War and Peace

What comes to mind when you think of “War and Peace?”

Maybe a word like “masterpiece” is springing forth, or perhaps even a grandiose claim calling it “the greatest novel ever written.” Then again, you might think of that famous quote from Henry James, who described Tolstoy’s tome as a “large loose baggy monster.”

So while there is no denying the value of War and Peace, or its place among the esteemed works of fiction, maybe it is more something to be feared than enjoyed. Admired from afar but not actually attempted, not when the idea of reading it is so daunting a prospect. War and Peace is certainly a gargantuan novel: in my edition, it surpasses 1200 pages (this edition is, by the way, the much-lauded translation by Pevear and Volokhonsky, the dynamic duo who have also translated works by Russian authors Dostoevsky and Chekhov). Is War and Peace really a monster?

I don’t think so. Beginning a book of considerable length is always like setting out on a long journey. But the length of a journey does not determine whether it is enjoyable, accessible, worthwhile, or even doable. It only means that, as with all journeys (of any size), it must be begun and carried on one step at a time.

In any case, War and Peace is not some dense, impenetrable treatise. When viewed from a distance, not only the length, but also the high reputation and historical breadth of the novel can seem intimidating. However, it’s possible that we sell ourselves short by staying away from great works because they might be too difficult. The amazing thing about any classic novel is that it has so many layers of depth, of meaning and beauty. If we put pressure on ourselves to understand and “get” the full meaning of everything operating inside and outside the novel, then it’s likely we won’t ever make it to the final page, and if we do, we might have missed the beauty of the book as a whole, and the intrinsic value of the activity of reading.

If, on the other hand, we label ourselves as “not enough” in some way to read a certain book, or dismiss it as not worth the effort, we also miss a lot. How can we know how a book might impact or change us if we do not even give ourselves the chance to try? A novel like War and Peace can be read multiple times, and each subsequent reading would unveil new treasures to the reader. So maybe the solution is to liberate ourselves from the pressure to understand everything at once, on our first time reading. This doesn’t mean that we should read every good book more than once but that we should go through a book like War and Peace making an effort to understand but not beating ourselves up or halting our progress if there are things that we don’t understand.

War and Peace is a brilliantly conceived and implemented novel. Reading it sparked in me an interest in the Napoleonic wars that has yet to be quenched. Tolstoy depicts Napoleon himself and plays out some of the most important battles in the pages: the battle of Austerlitz in Austria and the battle of Borodino in Russia. It also takes us right into the tension, fear, excitement and uncertainty that reigned supreme as Napoleon reigned in France. In this way, a hugely significant and turbulent period in European history comes alive in War and Peace.

But War and Peace is more than a reenactment of historical events. A large part of what makes it so enduring and so great is its characters. These are characters who are so vivid and whose lives and relationships, hopes and fears become so real to the reader that they linger there after the final page has been turned. For me, characters like Natasha, Andrei, Pierre and Marya are among the most memorable and interesting I have ever come to know through literature.

I hope from all this you see that War and Peace, while long and certainly deserving of all its renown, is not inaccessible. What’s more, it is fascinating, gripping, moving, enriching, and truly a joy to experience and read.