Henry James, not himself known for brevity of written expression, considered War and Peace a “large loose baggy monster, ” but each time I’ve read through Tolstoy’s 1000++ page rendering of the Napoleonic Wars era in Russia I’ve fallen completely under its spell. The first time, when I was in college, I had only four days to get through the book, which turned out to be wonderful because I became so immersed in the story that when I heard steeple bells ringing on Sunday it was as if I had been transported to Moscow with its hundreds and hundreds of churches.
It’s an immense, sprawling literary adventure and I love it too much to write rationally about it. In defending War and Peace against its critics, Tolstoy claimed that it’s not a novel, not an epic poem, and not a historical chronicle, but is instead a convention straddling work of artistic prose whose form was dictated by its subject matter.
The book has lots (and lots) of main characters–many of my favorites in literature–and it involves readers deeply, even tenderly, in their lives, loves, hopes, struggles, and spiritual odysseys. There are battles, balls, evening soirees, and family estates ruined then resurrected, but the plot is only part of the story. Also included are philosophical digressions on the truths of life and death, discussions on the forces of history, rants about historians (people who subscribe to the “great man theory” will not find support from Tolstoy), and even a little battlefield algebra–but often these metaphysical excursions are made using capacious poetic metaphors and similes that make reading them a pure pleasure.
And did I mention that I love the characters? Though I have nothing against romance novels I never seem to enjoy them, but I swoon over the romances in War and Peace. It’s not a book without flaws. For one thing, now that I’m older, I noticed that in the Epilogue Tolstoy seems to write off people over sixty, and maybe Tolstoy spends too much time away from the plot while propounding his favorite theories. But having finished the book for the fourth time I’m sorry it’s over, and I know that after a few years go by I’ll be happily lost in its pages once more.
Just a note on translation–I think this rendition by husband and wife team Richard Pevear (American) and Larissa Volokhonsky (Russian) is particularly good at capturing the nuances and beauty of Tolstoy’s writing.