Authorized translation by Louise and Aylmer Maude, published by special arrangement with the Oxford University Press, London and New York.
Leo Tolstoy said of his book, "With no false humility, War and Peace is one of the greatest novels ever written." It may put some people off, but authors are allowed to praise their own work if what they say is true, and Tolstoy's statement is certainly true. War and Peace is huge and brilliant, balancing epic scope and personal narrative effortlessly. It's truly a Russian novel in that (besides being dark, complex and philosophical) it's about Russia herself, and her people from peasants to aristocrats.
In perhaps the most grievous abridgment ever, suffice it to say the plot follows Prince Andrew Bolkonski and the introspective Pierre Bezukhov. Andrew's story is about war; Pierre embodies peace. The parallel narratives illustrate Tolstoy's rejection of war as a viable solution to national problems, and his embrace of non-violent agrarian life as a means to personal reconstruction. This is pretty heavy for a novel; like his countrymen (Dostoevsky, Gogol, Solzhenitsyn), Tolstoy uses fiction to explore ideas, particularly those related to politics and human nature.
This is not to suggest War and Peace is boring. On the contrary, it contains some of the best romance, most graphic battle scenes, and most intense intrigue in literature. Tolstoy is fairly terse, using vivid imagery more than philosophical asides. If you don't think novels are the place for serious thought, don't read this one; but if you think (as Russians do) that fiction is the best place to reflect on life, you couldn't do much better than this one.
People like to cite Tolstoy as an example of essential Christianity, and while he began orthodox, when he wrote War and Peace he was far beyond its pale. By the end of his life he was making radical claims to Godhood and had effectively divorced himself from his family through a program of asceticism and reclusiveness. Yet this novel does expound Christian themes, like the importance of community, those with plenty helping the poor, and the superiority of virtue over moral relativism.
War and Peace is daunting. But it's rewarding—elemental love and consummate hatred, the fire of war ripping cities apart and the retreat of quiet souls to wind-blown wheat fields far from conflict. If you're impatient with the reflective passages, remember great literature exists to help us understand the world and our role in it, and remember that Tolstoy was the master of the existential novel. Besides, there's always poetry at the end of the diatribe.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur.Read more of his reviews here.
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