War and Peace

  • Author: Leo Tolstoy

  • Published: 1869

Choosing to read War and Peace is not a decision to be made lightly. For most readers, finishing the epic Russian Novel by Leo Tolstoy, first published in 1869, requires months of steadfast commitment. Not to mention lugging around the equivalent of a phone book (1,200 pages and counting). And yes, I know I could read it on a kindle, but only losers read kindles. 

But those who complete the challenge are richly rewarded. War and Peace remains a vital and magisterial work. An understandable benchmark for all other novels to be judged by. Tolstoy pens a world brimming with timeless, indelible characters, luscious period details, jubilant hilarity, tender love and aching sadness. It is the story of young Russian aristocrats, filled with hope and idealism - living, suffering and dying during Napoleons ill-fated invasion of Russia. 

What makes War and Peace ‘War and Peace’, are the characters. We see ourselves in each of them. They are dreamers and realists, selfish and noble, joyful and insufferable, talented and lost. They are a bundle of contradictions and beliefs, but they strive to do what’s best, and to remain true to themselves during extraordinary times. It is this disposition towards the honest and true during hardship that has entranced readers for nearly 150 years. 

One feels the thrill of possibility when the breathless Natasha, beautiful and feisty, attends her first ball. We ache with her at the thought that no one will ask her to dance, and smile at her rapturous joy with each new hand extended her way. We sympathize with the young Pierre, the awkward but earnest giant, who inherits a fortune but agonizes over how to live a meaningful life. We revere the discipline and passion of Prince Andre, desperate to attain glory in battle and his father’s respect. We applaud the bravery of Nikoli Rostov but grow irritated with his indecisiveness in romance. And we grieve for Prince Andre's sister Marya, trapped in a world of sacrifice and obedience, as she strains to muffle the inner cries of a life that could be.

Tolstoy is at his best when he allows these characters to breathe. Their exuberance, determination and courage course through each chapter. The warring ideas and struggles inside their heads remain as extraordinary as the history engulfing them. 

Near the latter half of the book, and especially through a barren valley at the end, Tolstoy abandons these vibrant beings and plays the role of cantankerous Russian professor, tossing barbs and scolding the historians who have come before him for their arrogance, stupidity and hypocrisy. This is obviously a learned and opinionated man, horrified at the simple conclusions and blunt reasoning of the record keepers. But it’s an arduous tirade that too often kills the momentum he has sustained over a thousand lovingly crafted pages. The novel’s final epilogue is taken up not with his beloved characters, but with his argument that there is no such thing as absolute free will. For what seems an eternity, he posits that historians must follow the example of scientists, and chase down the common and natural laws that cause historical events to unfold in the way they do. The writer of such a dry and exhaustive harangue seems worlds away from the effervescent and winsome narrator who weaved us in and out of the extraordinary lives of Pierre, Andrei, Marya, Nicholas and Natasha. Ending such an epic novel with such a stark and strenuous polemic is not easy to forgive. But it’s a testament to the power of Tolstoy’s story that such a decision invokes feelings of disappointment and betrayal. 

"Once admit that human life can be guided by reason," asserts Tolstoy, "and all possibility of life is annihilated." Truer words never spoken. Riding alongside the galloping passions of Tolstoy’s brave and noble young Russians is a gift no reader will ever forget. Saddle up.