Book Review: War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy

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Tolstoy’s War and Peace is intimidating. It’s a classic with a reputation, and that reputation makes no allowances for hesitancy or uncertainty. It does not merely sit on shelves, it looms, silently insinuating the unutterable ineptitude of the reader that passes it by.

Reading War and Peace is a commitment that is for neither the faint-hearted nor the weak-wristed.

With a high page count and ridiculously tiny text (yes, alliteration intended, and yes, it is one of those), War and Peace is a weighty tome, and looks rather like the kind of literature that Hermione Granger would undoubtedly sail through in the first week of her lengthy holiday, but that is considerably less accessible to the likes of you, me, and Ron Weasley. With so many full pages of dense, unapologetically detailed text, it arguably doesn’t look so much like the book to read exquisitely casually atop the sunbed, as the book which might usefully be used to prop the balcony door open against a particularly strong breeze.

(Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.)

However, while that would be useful on a practical level, it would be a genuine shame to miss out on reading War and Peace just because it looks a little daunting. The subject matter, genre, and style make for neither an easy read nor a simplistic narrative, in parts it is long-winded and difficult (on this I can be relied upon, as I am frequently both long-winded and difficult) and it often veers into philosophical discussions that are at best only tangentially connected, and that could easily have been removed without jeopardising the coherence of the text. But it is also a startlingly compulsive read, and extraordinarily clever, and I enjoyed every line of the intriguing philosophical interludes.

Tolstoy hits hard at often unquestioned concepts and ideals, investigating both practical principles and more abstract topics. He avoids sugar-coating the action, does not lend it irrevocable justification, and directs intense criticism on anything that may plausibly be accepted without what he considers to be due consideration. Tolstoy’s main focus in War and Peace is the pervasively unpleasant influence of war, but with admirable precision he pays heed both to the exquisitely fine details of the private lives of the large cast of characters, and to the more general movements and shifts of a society obliged by unhappy circumstance to change, transform, and adapt.

In the context of the Napoleonic wars and the French invasion of Russia, War and Peace is a brilliantly intelligent exposition of the widespread and undeniably colossal effect of war on people in particular and societies in general, regardless of nationality or gender. The war is a shadow cast over thousands of lives, and no amount of marriages, balls, and exciting excursions to the theatre are capable of lifting it. It is discussed at every gathering by a vast range of very different characters, criticised and reconsidered endlessly, and provides the catalyst by which many friendships suffer, harmed by a fundamental difference in opinion.

Tolstoy’s character development is both widespread and significant, emerging throughout the lengthy novel. Pierre engages (helplessly) in marriage, briefly devotes himself to Masonic principles, and after being incarcerated by the French, discovers a kind of inner happiness. From allowing other people to run and influence his life, he learns how to become the master of his own destiny, and eventually engages in marriage for a second time, much more successfully. He learns and changes and develops ever-maturing thoughts and ideas, and finds a way to exist that suits him, discovering the elusive goal of true contentment.

(Pierre, you are both a delight and an inspiration.)

Prince Andrei loses certainty after certainty in the harsh world of war. He leaves the family home to pursue a career and dedicate himself to what he believes in, but finds himself looking constantly to differing perspectives for that one perfect idea, the following of which would allow him to be both happy and at peace. He struggles frequently with thoughts of commitment, and steadily loses the position of firm certainty from which he used to depend wholly upon.

These are only two examples, and throughout War and Peace there are many instances of changing moral attitudes, differing approaches, and shifts in perspective, short-term and long-term. This is character development at its best, and even at his most abstract, Tolstoy does not fail to deliver.

(Characters, not pizza.)

Ultimately, then, I liked the detail, the character development, the writing, and the philosophical musings in War and Peace. It was compulsive, intriguing reading, and I emerged on the other side feeling as if I had truly experienced something genuinely exceptional, found myself holding an unprecedented masterpiece. Although, arguably, the philosophical aspects could have been removed without causing undue damage to the text, they were far from irrelevant, and made for very interesting reading.

As such, I rated Tolstoy’s War and Peace 5 out of 5 stars, and would absolutely recommend it to anybody with a love and an interest in exceptional literature. It would, arguably, be preferred reading for anyone that enjoys classics, but whether it is read for the philosophy, the musings on war, the exceedingly vibrant – not to mention realistic – characters or for the extraordinary manner in which Tolstoy weaves a narrative, Tolstoy’s War and Peace will be enjoyed. I read a review claiming that reading War and Peace was to live War and Peace – perhaps in reference to the commitment required by the colossal word count – and I’m not entirely true whether this is the case, but it is certainly true that reading War and Peace was a fundamentally exceptional experience.