Posted by: Brad Nixon | June 27, 2018

War and Peace and Tolstoy and Russia and Napoleon and … All That

In a few days, I’ll post a summary of my mid-year reading-to-date. I want to comment on the book that started my 2018 reading: Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

I have two goals. I hope to encourage you to read it if you haven’t. If you have, I hope I’ll spur you to comment on your experience reading this archetypal “big book.” Ideally, sharing my experience might lessen the impression that it’s a toweringly imposing monolith that should be read and create some expectation that you might want to.

Yes, it is a large book. In the edition I read, more than 1,300 pages. It will require the devotion of some precious reading time. I believe it’s worth it.

I read War and Peace in an English translation. There are numerous translations available in many languages. One always feels apologetic about reading “great literature” at a remove from the author’s own language, but that’s a limitation of mine. I’d be delighted to hear from readers who know it in Russian. Victor Travel Blog, how about you? I envy anyone the experience of reading the original.

Preparing to Read War and Peace

I have a few suggestions to give first-time readers about what to expect.

Tolstoy published the book in 1869, and the story spans the years 1805-1820. Unless you have a sound command of Russian society and history at the beginning of the 19th century, and know something about Napoleon’s campaigns of 1805 and especially 1812, consider doing a bit of historical study for some context. Not required, but helpful.

I recommend that you find an edition of the book that has some historical notes and maps (Tolstoy provided some, himself, which should be there). Numerous historical figures (not just Napoleon) appear in the book, and it’s useful to distinguish them from the fictional ones if, like me, your knowledge of Russian history isn’t what it should be.

Very helpful is an edition that provides a summary of the major characters, typically grouped by family. That’s useful for those of us who aren’t familiar with the Russian convention of individuals having a first name, patronymic, surname and (often multiple) nicknames, any one of which might be used to refer to them in narrative or dialogue. Not only are there more than 500 characters, those family relationships play out over the entire course of the book, and it’s useful — especially early on as they enter in quick succession — to have a guide.

Unless you’re extremely comfortable reading French, have a dictionary at hand. Most of the principal characters in the book are from the Russian aristocracy, which was heavily francophile. The “peace” sections set in Moscow and Petersburg often include dialogue in French, as was the custom. I have a nodding acquaintance with reading French, and could follow most of those passages, but I benefitted from looking up unfamiliar vocabulary and expressions.

Finally, I’ll suggest that — as Tolstoy himself stated — you shouldn’t expect to read a “novel.” War and Peace is something else. It lacks some of the unities of a novel, because there are so many interlinked and overlapping stories. The “arc” or “theme” of the book subsumes all of them and bridges them all with considerations that sound pretentious to describe, from “the fate of Russia,” or “the futility of war” to the banal, “no man is an island.” Accept that Tolstoy’s accomplishment in composing War and Peace is sui generis and enjoy the journey.

Why Read It?

War and Peace is a compelling story, artfully told. Tolstoy masterfully sets a complex, interwoven set of personalities and events inside the framework of historical fact. His ability to create interesting and convincing humans and drama, and have them react to, be driven by and deal with the exigencies of both fictional and historical circumstances is praiseworthy.

If you know Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina or The Death of Ivan Ilyich, you already know his storytelling ability. In War and Peace he extends himself on an extremely large scale across two decades of events. The result is an impressive accomplishment.

As a practitioner of the writer’s craft, Tolstoy stands tall. He creates memorable characters with distinctive, multidimensional personalities. Life is not tidy in Tolstoy, nor is it simple. People and events surprise us. He uses all the tools at a writer’s command: shifting perspectives and points of view, dialogue, direct and indirect interior monologue and dialogue. There are wonderful descriptive passages in which he portrays the aristocratic social settings, the cities, the beauty of the Russian landscape and — with enormous variety and power — the stupidity, confusion, horror and disruption of war.

I could easily write 1,000 words giving examples of how thoroughly I admire Tolstoy’s mastery of point of view. He shifts us deftly from St. Petersburg to Moscow to a tent in a battlefield to an estate outside of Moscow to follow what’s happening with another set of characters, moving in and out of their perspectives so that we understand how they view their situation, individual dramas, their relationships with other characters or events. While these carefully structured moments move the story forward, they also give us constantly evolving understanding of the psychology of his characters, their strengths and weaknesses, and show us multiple ways of seeing and thinking about what was happening not only in this story, but in Russia sixty years before Tolstoy sat down to write.

I’m not a devotee of military novels, but I’ve logged my share of them, due in large part to the fact that many of the best western writers have had the backdrop of almost constant warfare throughout the 19th and 20th centuries for their stories. Tolstoy himself was a veteran, and his book is not just about characters who are living through a war. He is doing all he can to enunciate his view about the very nature of war. It’s fascinating and brilliantly done.

I would greatly appreciate hearing from those of you who’ve read War and Peace, with your opinions. What did you enjoy or what did you not like? Perhaps you started it and set it aside? Why? Other readers, I hope, will benefit from your observations, to balance mine. Please leave a comment.

Happy reading.

© Brad Nixon 2018


  1. I read War and Peace on my daily train commute, in 20-minute bursts morning & evening. Not the best way to do it, but it actually works quite well, due to the short chapters jumping between storylines regularly.

    I thoroughly enjoyed it. There are so many nuggets of beautiful concepts that are just mentioned as one-line asides (a failing of mine, perhaps – I tend to enjoy books for the off-story pieces that authors stick in to add a bit of colour).

    A favourite was in Natasha’s coming out ball, with the concept of one’s beauty being diminished by being viewed, as though it is stolen by the onlookers.

    I read it about 4 years ago, and wanted to read it again from the moment I finished it. Perhaps next year…

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Nick. Tolstoy is full of those trenchant moments. And, that’s how I read Anna Karenina, via audio on the driving commute to our then mutual employer.


  2. At first I thought, “Oh, my Lord. Just getting through my work day’s enough of a challenge in this heat. Why would I set off on a literary slog at the end of it?” Then, a day later, I started to laugh. ‘War and peace’ isn’t the worst metaphor for days on the docks followed by air conditioned evenings. This might be just the season to drag out that copy that’s been pulled out and put back in the stack a good half-dozen times.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Thank you for the question, Brad.

    I am happy enough to be able to read in several European languages. I started to learn some of them not so long ago. Yes, it is much more interesting than reading of translating.

    I have read War and Peace in Russian, and I must to admit that it isn’t an easy book. But if you are learning the Russian language, you should read Tolstoy and Gogol, and you will have Russian which will be better and more correct then the vast majority of Russians have.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Hello Brad, always nice to hear that other people share my enthusiasm. I could dedicate a whole separate blog to War and Peace, and perhaps I will some day. It’s just the best thing ever written.
    My tip for new readers is to approach it more as a soap series. When it was first published, it wasn’t published as a novel, but as a sequel in a magazine. As a result there are cliffhangers and unexpected twists in the plot.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you. I didn’t realize it had originally been published as a serial. There’s certainly enough scope in Tolstoy’s narrative, characters, intersecting plots, societal issues and views on war to warrant some considerable amount of study. Thanks for the added information.

      Liked by 1 person

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