Leo Tolstoy was a fascinating man. His full name was Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy; or rather, for authenticity’s sake, Лев Николаевич Толстой. Tolstoy remains one of the most significant realist writers of all time, best known for his novels War and Peace, published in 1869, and Anna Karenina, published in 1877. Though he might have received most acclaim for the two aforementioned novels, his oeuvre included several short stories and novellas, plays, philosophical texts; in 1894 he authored the non-fiction book The Kingdom of God Is Within You, which contains his own personal interpretation of Christianity. This book and Tolstoy’s views on religion spurred a worldwide social movement of Christian pacifism and non-violent resistance which became known as the Tolstoyan Movement. He corresponded with and inspired Gandhi, he was praised by Conan Doyle, Woolf and Chekov, Nabokov, amongst others; all of his admirers unanimously agree, that Tolstoy wasn’t aiming to expand the art of writing or showcase eloquence, but to document human life and emotions as earnestly as possible.
In other words, Tolstoy writes as we live.
Which leads us to Tolstoy’s magnum opus, War and Peace. Most people tend to dismiss War and Peace as slow, or boring, as a 1300 page novel seems like a daunting read, and requires significant stamina even from the dedicated reader. But anyone who has read it or is acquainted with the story will come out of it affected in one way or another - its lifelike illusion only adds to that. Indeed, it is misunderstood, but should not be dismissed as just another Russian novel. I believe that if people can read and understand the epics of George R. R. Martin, they can read and understand Tolstoy; his writing is just as accessible and comprehensible.
Pierre Bezukhov, one of the main characters in the story, thirsts for the meaning of his life. He is bestowed with a large fortune and a good heart, but no idea with what to do with either of them; he means well, and desperately searches for the meaning of life in love, sex, comets, cults, charity, alcohol, religion… Pierre is repeatedly described as fat and clumsy, and for most of the novel, is the black sheep of Russia’s upper class. His philosophical and interpersonal quests foil with the extremely depressed, disillusioned Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, who despises the upper class and aims to find meaning in life through death. Andrei, too, quietly searches for happiness, but every time he gets close to having it, it disappears. He thinks that he can reach true glory and peace by dying in battle, like so many heroes did before him; he comes close, but doesn’t.
Credit: Youtube Trailer for BBC 2016 War & Peace
Tying them together is Natasha Rostova, the youngest daughter of the Rostov family, who is only thirteen at the start of the story and she, too, goes through a fascinating transformation. When we first meet her, on her name-day celebration, she is not introduced by name, but just described as ‘this black-eyed, wide-mouthed girl, not pretty but full of life…’ Natasha starts off being a carefree, optimistic child, but is changed through hurt and heartache and loss, and we feel for her as we watch her destroy her own life, only for her to build it back up again. Natasha is allowed to be vain, and silly, sometimes overly spiritual, hyperactive, intelligent but naive; her psyche is more detailed in the novel than most other fictional characters in any other books. And yet, Tolstoy writes her character respectfully.
Natasha’s brother, Nikolai, is kind-hearted but makes just as many mistakes as any other; when Nikolai declares to his father that he has lost a massive amount of money at cards, it becomes almost painful for the reader to move on to the next chapter. His friends’ behaviour is perhaps the closest example of ‘lad culture’ that exists in 19th century literature.
Of course, there is avid symbolism in the story; many critics believe that Natasha represents Russia, and Anatole Kuragin represents France; their affair echoes the events of the Napoleonic Wars and how the two nations become tangled together. Tolstoy maintains a collective consciousness for the entire novel, so even if it feels like the story is diverging from the main plot, it never really does, as it all builds up into the sense of realism that is apparent throughout the entire story. Regardless, the characters and the ordeals they all go through resonate with people today, and help us better understand ourselves through them.
For the still-terrified readers, I can offer you some shortcuts: there are several film, stage and TV adaptations of War and Peace, and each of them gets something right; the 1960s Soviet version by Sergei Bondarchuk is very accurate to the main plot, but it’s in Russian and lasts about eight hours. The 2016 BBC version has a wonderful cast (and a few breathtakingly romantic scenes), but occasionally feels too much like just another English period drama. My personal favourite comes in the form of a wacky, outlandish and somewhat underrated stage musical, titled Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812. I promise it’s wonderful though - the Times called it ‘better than Hamilton’ - and it is an immersive electro-pop opera, that depicts the events of War and Peace with stunning accuracy. It’s just based on one chapter of the novel, but portrays it with extraordinary musical and narrative diversity.
To quote Andrew Kaufman, War and Peace is a book about young people trying to navigate their lives and find meaning in a world that’s been wrecked by war, social and political change and spiritual confusion - Tolstoy’s characters live in a world not too dissimilar from the one we live in the twenty-first century, and they feel like real people, who breathe and think and exist just as we do.
War and Peace is more than a novel; it is a guide to life.