What do you know about War and Peace? The first thought that comes to mind for most is that it’s massive. I have the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation (This is what Kaufman recommends too), and its well over 1200 pages.
Despite the acclaim and praise this novel has gotten over time, the size is off putting—it’s too big [Insert juvenile joke here]. Sadly, this has prevented people from reading this wonderful novel.
The truth is though that the length is indeed a reasonable objection. It took me over a month to read, and as little as people read today, reading a monstrosity of a novel doesn’t look so appealing. On top of that, reading a book this long and being able to digest and analyze all the content is a difficult task.
This is where Give War and Peace a Chance by Andrew Kaufman comes in. Kaufman hopes to provide those who are apprehensive about diving into War and Peace a bevy of reasons to do so enthusiastically.
In fact, after reading this book I have to go back and read War and Peace again, maybe even multiple times. Although not as much as Kaufman has who claims to have read Tolstoy’s masterpiece 15 times!
So what is it about War and Peace, and Tolstoy’s work in general, that would make someone who isn’t a masochist want to read such a lengthy novel multiple times? As Kaufman puts it:
Yet in the necessarily imperfect empire of language, Tolstoy was Tsar, coming about as close as any writer has to communicating through language that which is… incommunicable.
The work of Tolstoy is incredibly unique and profound, and stands out to me more than any other author. His enthusiasm and understanding towards life is unparalleled. He seamlessly blends philosophy and powerful wisdom with engaging works of fiction—I haven’t found an author who does it better.
I first experienced this reading Anna Karenina, but it can be seen in any of his works of short fiction. A good place to start is with ‘How Much Land Does a Man Need?’, a recommendation I actually got from this book and wrote about recently here.
Kaufman and I both are huge fans of Tolstoy. I don’t understand how any who has read him couldn’t be, but to each their own. Perhaps the reason is that it just slips past some people when reading his works. This isn’t to say I’m a seasoned academic, but in college I read a lot of Tolstoy’s works and was forced to analyze them in-depth, so I have an advantage there.
Most people won’t take that route, however, which is why Give War and Peace a Chance is a fantastic means of getting to know what Tolstoy is all about. The book is structured thematically, with subjects such as Truth, Death, and Love, and looks at how the themes are discussed in War and Peace.
Two themes that stuck out to me the most were success and family:
War and Peace revolves around the Napoleonic Wars and Russia’s involvement in them. One of the major points, if not the most frightening for the Russian people, was the invasion of Moscow.
Although a devastating loss for the Russian’s, Tolstoy questions if Napoleon actually came out ahead:
Tolstoy’s Napoleon, on the other hand, gloats as he’s about to take the Russian capital, only to find Moscow almost completely empty. Then, having given him their capital, the Russians promptly set it on fire. Napoleon has thus achieved his long-cherished goal, and what was it worth? The death of nine-tenths off his overextended troops, for nothing, on the long winter march back out of Russia.
The bottom line is that precisely when we think we’re winning, we might actually be losing, or be planting the seeds of our own destruction.
Tolstoy also had much to say about how to go about living your life. He found, and implored others to, find solace in hard, meaningful work:
Tolstoy loved work; he believed in the value of it…. What concerns Tolstoy is our relationship to our work. Does it enrich us as human beings, or just our bank accounts? Does it connect us more deeply with the world; or rather cause us to hunker down in little bunkers of self-involvement? And when we find ourselves confronted with a less-than-ideal work environment, do we merely trade our large spirits for the smaller comforts of job security, or…find some way to infuse the mundane madness of the workplace with the spark of our own inspiration.
Ask not “How do I get to the next rung on the ladder?” but “Is this the ladder I should be on in the first place? Is this the kind of life I want to lead?”
Many would argue that Western civilization is in decline, but what’s causing it? Perhaps at the forefront is the breakdown of the traditional family:
Tolstoy saw the family as society’s primary social unit. When families break down, he observed, societies break down, and life itself falls apart.
Tolstoy emphasizes that family is the indestructible seed that, no matter what else is happening in the world, continually renews itself by adhering to a set of laws as universal as the processes of nature itself.
When we look at… all the characters… they find deep fulfillment in opening themselves up to the joys, pain, vulnerabilities, and yes, responsibilities, not of individual fulfillment, but family life.
Tolstoy also rejected the idea of feminism. It wasn’t to say he found giving rights to women morally right or wrong, but rather, saw no value in having women follow in the footsteps of men:
Tolstoy remained uninspired by Chernyshevsky and his model of the self-determined “new woman,” not at least because he believed that while running a sewing business… might well improve the quality of one’s wardrobe and medical care, it hardly guaranteed one’s chances for long-term happiness.
Give This Book a Chance
What separates this book from most others I’ve read, and subsequently written about, is that I met the author briefly a while back. I told him I was a big fan of Russian literature and he said this book would be perfect for me—I told him I’d read it.
I kept my promise, although it took a while to get around to. The reason being is that I wanted to read War and Peace first; I still stand by that decision.
Although this book serves as a means to get people to read War and Peace, I found that Give War and Peace a Chance served as a great refresher to the novel, because it was able to discuss the ideas of the novel in a practical, easy-to-understand manner. My recommendation would be to actually read War and Peace first, then right after read this book to get the most out of Tolstoy’s masterpiece.
Click here to get your copy of Give War and Peace a Chance on Amazon.
And if you haven’t already, read my thoughts on War & Peace here.