One of the greatest monuments in world literature. Set against the dramatic backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars, it examines the relationship between the individual and the relentless march of history. Here are the universal themes of love and hate, ambition and despair, youth and age, expressed with a swirling vitality which makes the book as accessible today as it was when it was first published in 1869.
War and Peace follows three of the most well-known characters in literature: Pierre Bezukhov, the illegitimate son of a count who is fighting for his inheritance and yearning for spiritual fulfilment; Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, who leaves his family behind to fight in the war against Napoleon; and Natasha Rostov, the beautiful young daughter of a nobleman who intrigues both men.
Considered a central work of literature and yes, I can now attest is indeed a monumental and profound read. And rightly or wrongly, a milestone for any book nerd.
War and Peace addresses the philosophical and historical whilst remaining exquisitely personal, and with a painstaking attention to detail.
As the story unfolds it’s way through wartime drama, ambition, love, and scandal in the affairs of Russian high society, we come to know the main characters intimately. And they are all flawed. There are no heroes. It is wonderfully human.
Pierre is my favourite, bumbling and awkward in his ongoing struggle to find and develop his own philosophical and mystical understanding, and ultimate meaning in life. (I think Tolstoy enjoyed writing these searching kind of characters).
Take a step out to the narrative of the Napoleonic invasion of Russia where key historical figures become our main characters and you’ll find yourself learning a lot about an important period of history. However it is not really historical fiction as such – Tolstoy wrote the story less than fifty years on from these events.
Step out again, and you’ll find the story is interlaced with essays on the subject of war, the writing and mandates of historians, and concepts (or perhaps misconceptions) of topics such as power and free will.
There wasn’t much peacetime during this period – but perhaps ‘Peace’ in the title refers to the narrative of our characters’ daily lives as opposed to the epic descriptions of battlefields and military strategy portions of the novel.
From time to time I have to admit I found myself wanting Tolstoy to depart the battlefields and essays to return to the drama and intrigue of the salons and soirées of St Petersburg society.
War and Peace is a story that follows a rhythm of life. In fact perhaps it is better to describe it as having a life of its own. Once I finished the first epilogue (yes there’s more than one) I said to my husband I felt this story could continue perpetually. And that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing!
As a novel I think I enjoyed Anna Karenina more – but then Tolstoy never thought of War and Peace as a novel. It is so much more than that.
“Nothing is so necessary for a young man as the company of intelligent women.”
“They say: sufferings are misfortunes,” said Pierre. ‘But if at once this minute, I was asked, would I remain what I was before I was taken prisoner, or go through it all again, I should say, for God’s sake let me rather be a prisoner and eat horseflesh again. We imagine that as soon as we are torn out of our habitual path all is over, but it is only the beginning of something new and good. As long as there is life, there is happiness. There is a great deal, a great deal before us.”
“Man lives consciously for himself, but serves as an unconscious instrument for the achievement of historical, universally human goals. An action once committed is irrevocable, and its effect, coinciding in time with millions of actions of the people, acquires historical significance.”
MY RATING: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
WHAT’S NEXT: Apparently the BBC miniseries is very good – keen to watch this.