War and Peace is as poignant in 2017 as it was when first published in the 1860s. Set during the French invasion of Russia, over 50 years before Tolstoy’s time, the writer records and reflects on the historical significance of Napoleon’s campaign, and its effects on the society he grew up in. At first glance, the text may seem unreadable, and I have heard more than one person express bewilderment at the fact that I have read it multiple times: “But it’s so long!” Yes, it is a long book. Five Russian families, the war against Napoleon, scenes with over 500,000 soldiers and locations that switch between the battlefront and St. Petersburg dining rooms (a different kind of battlefield in Imperial Russian society); all of these can make this book understandably confusing, leaving readers disoriented.
But the disorientation is the best part, and the vastness of the book is almost exhilarating. War and Peace follows history as faithfully as Tolstoy’s wariness of it will allow, but it is much more than a chronological retelling of events. The plot leaves us reeling, as Tolstoy engages with characters as passionate as Natasha Rostova, projects his own beliefs via Pierre Bezukhov, and creates heart-warming personas such as the Russian peasant Platon Karataev. Perhaps the confusing part is that we have seen all these archetypes before, but never together, in a narrative so enormous that its sheer volume is what allows it to make sense. Tolstoy’s characters love with the frivolity of Lydia from Pride and Prejudice, question their place in society with the steely-eyed gaze of someone from The Handmaid’s Tale, and engage in beautifully described war scenes that put fantasy masterpieces like The Lord of the Rings to shame.
the disorientation is the best part, and the vastness of the book is almost exhilarating
War and Peace was never called a novel by Tolstoy himself; conscious of the form and style of the book, he insisted that Anna Karenina was in fact his first “real” novel. He called War and Peace a “black sheep” within the perfect white flock of nineteenth century novels, because it engaged with history and philosophy almost as much as it engaged with his characters (more so, some would argue). Perhaps that is where the distaste for the book stems from: it is difficult to appreciate a writer when it seems as though they are preaching at you directly from the pages, instead of letting their characters do it subtly. But I would argue this lets you engage with the writer in a way that is no longer done – the reader’s one-sided conversation with Tolstoy is an important part of the experience of reading War and Peace. The writer is both brilliant and irritable, distrustful of history and almost innocent in his outlook towards notions of war and peace, and yet pointed in his critique of campaigns led by singular men instead of revolutionary movements by large groups of people. Most importantly, the book blurs the line between fiction and reality, and tells the story of a real-world event in a way in which the world would be more willing to accept.
In conclusion, is War and Peace really a book you should read before you turn 30? Probably. Is it a book you should read whenever you have time, regardless of how old you are? Definitely.