The legendary, masterfully written novel by none other than the brilliant Count Lev Tolstoy. Everyone knows that it is considered one of the greatest books of all time, and definitely one of the longest, but you may be asking an all too common question:
“What the hell is it about?”
I had the same question too. Everyone hears so damn much about this book, but have no clue what it’s about.
The reason is because defining War & Peace isn’t an easy task. Not only are its 1200 pages filled with hundreds of characters, but the plot is not cohesive, if not non-existent. This isn’t Tolstoy’s fault by any means, but it’s the way he preferred to structure that book.
As if the plot wasn’t hard enough to define, the genre is tough too. It isn’t so much a novel, nor is it historical fiction, nor a treatise on life. Yet it’s somehow all 3.
It is indeed hard to grasp War & Peace (literally it’s a big book), and once you read it you’ll be just as confused when you started (but hopefully not). In order to combat this, I’ve written a small section ‘How to read War & Peace’; trust me, you’ll need it.
But first, let’s first look at some of the basics.
What’s It All About?
The novel begins with a portrait of the Russian aristocracy at the beginning of the 19th century. A party of wealthy socialites in st. Petersburg have gathered together and are discussing the rising threat of Napoleon and the havoc he has wreaked upon Europe.
The book continues by focusing on the lives of these aristocrats, namely Count Pierre Bezhukov and Prince Andrew Bolkonski: Their successes, failures, love interests, philosophies and so much more are highlighted at great length.
Over 1200 pages, divided further into 4 books, Tolstoy portrays their lives at home and Petersburg and on the fronts during the war against Napoleon; thus we see their lives in both war and peacetime, hence the books namesake (at least as I understand it).
Like other prominent Russian authors, Tolstoy uses his novels as a means to lay out his ideology through didactic means, and the two protagonists serving as the main mouthpieces. Some hate this, others like myself love it. In fact, one of my favorite scenes from the book is when Pierre has a religious epiphany and decides to join the Masons. While his conversion seems a tad hasty and possibly insincere (similar to Levin’s experiences at the end of Anna Karenina), it is nonetheless a lucid and powerful display of Tolstoy’s philosophy:
“He firmly believed in the possibility of the brotherhood of people, united with the purpose of supporting each other on the path of virtue, and that was what he imagined Masonry to be.”
Another aspect of this book I greatly enjoyed was his portrayal of military engagements. I read a Farwell to Arms a couple months ago, and Tolstoy’s battle scenes blow Hemingway’s out of the water.
On the rug-covered bench where Pierre had seen him in the morning sat Kutuzov, his gray head hanging, his heavy body relaxed. He gave no orders, but only assented to or dissented from what others suggested. […] He listened to the reports that were brought him and gave directions when his subordinates demanded that of him; but when listening to the reports it seemed as if he were not interested in the import of the words spoken, but rather in something else – in the expression of face and tone of voice of those who were reporting. By long years of military experience he knew, and with the wisdom of age understood, that it is impossible for one man to direct hundreds of thousands of others struggling with death, and he knew that the result of a battle is decided not by the orders of a commander in chief, nor the place where the troops are stationed, nor by the number of cannon or of slaughtered men, but by that intangible force called the spirit of the army, and he watched this force and guided it in as far as that was in his power.
Many people don’t know this, but Tolstoy was actually a military man himself, despite being an active proponent of peace and non-violence later in life. Inspired by his older brother Nikolai, Tolstoy ventured South to fight against insurrections against the Russian Empire in the Caucuses. He then fought in the disastrous Crimean war in 1854-1855, in which he sought to defend the fortress at Sevastopol in the Crimean peninsula.
Tolstoy garnered meaningful military experience during this time, and worked his way up the ranks. He had a thorough understanding of all things military, and used tis knowledge, along with his otherworldly writing skills to develop works such as The Cossacks and the Sevastopol Sketches.
This experience lends itself to the multiple battle scenes throughout the novel. He is a man who has clearly been at war before.
For Tolstoy, war is a time when men are at their best and their worst. The pride, boldness and courage that a man exhibits when he is charging with his bayonet directly at his enemy; as well as the fear and lack of morals that is brought out during the midst of battle when the rules that typically govern society are thrown out the window.
Why You Should/Shouldn’t Read It
Read any reviews of War & Peace and I guarantee that the writer is going to come across as a pretentious d-bag talking about the ‘journey’ they went through while reading this book. While it is a very long and very powerful book, it’s still just a book; treat it as such.
With that said, don’t read this book “just because”. Don’t read it because you want to brag to your friends how smart you are. Read it because you either love literature (especially Russian Lit), like philosophy, or just want to read a fascinating, powerful book.
If you pick it up for a challenge, I guarantee you won’t finish it. And if you do you’re probably not going to get a lot out of it.
How to Read this book
On that note, it’s important to discuss how to approach this book. While it is just a book, because of its length and language, it requires careful and attentive reading.
Not reading this book closely was my biggest mistake. I felt like I missed so many important scenes and ideas because I just wanted to get to a certain page number. Again, don’t treat this as a challenge.
Also, have a pen with you at all times to make notes and underline passages. I also like having those mini-Sticky Notes where you can mark pages.
Be able to set aside several weeks (perhaps even months) to really get the most out of this book. This is not a pleasant book for the beach, or a casual read by any means.
With all that said, it is one of the most profound books ever written. Tolstoy is by far my favorite author of all time.
If you need further convincing to read this book, there’s actually a book about this book entitled ‘Give War & Peace a Chance’. I haven’t read the book, but I’ve spoken with the author and he seems like a great guy. Plus the reviews on Amazon are quite impressive. I may check it out, but then again I already did give War & Peace a chance. If you do decide to read this book, definitely let me know.
There’s so much more that could be said about this book, but to do so would take more time than I’m willing to give to it. Nor do I think it would provide you, the reader, with any more value.
If you do decide to read this book, God Speed and best of luck.
Click here to purchase War & Peace from Amazon.