the other’s death but by their pride, pettiness, and vindictiveness, by injuries caused by minor conflicts, by what is not in their control—the mean subject of money, the cruelty of war, the inadequate solace of peace.

And their tears stay with me because they are presented as who they are, with none of their traits amplified into an identity and their persons restructured around their identities. They are limited and yet expansive, superficial and yet complex, flawed and yet—at this one moment, when they embrace each other and weep, when the best qualities in one friend meet the best in the other—perfect.


What about common sense? Common sense in history, in philosophy, in religion, in the collective endeavor of human beings—isn’t that what Tolstoy tried so hard to instill in his words? And yet I like to think that common sense is something I achieve for myself, after wading through uncommon sense and common nonsense. And I have not found a better book for that purpose than War and Peace. I don’t imagine myself into any one of the characters, but I measure myself beside the characters: my conceit and aspiration against Andrei’s, my clumsiness and bafflement against Pierre’s, my youthful zeal and shame against Nikolai’s, my blind willfulness against Natasha’s, my sorrow against many mothers’ sorrows, my daydreaming against Mlle Bourienne’s. Fallibility is shared by all the characters; Tolstoy himself, too, was fallible. And that, I imagine, is the common sense I have come to for myself, through reading War and Peace, through living and remembering: fallibility is the only reliable factor in my life; fallibility is in everything I do.

Common sense—common to whom, you may ask. Not to those critics of the magnificent tree, certainly, but luckily, this is not a book for them.


Yiyun Li is the author of seven books, including Where Reasons End, which received the PEN/Jean Stein Book Award; the essay collection Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life; and the novels The Vagrants and Must I Go. She is the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, Guggenheim Fellowship, and Windham-Campbell Prize, among other honors. A contributing editor to A Public Space, she teaches at Princeton University.

© Yiyun Li, 2021, excerpted from Tolstoy Together: 85 Days of War and Peace, published September 14 by A Public Space Books. Reprinted with the permission of the Wylie Agency LLC.