“War and Peace,” a tome, a slog, the sort of book you shouldn’t read in bed because if you fall asleep, it could give you a concussion, right? Only partly. “War and Peace” is a long book, sure, but it’s also a thrilling examination of history, populated with some of the deepest, most realistic characters you’ll find anywhere. And if its length intimidates you, just image how poor Tolstoy felt. In 1863, he set out to write a short novel about a political dissident returning from exile in Siberia.
Five years later, he had produced a 1,200 page epic featuring love stories, battlefields, bankruptcies, firing squads, religious visions, the burning of Moscow, and a semi-domesticated bear, but no exile and no political dissidents. Here’s how it happened. Tolstoy, a volcanic soul, was born to a famously eccentric aristocratic family in 1828. By the time he was 30, he had already dropped out of Kazan University, gambled away the family fortune, joined the army, written memoirs, and rejected the literary establishment to travel Europe.
He then settled into Yasnaya Polyana, his ancestral mansion, to write about the return of the Decembrists, a band of well-born revolutionaries pardoned in 1856 after 30 years in exile. But, Tolstoy thought, how could he tell the story of the Decembrists return from exile without telling the story of 1825, when they revolted against the conservative Tsar Nicholas I? And how could he do that without telling the story of 1812, when Napoleon’s disastrous invasion of Russia helped trigger the authoritarianism the Decembrists were rebelling against?
And how could he tell the story of 1812 without talking about 1805, when the Russians first learned of the threat Napoleon posed after their defeat at the Battle of Austerlitz? So Tolstoy began writing, both about the big events of history and the small lives that inhabit those events. He focused on aristocrats, the class he knew best. The book only occasionally touches on the lives of the vast majority of the Russian population, who were peasants, or even serfs, farmers bound to serve the owners of the land on which they lived. “War and Peace” opens on the eve of war between France and Russia.
Aristocrats at a cocktail party fret about the looming violence, but then change the topic to those things aristocrats always seem to care about: money, sex, and death. This first scene is indicative of the way the book bounces between the political and personal over an ever-widening canvas. There are no main characters in “War and Peace.” Instead, readers enter a vast interlocking web of relationships and questions. Will the hapless and illegitimate son of a count marry a beautiful but conniving princess?
Will his only friend survive the battlefields of Austria? And what about that nice young girl falling in love with both men at once? Real historical figures mix and mingle with all these fictional folk, Napoleon appears several times, and even one of Tolstoy’s ancestors plays a background part. But while the characters and their psychologies are gripping, Tolstoy is not afraid to interrupt the narrative to pose insightful questions about history. Why do wars start? What are good battlefield tactics? Do nations rise and fall on the actions of so-called great men like Napoleon, or are there larger cultural and economic forces at play?
These extended digressions are part of what make “War and Peace” so panoramic in scope. But for some 19th century critics, this meant “War and Peace” barely felt like a novel at all. It was a “large, loose, baggy monster,” in the words of Henry James. Tolstoy, in fact, agreed. To him, novels were a western European form. Russian writers had to write differently because Russian people lived differently. “What is ‘War and Peace’?” he asked. “It is not a novel. Still less an epic poem.
Still less a historical chronicle. ‘War and Peace’ is what the author wanted and was able to express in the form in which it was expressed.” It is, in other words, the sum total of Tolstoy’s imaginative powers, and nothing less. By the time “War and Peace” ends, Tolstoy has brought his characters to the year 1820, 36 years before the events he originally hoped to write about. In trying to understand his own times, he had become immersed in the years piled up behind him. The result is a grand interrogation into history, culture, philosophy, psychology, and the human response to war.