Widely recognized as Leo Tolstoy’s magnum opus, War and Peace is a tome of Russian literature and viewed as one of humanity’s crowning literary accomplishments. Although writing half a century after the time period in which it was set, Tolstoy still manages to stirringly illuminate the social, political, economic, and even scientific consciousness of the Russian aristocracy during the Napoleonic Wars. At least that is what literary critics and professors of literature would have me to believe. Does it live up to the high expectations I had held? Yes, resoundingly and rightfully so. While I live worlds apart from the high society of the time, Tolstoy’s almost lyrical intertwining of the inner life of the aristocratic families against a backdrop of the looming pan-European conflict makes for a (surprisingly) engaging read. Yes, in the beginning I had challenges. The sheer panorama of individuals and families, with dozens of fleshed out characters with complex, contradictory, but ultimately very human personalities was initially a challenge to hold in the mind. But I had set myself a goal at the beginning of the lockdown period, and I was committed to finishing the book. I grew to endear to the cynical musings of Prince Andréy Bolkónsky, the wild (bordering on fanatical) but kind-hearted vacillations of Pierre Bezúkhov, or the pious and spiritually enlightened Princess Márya. It was almost a physical pain aching when Prince Andréy so peacefully passes away upon attaining a sort of spiritual enlightenment, and I couldn’t help but faintly smile with a wam satisfaction upon the engagement of Pierre and Natásha Rostóv.
There were numerous passages in the book with meticulously detailed descriptions of military manoeuvres (which even after consultation with the geographical maps helpfully provided in the appendix, I could still only gain a sketchy understanding of) and where Tolstoy waxes on and on about the nature of war, of diplomacy, or of the trajectory of history (most clearly encapsulated in the latter half of the epilogue). These I confess to have found fairly dull, even if they expounded most perspicuously his philosophy and worldview. Where Tolstoy shines at his best, I think, are his sometimes provocative, or moving, or invigoratingly powerful scenes involving his characters. Every conversation or soirée is fresh with tension, from arranged marriages to scandalous affairs, or talk of war or politics, a perfect gateway to understanding the social attitudes of the Russian aristocracy at the time. The tendency of these conversations to gravitate to France, whether referencing topics such as Rousseau’s social contract theory to debates on the Napoleonic campaigns, all conducted in French (the language of the educated) shows the predominance of French culture and society in Europe in the early 19th century. Yet, hints at discontent foreground the French Army’s eventual evisceration and the rise of a new Russian national pride.
War and Peace is a long read, but considering the weight of the ideas it carries, I couldn’t help but admire that it is not longer still upon turning the last page of that book.
Briggs, Anthony, translator. War and Peace. Tolstoy, Leo, Penguin Books. 2009.