Whenever somebody makes a joke or statement regarding a really, really long book, War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy is the typical reference point. It’s certainly so long as to be intimidating, containing 587,287 words. In contrast, the longest Harry Potter book – Order of the Phoenix – is less than half that length at 257,045 words. And before taking on War and Peace, the longest single novel I had personally read was The Count of Monte Cristo at 395,560 words. War and Peace had been sitting on my Kindle for a while when I finally decided to actually read it. As with Ulysses, I was inspired by a YouTube video on the subject by Ted-ED; and not having the pressure of meeting my annual Goodreads target of 40 books – having already done so – I thought I might just be able to finish it before the year was out.
I followed Andy Miller’s advice in The Year of Reading Dangerously and tried to read a certain number of pages every day, which soon became a steady routine. As Miller had said in his book, the prose of War and Peace is not difficult to get through – indeed, it was positively refreshing considering the last classic I tried was Ulysses! I had also already watched the excellent BBC miniseries, starring Lily James and James Norton, which aired last year. The series, I can now appreciate, is very faithful to the book; so much so that I felt a little bit like I had inadvertently cheated by experiencing it first. That a six-episode miniseries could do justice to such a massive book may seem surprising, but it included all the important plot points; in the book, there’s a lot of interesting but non-essential detail that the series could afford to abridge or leave out altogether.
Anyway, after three weeks, I’ve finished it! And it was definitely worth the time.
Tolstoy said about War and Peace: “It is not a novel, even less is it a poem, and still less a historical chronicle. War and Peace is what the author wished and was able to express in the form in which it is expressed.” I suppose what is meant by this is that while War and Peace is a novel in that it tells the stories of a collection of fictional characters, that is far from all there is to it. The big historical backdrop of the book is Russia’s conflict with France, led by Napoleon Bonaparte: this begins in 1805, which sees the Russian army being soundly beaten by Napoleon at the Battle of Austerlitz, while most of the entire second half of the book is devoted to the French invasion of Russia in 1812.
Particularly in this second half, Tolstoy frequently leaves his characters behind altogether and writes essays on the underlying causes of the real conflict, as well as musing on how historians tend to view these events. This isn’t the sort of thing you expect from a work of fiction, but as I enjoy history so much, I liked it. And Tolstoy raises many interesting points: there’s a lot of emphasis on the philosophy that the central commanding figures like Napoleon didn’t really play much of a part in dictating events, compared to the wills of the individuals who followed and fought for them. Tolstoy also utilises historical characters when he’s telling the story; I often had to rely on the footnotes in my edition to point these out to me. With history and fiction so tightly integrated in the book, even the essays fit quite comfortably into the whole.
With regards to the fictional characters, War and Peace has a very large ensemble cast. The miniseries created the impression that there are three main characters – Pierre Bezukhov, Natasha Rostova and Prince Andrei Bolkonsky. In the book, these three together probably get the biggest share of the spotlight, and the most complex character arcs, as they all try to figure out how they are supposed to live their lives. But many of the other characters also get several chapters from their perspectives, allowing us to get inside their heads. As I’d already experienced from reading Anna Karenina, creating believable characters and depicting complex human thought is perhaps the biggest strength of Tolstoy’s work. In fact, I’d recommend that budding writers read this to get a good idea of how to create and depict good characters, by observing details like these which help you picture and understand them:
“Here the conversation seemed interesting and he stood waiting for an opportunity to express his own views, as young people are fond of doing.”
“Anatole was not quick-witted, nor ready or eloquent in conversation, but he had the faculty, so invaluable in society, of composure and imperturbable self-possession.”
“With those about him, from his daughter to his serfs, the prince was sharp and invariably exacting, so that without being a hardhearted man he inspired such fear and respect as few hardhearted men would have aroused.”
War and Peace is definitely a great book, certainly one of those that everyone should at least attempt – after all, you don’t have to read it all at once!
Even Charlie Brown decided to read the book!
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