War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (Shane's book 29, 2008)

It’s the length that makes War and Peace daunting. My edition, the 2007 Vintage Classics volume reviewed by James last year, is more than 1,200 pages long; it requires a significant investment of time but it’s worth it. Tolstoy’s vast narrative follows several aristocratic families in the early nineteenth century. The story begins in 1805, with Russia about to go to war with Napoleon, and, apart from a brief jump to 1820 in the epilogue, concludes in 1812 after Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow.

In this relatively brief timeframe Tolstoy covers approximately everything: youth, adulthood and death; love, lust and marriage; war, history and fate... and probably several other things besides.

The result is extraordinary. Tolstoy’s observations on life and what it means to be human are pin-sharp. There are so many incredible moments throughout the book. James mentioned Prince Andrei and the oak tree, which I think is my favourite section, but Pierre and the comet and Petya’s night with the wagons are almost as good and I could list a dozen other sections that would be the pinnacle of another novel.

Tolstoy excels at capturing the turning points in people’s lives, the chance connections or trivial encounters that bring about deep personal changes. Some of his characters undergo quite significant changes in personality and not only do they feel natural, but Tolstoy uses them to open our eyes too.

The book falters only when Tolstoy abandons the narrative for one of his many essays on history. He believes that people are swept along by history, a force shaped by thousands upon thousands of tiny causes and beyond the control of individuals. The ‘great men’ of history, such as Napoleon, are simply those who took advantage of circumstances.

And he really hates Napoleon. That’s understandable; it would be odd if he liked him. However, his anger is so blinding, so all-consuming that it’s often expressed in quite petty ways, making Tolstoy sound like he’s on a nineteenth century Grumpy Old Men.

Having made his point about history, Tolstoy makes it again and again. The essays become more frequent as the book goes on, breaking up the narrative just as it gathers momentum, and culminating in an unnecessary and tedious summary of Tolstoy’s beliefs in the second half of the epilogue.

Some editions of the book remove the essays from the main body and place them at the end as appendices. I agree that the story would be better served by doing this but Tolstoy’s work as a whole would be diminished. He put them there for a reason and that’s where they should stay.

Still, Tolstoy should have had more faith in the ability of his story to make his point for him. Tolstoy demonstrates very effectively his belief that military commanders have very little influence on a battle once it’s underway. The smart leaders are the ones who understand this and either pretend that everything is going according to plan, even when they’re surprised, or simply put their feet up and wait for the outcome. The foolish ones, and Tolstoy puts Napoleon in this category, spend the battle issuing one order after another without the slightest chance of any of them being put into practice.

Likewise, and in keeping with his beliefs, he allows his characters very little free will. As the story unfolds their decisions are increasingly constrained by events: one couple come together at last following the deaths of each of their partners, while another couple are kept apart by financial practicalities.

Such is Tolstoy’s ability to create rounded characters that they survive his ruthless manipulations and come to life within the pages. The sharpness with which Tolstoy illuminates the passions and insecurities within, say, Andrei, Pierre and Natasha, is nothing short of genius.

The length helps here too. The central characters are introduced as teenagers and we follow them for so long and so closely that we feel their joy and their pain all the more profoundly.

This book is a marvel. Everyone should read it.