“War and Peace”  (1869) by Leo Tolstoy

1308 pages.

Five languages.

Around 600 characters, including roughly 160 historical figures

Epic in scale, War and Peace delineates in graphic detail events leading up to Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, and the impact of the Napoleonic era on Tsarist society, as seen through the eyes of five Russian aristocratic families.

Everyone who is even remotely interested in fiction has heard of War and Peace; it is one of the most famous works of literature in history and generally considered to be an absolute masterpiece. This book has reached an almost mythical status to the point where it has become an untouchable entry in the Western canon.

War and Peace is certainly a challenging read and not one to be tackled lightly. Tolstoy spends many pages outlining every single detail of the battles between the Russian army and the forces of Napoleon, writes long paragraphs in French, and dedicates what amounts to an entire separate volume to his personal philosophy of history.

As the installments were first published, critics couldn’t figure out which of the many characters were important, leading one to guess that Dolokhov and Kuragin would be the heroes of the piece. It is a historical novel, a family chronicle, and a philosophical essay, all rolled into one. Tolstoy explains:

It is not a novel, even less is it an epic poem, and still less a historical chronicle. War and Peace is what the author wished and was able to express in the form in which it is expressed.

I braced myself before diving in, remembering the novel’s reputation as being difficult and impossible to get through, but was pleasantly surprised for most of it.

The names were confusing for the first fifty pages or so (Prince Bolkonsky can refer to either Andrei or his father, Pierre also goes by Pyotr, Nikolai might be called Nikolenka, and so on), but it was only during the battle scenes and the final volume on historiography that I struggled to stay focused.

The overwhelming attention to detail and meandering narrative reminded me a lot of two of my favourite authors, Charles Dickens and Victor Hugo. In fact, I later discovered that Tolstoy was a great admirer of Hugo’s work. Both writers take their time to follow a large cast of characters across long stretches of time, going into the daily lives of these people who are seemingly irrelevant in the grand scheme of things.

However, Tolstoy claims that these ordinary people are anything but unimportant. He opposes the idea that the course of history is decided by a handful of great men like Tsar Alexander and Napoleon; instead, he argues that the essence of any historic event lies in the “activity of the general mass of people who take part in it.” According to Tolstoy, historians should not study the actions of ministers, kings, and generals, but look at the “the common, infinitesimally small elements by which the masses are moved.”

Just as in a clock the result of the complicated motion of innumerable wheels and pulleys is merely a slow and regular movement of the hands which show the time, so the result of all the complicated human activities of 160,000 Russians and French all their passions, desires, remorses, humiliations, sufferings, outbursts of pride, fear, and enthusiasm – was only the loss of the battle of Austerlitz, the so-called battle of the three Emperors – that is to say, a slow movement of the hand on the dial of human history.

If you want to understand the big picture, you have to examine the details – which is exactly what Tolstoy did. On top of studying countless manuscripts, letters, and diaries, Tolstoy visited the sites where the battles took place, drawing maps of the area and interviewing locals who had lived through the war. The novel is so long and so full of characters because he believed that was the only way to tell this story; in order to do the topic justice, the canvas had to be enormous.

Even though I became increasingly impatient with the military minutiae towards the end of the novel, I still greatly enjoyed War and Peace and think it is definitely one of the most impressive books I have ever read. It is not a work that I would recommend to everyone; deciding to start (and finish) it is quite the commitment, Tolstoy repeats himself a number of times, and certain chapters are not very accessible to the more casual reader. War and Peace demands patience and focus, but well worth the effort if you are willing to accept these conditions.

I decided not to rush through this novel and took about four weeks to finish it, which is very unusual for me. By the end, I had spent so many hours with these characters that seeing them find happiness at last was one of the most rewarding reading experiences I have ever had.

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