There’s a big difference between a book that is too long and a book that is very long. Leo Tolstoy’s ‘War And Peace’ falls into the second category. There’s no fat to trim; the story would lose its depth if any of its events or parenthetical essays were excluded. The book looks intimidating, but Tolstoy delivers. A novelist and historian, he took true events, as they happened during the 1800’s, and made them relatable through his fictional characters. If Tolstoy says something happened on October 3rd of a certain year, you better believe it did.
‘War And Peace’ recounts the stories of five Russian families, and what they experience during and as a result of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. Most of it is exactly what you’d expect: Sons run off to war and die; women, portrayed of course as mousy and slavish as befits 19th century gals, swoon over soldiers and get engaged; and some of the social elite bury their heads in a sand consisting of parties and gossip. But then there’s Pierre Bezukhov, the seeker, who encapsulates the book’s theme. Pierre’s life is one long searching for peace of mind. He looks for it “in philanthropy, in Freemasonry, in the dissipations of society, in wine, in heroic feats of self-sacrifice, and in romantic love,” and does not find it. When he does find peace of mind, it comes as a surprise unlooked-for, and it comes by much simpler means than all I have listed.
I expected the two nouns in the title to refer to two separate settings, but war and peace occur simultaneously in the novel. Tolstoy uses war as a backdrop against which his characters— not only Bezukhov, though he is the most prominent— search for peace, and ‘peace’ is not defined as the absence of fighting but as a state of mind. This contrast sharpens the epiphanies of the characters and made for some solid re-thinking of my own ideas, especially in the areas of death and the free will of man.
One of the most emotionally profound instances in the book takes place while Bezukhov is a prisoner of war. Having been captured by the French, he trudges along with the other prisoners until some of them irk one of the more important French guys. Half a dozen of the prisoners are lined up and shot, and Tolstoy (through Bezukhov’s eyes) zooms in on the faces of both the condemned men and the ones doing the shooting. Tolstoy doesn’t stamp “murderer” on the foreheads of the executioners; instead he describes their uncertainty and the dichotomy between what they are being told to do and what they think is right. The condemned men are no less complex. One goes before the guns with a smile on his face; another seems perfectly at his ease; one is a young guy, maybe my age, who is so consumed with contemplation that his expression doesn’t change when he passes from life to death. When the march resumes, his is the face that Bezukhov looks at again.
‘War And Peace’ manages to mix edifying, entertaining, and educating, without being too heavy-handed with any of the ingredients. It’s a balanced novel, and very sure-footed. The pace never changes; there is no introduction, no rising action, climax, or falling action. The trick in reading the book is to pace yourself. Try and read it too quickly and I guarantee you’ll get frustrated to the point of nausea. But I can’t recommend dawdling, either— if you give yourself too much time the danger becomes forgetting too much of the subtler stuff to make the reading worthwhile. And it is certainly worth reading, and not just for bookworm cred. You’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but it’s obvious just by looking at it that Tolstoy had a lot to say.