Author: Leo Tolstoy
Translator: Constance Garnett
Publisher: The Modern Library
Publishing Date: 2002
Number of Pages: 1386 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Often called the greatest novel ever written, War and Peace is at once an epic of the Napoleonic Wars, a philosophical study, and a celebration of the Russian spirit. Tolstoy’s genius is seen clearly in the multitude of characters in this massive chronicle – all of them fully realized and equally memorable. Out of this complex narrative emerges a profound examination of the individual’s place in the historical process, one that makes it clear why Thomas Mann praised Tolstoy for his Homeric powers and placed War and Peace in the same category as the Iliad: “To read him… is to find one’s way home… to everything within us that is fundamental and sane.”
Philosophy and the Indomitable Russian Spirit
When I bought Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, I knew it was a great work, considering the number of times I have encountered this classic in must-read lists. However, other than the fact that it was written by the same author that wrote Anna Karenina, my understanding of the novel was very lacking, which is the way I like it. But why? This is because I want the book I am reading to surprise me, to drum up that feeling of anticipation akin to unboxing a book for the very first time. I didn’t read any book review or any related literature before diving into the oblivion. And that is exactly how I like it.
To say that War and Peace is colossal is an understatement. Anna Karenina was colossal as well but it didn’t impact me the way War and Peace did, perhaps because the former left me perplexed. After all, it was my first dive into the deep world of Russian literature. Only when I read the works of the other Russian authors did it all become clear to me and a newfound respect for Russian literature has seized me. They same can be said in 2018 when I read Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita and Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. War and Peace was my last Russian work for the year, and what an explosive way to close the year!
Beyond the book being a Russian literary classic, the first thing that catches one’s attention is the book’s length. To some, this could be an intimating factor (other than the fact that it was written by a Russian author) – don’t get me wrong, the first thing that comes to mind about Russia is the stoic image of Vladimir Putin). It was also this aspect of the book that initially made me initially apprehensive about including the book in my 2018 Top 20 Reading List. The only saving grace I had is that I do prefer lengthier prose. However, as I started reading and the story began unraveling, what was conjured before me is an amazing literary carpet ride.
Widely regarded as one of the pillars of the Pantheons of literature, the novel is an immense chronicle of the Russian invasion of Napoleon Bonaparte. As is obligatory in Russian stories (or so I deemed it), the narrative began with a soiree given by Anna Pavlovna Scherer, the maid of honour to the dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna. In the soiree converged the main characters to the story; they are introduced one-by-one as the story progresses. Just like a spider web, the story branched out into different directions but nevertheless knitted on one neat pattern. Later on, as the novel takes shape, it is evident that this immense chronicle is a study of the impact of the Napoleonic War to the Russian society through the story of five Russian families.
In over a-thousand pages of intricate storytelling and masterful depiction, Tolstoy fascinated readers with his realistic portrayal of the Napoleonic invasion. Reading the novel was like watching a 3-D animated film, wherein the reader can literally breathe in the scenes that Tolstoy painted with his words. Military men and authors who specialize in war literature who read his work were impressed at the vividness and craftiness of the war scenes. Tolstoy’s contemporary writers like Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Ivan Turgenev and Ivan Goncharov also sang accolades for this colossal masterpiece. But who can blame these storied men for their fascination with War and Peace.
War and Peace is a far cry from Anna Karenina but in many ways, both masterpieces parallel each other’s elements. Both novels are populated with numerous and well-developed characters. Each character, even the minor characters, were finely wrought that their nuances are instantly distinguishable. Their interactions were aptly written and hemmed into these interactions are philosophical quandaries such as “Who am I?, “What do I live for?, and “Why was I born?”. Nevertheless, these philosophical ponderings gave the story a different complexion.
Undeniably, the novel reeked of numerous philosophical ponderings. But it is not only limited on the “self”. Rather, it goes beyond that and tackles religion, war and even love. War and Peace is more than a rumination of the titular war and peace. It is sprinkled with a myriad of themes and subjects such as suicides, torrid love affairs, star-crossed lovers, and even heart-rending death bed scenes. Moreover, it explores how the actions of individuals impact the progress of history. At the heart of it, this enormous narrative is the union of Tolstoy’s art and philosophy.
Numerous allegories can be picked up from the narrative. Symbolically, French and Russian language were used. The former represented superficiality while the latter represented the opposite. One can most certainly feel the shade that Tolstoy is throwing towards the French (could be factual or could be purely literary). Tolstoy’s prejudice is one of the digressions in the novel that disrupted the flow of the narrative; the deviation to military tactics and even Napoleon’s intelligence is fascinating but both barely did anything to make the story move forward. The story’s epilogue was a dampener as well, although, honestly, the events preceding the epilogue were a foreshadowing to the unsatisfactory conclusion of the novel.
On the surface, War and Peace is a daunting read because of its sheer length. But when I got over my intimidation, I realized how easy of a read it was – Tolstoy’s words flowed smoothly. It is a drag of a read because of its length, however, the mixture of chapters about war and chapters about peace gave the novel a different texture. It is complex but this is mostly due to its intricateness. The vivid portrayals gave life to numerous memorable scenes, including the part where Prince Andrey was lying wounded in the Austerlitz battlefield, looking up at the endless azure. His contemplation of his fate is finely written, and very relatable.
There are books that you simply want to read because it feeds your ego, and most of these are classic works. Admittedly, I do belong in this category, hence, why I chose to read Tolstoy’s masterpieces. However, never did I regret these undertakings because on both instances, I was taken into a magical literary ride that I would have never experienced had I chosen to bypass these books. The same can be said for most of the books that I read. As I have mentioned in my review of David Foster Wallace’s (equally) complex (and perplexing) work, Infinite Jest, merely finishing these works are accomplishments in themselves.
War and Peace is more than just a novel; it is a vast and detailed retelling of the Napoleonic War which occurred about six decades before the author’s time. It is a fascinating masterpiece about human behavior, war and philosophy. Its vivid portrayals, including the battle scenes, is just breathtaking. You simply have to hand it to Tolstoy for his extensive research. Considering this was pre-internet era, his work entailed a lot of patience, which is commendable for in the end, he was able to conjure one of the best literary works of all times. Its biggest accomplishment, more than its depiction of the war, is its representation of the indomitable Russian spirit.
But seriously, it is very lengthy; some scenes were unnecessary and could have been left out without affecting the entire context.
Recommended for readers who like very lengthy read, readers who like stories with very detailed and vivid descriptions and scenes, readers who are interested in warfare, Napoleon Bonaparte and Russian history, and readers who want to read classical works (of the Russian kind of course).
Not recommended for readers who prefer shorter narratives, readers who avoids dark subjects, and readers who prefer light reading.
About the Author
(Photo by Wikipedia) Count Lev (Leo) Nikolayevich Tolstoy was born on August 28, 1928 at Yasnaya Polyana (Bright Glade), about 130 miles southwest of Moscow.
With a patrician family, Leo enjoyed a privileged childhood. At a young age, he exhibited a gift for languages and a fondness for literature. Before enrolling at Kazan University in 1844, Tolstoy received his first education from French and German tutors. At the university, he studied law and Oriental languages. Unfortunately, he was unable to complete his degree as he stopped studying in 1847.
In 1854, Tolstoy became a commissioned officer in the artillery, serving in the Danube and Crimean Wars. While at the army, Tolstoy’s literary apprenticeship began, beginning with his completion of his first novel, Childhood, published in September 1852. He also contributed several novels and short stories to the Contemporary, a St. Petersburg Journal. Among these works are Boyhood (1854), three Sevastopol stories (1855-1856), Two Hussars (1856), and Youth (1857).
Tolstoy left the army in 1856 and moved to St. Petersburg where he discovered how much he disliked the life of a literary celebrity. He then left Russia to travel in Europe. Upon his return, he published “Three Deaths” and Family Happiness in 1859 before abandoning literature in favor of more “useful” pursuits. In the summer of 1862, he fell in love with eighteen-year-old Sofya Andreyevna Bers with whom he had thirteen children.
After his marriage, he produced the best works of his life: The Cossacks (1863), War and Peace (1869) and Anna Karenina (1877). Anna Karenina was followed by a period of spiritual awakening which led to his renunciation of his works and some classical works. Another turnaround happened when, at Turgenev’s deathbed, Tolstoy was entreated by Turgenev to return to literature. This led to the publication of more short stories and novels such as The Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886), The Kreutzer Sonata (1889), and Resurrection (1899).
Leo Tolstoy died of pneumonia on November 20, 1910 at Astapovo train station.