Many describe it as the greatest novel ever written, Tolstoy’s historical classic, that takes us across the vast sweeps of Eastern Europe and into the Russian heartland. Napoleon’s reign of European domination begins and culminates in him leading an army of unparalleled strength – the pride of France – into a doomed campaign against Alexander I’s Russia. The army reaches Moscow before its calamitous retreat from the great city that now lay in burnt ruins, and Napoleon’s army’s eventual destruction in the long flight.
The novel is well named as it brilliantly describes and depicts vivid battle scenes, whilst also following the grandeur and splendour of early nineteenth century Russia, with its large beautiful estates, balls, and the wealth of the ruling aristocracy. The story follows the Rostov, Bolkonsky and Bezuhov families as they wrestle with the changing times, the struggle of liberal ideals, and the rise and fall of their respective family’s fortunes. These breaks from the military campaign give the narrative real depth, and you appreciate the titanic sacrifice and strength of the Russian people as they opposed the French military dictator.
Most regular readers of historical fiction are aware of War & Peace as a novel, and aspire to reading it one day, but often put it off – I know, I did myself for years!! So what is it that stops us? It is its length? It is because we worry it might be heavy or difficult reading? Well, the first thing to say about War & Peace is that it’s not what I expected. I guess, like many others, I thought that the novel would be tricky to read, and heavy going. But I was surprised how easily the novel reads, Tolstoy brilliantly communicating the various wants, fears, and insecurities of the main characters, so that we can all identify with them. Characters fall in love, find themselves betrayed, worry about their place in the world, fall in love again, and search for meaning to the tribulations and calamities that life throw at them. All this, whilst a French Emperor is steadily crushing everything in his path to reach them and send their world into complete upheaval.
There is one other aspect of the novel however, that cannot be ignored: its length. There is no getting away from it, this is long, long, book, and at 587,287 words, is longer than anything readers have read before. But it must be remembered that it only seems so long as it is published in just one volume. We are quite used to trilogies or a series of novels to be of these epic proportions, so why think of War & Peace in any other way?
Tolstoy, throughout the book, will sometimes break off from the story, and write a chapter regarding the historic context of the specific event his is about to write about. He will angrily denounce the historians of his times (especially the French ones) that have in his opinion misconstrued or misrepresented various historical events. In particular he bemoans those who almost excuse the great amount of suffering and death caused by the French dictator’s actions as those of a ‘genius’ whose strength of will empowered him to command his people to expand into Russia. These diversions from the story can put some people off, and most dramatizations of the novel – the recent one by the BBC included – exclude them as an outdated commentary of long dead historians whose views are of no concern. But I’m actually with Tolstoy on this one, because people STILL speak of Napoleon in such vain-glorious terms, and just recently I saw a documentary (also on the BBC, who should know better) with a historian so wrapped up and enamored with Napoleon that as he recounted the French Emperor’s life, it was impossible to take anything he said seriously (which was mostly complete nonsense, by the way).
Either way, most of these interludes are quite short and at least give an understanding of how seriously this topic was being discussed at the time of Tolstoy’s writhing, some 50 or so years after the events he depicted. The one exception is the endlessly long ‘Second epilogue’ that even I admit is a bit of a tedious read, where he expands on these views and discusses the meaning of history and how we understand it. But this is at the end of the novel, after the story has been finished, so you can miss that bit if you like!
Leaving aside Tolstoy’s interludes, it is the story that grips you in War & Peace. Tolstoy used his own experiences in the Russian army to add to his writing, so he understood how unclear and confusing battles could be. Countless times in the novel, French and Russian commanders issue meaningless commands, trying to somehow restore order to the long lines of their troops – meaningless, because by the time those same commanders hear of a situation and act on it, that information is already out of date. Such was the early 19th Century battlefield, where armies would be deployed over many miles, and communication was limited to the speed of a man on his horse.
The spirit, camaraderie, and the ebb and flow of the soldiers morale is described in special detail through the course of the long campaign and the subsequent French retreat. Tolstoy was very observant of human nature, and his insights into the desires and motives behind people’s behaviour struck me as authentic, albeit framed within the traditions and conventions of those times. The Russian army is riven by fierce rivalries among its high command, as competing generals endeavour to curry favour with their Emperor, and undermine each other and their commander, the General Kutuzov. The experienced and patient commander still manages to somehow steer a path to victory through these clouds of subterfuge and interference.
Leaving aside the campaign, War & Peace really is the real deal when depicting real life in 19th Century Russia, and as you are swept through the complex story of love, betrayal, and heartbreak, you learn a great deal of the issues that were dividing the Russian people, whilst still highlighting a fascinating and, in some ways at least, an enviable lifestyle. The epic length and involvement of the story means you get to know each of the characters very well, and you become entangled in their hopes and failures, so that by the time the novel ends you know each of them closely.
War & Peace really is a novel that can’t be ignored, it tells the story of one of the most dramatic periods of European history, and it does it brilliantly, possibly better than anyone else could – surely a must read, at least once in a lifetime…