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War and Peace

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War and Peace first edition1868–1869 edition
By Leo Tolstoy
Publication details ▽ Publication details △

First publication
1863, part of first draft in periodical Russkiy Vestnik (The Russian Messenger)

First book publication
1868–1869 in three volumes

Literature form

Literary, historical fiction, philosophy

Writing language

Author's country

Approx. 565,000 words in English translation

From Russia with love and death

After spending a good part of a summer living in and out of War and Peace, I was astounded to read that in his latter years Leo Tolstoy disdained it.

The novel, whose title has become shorthand for monumentally great literature, was elitist, the author is supposed to have said. It presented a romantic entertainment for the aristocracy.

He was so wrong, I thought. If anything, War and Peace skewered members of Tolstoy's noble class in their self-absorbed social lives and stripped the patriotic narrative from the wars fought on their behalf. Surely this was a case of a veteran writer being overly critical of his earlier most renowned work.

But years later I had another go at the novel and this time I saw what he meant.

War and Peace was still great, maybe the greatest literature of its time—or ever. But in the latest reading it was hard to miss that most of the novel's fifteen hundred-or-so pages deal with the relations and experiences of the Russian upper class.

Much of War and Peace involves the machinations of these noble families to secure inheritances and find rewarding matches for marriageable daughters and eligible sons, who fall in and out of love, or something approaching it. (Shades of Jane Austen's tales of British gentry and their courtships, though developed much more cynically.)

Heroes and villains

The domestic scenes are interspersed at great length by realistic war scenes. Tolstoy's writing about war as seen through the eyes and ears of those who fought in it was groundbreaking. He seamlessly merged individual personal experiences with large-scale movements of soldiers as fortunes shifted back and forth during the fighting. This set the precedent that countless twentieth century writers about war have sought to match.

But it is the young males of the aristocratic families we have already gotten to know whose exploits are followed on the battlefield. In expository chapters, Tolstoy critiques the "great man" theory of history and attributes historical development to the spirit and actions of the lower-class people en masse. Yet, in his narrative he focuses almost entirely on the novel's high-born characters, with only a few swipes past the faces of the ordinary people who struggle to survive and die in their thousands.

Apart from these young aristocrats, the best drawn character during the conflict is the Russian field marshal Prince Kutuzov, an actual historical figure. Despite being criticized by members of the royal court, Kutuzov has Tolstoy's obvious admiration for letting the war take its own course, seeking the right times for facing the enemy, rather than rushing recklessly into futile, bloody battles as his generals would prefer. This is how the invaders are finally defeated and Russia saved.

His opponent Napoleon Buonaparte, usually portrayed as a great hero or great villain of history, is even less an agent of his own destiny in War and Peace. The legendary French emperor is presented as exaggeratedly cocksure but gradually learns he cannot impose his will on the direction and outcome of this war. In the end he dwindles into insignificance as a mover of events.

When Tolstoy does move in for a close-up of a member of the lower class, the depiction is idealized. Count Pierre Bezukhov, putatively the novel's main character, meets Russian peasant Platon Karataev when they are both prisoners of the French and awaiting execution. Platon is practically a saint—good-hearted, honest, accepting the will of God. And before he dies he inspires aristocratic Pierre to adopt a similar outlook.

A happy death

War and Peace is rightfully lauded for its realism, but Tolstoy's lead characters are often yearning to transcend this everyday reality. Before Pierre finds meaning in life from the example of the saintly Platon, he engages in a kind of numerology to convince himself Napoleon heralded the end of the world, an eventuality in which he might play an exalted role. And even earlier Pierre becomes a Freemason, hoping to find in the group's mysteries the solutions to his spiritual quandaries.

His friend Prince Andrew Bolkonsky has his own mystical wartime experience. While lying wounded after his first battle, Andrew views the sky in a new way.

"How was it I did not see that lofty sky before? And how happy I am to have found it at last! Yes! All is vanity, all falsehood, except that infinite sky. There is nothing, nothing, but that. But even it does not exist, there is nothing but quiet and peace. Thank God!...'

For the rest of his life he recalls this vision showing the paltriness of human concerns. Eventually he dies without regret for leaving this life:

He was conscious of an aloofness from everything earthly and a strange and joyous lightness of existence. Without haste or agitation he awaited what was coming. That inexorable, eternal, distant, and unknown the presence of which he had felt continually all his life—was now near to him and, by the strange lightness he experienced, almost comprehensible and palpable....

— trans. Aylmer and Louise Maude

There is so much more to War and Peace than intricately plotted affairs of the nobility, realistically experienced warfare, and quests for transcendence. It is after all famous for being one of the world's longest novels.

But some of that bulk is taken up by dozens of chapters devoted to nonfictional material—philosophy, history, politics, military strategy. These expository essays in War and Peace outdo even those in Les Misérables and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. But like Victor Hugo's digressions, Tolstoy's are fascinating. I know some (maybe many) readers find them didactic and too diverting from the fictional narrative. They violate the "show, don't tell" dictum creative writers are supposed to follow. But I find these passages to be engaging parts of the entire opus, clarifying and enriching the story. Or just interesting in their own right.

You could always just skip the philosophical chapters and get through the novel that much faster, while still following the story quite well.

Which reminds me, you know the joke attributed to Woody Allen: "I took a speed-reading course and read War and Peace in twenty minutes. It involves Russia."

Well, despite its focus on Russian aristocrats and a national struggle against invading armies two centuries ago, War and Peace, like all the best literature, continues to please, provoke, confound and ultimately involve all of us.

— Eric


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