Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace”

February 4, 2015

This is the 38th book selection in our Book of the Month series. Yet, as hard as I’ve tried to include the most significant books ever written, this is only the second that is certified by the literati to be one of the 10 Greatest Books Ever Written. The other is Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables (September 25, 2013). Because of its great length, I gave our readers two months in which to digest it. Since the unabridged versions of War and Peace are 1400 pages long, it seems both wise and humane for me to give Book Club members both February and March to read and fully digest the book. As always, I urge/beg our readers to be satisfied with nothing less than the unabridged text of a translation that has stood the test of time.

War and Peace so towers over the history of prose literature that it ought to be on every literate person on earth’s Bucket List, to read before they die. It is particularly timely right now because Russia has been, for some time, in every day’s news: What will Putin do next to try and get back every country Russia lost after the fall of the Berlin Wall? Once you fully digest Tolstoy’s epic, you’ll never again be able to look at Russia simplistically again.

Signet Classic 1968 Edition - Translated by Ann Dunnigan

Signet Classic 1968 Edition – Translated by Ann Dunnigan

But before we get into reasons why everyone should read the book, let’s check out some endorsements:

• “I think Tolstoy’s War and Peace is the greatest novel the world has ever known. No novel with such a wide sweep, dealing with so momentous a period of history and with such a vast array of characters was ever written before.” – W. Somerset Maugham

• “The greatest novel ever written. The characters are universal, for all time.” –John Galsworthy

• “Tolstoy stands at the head of novelists as Shakespeare among poets [and dramatists].” –V. Sackville-West

• “If one has read War and Peace for a page, great chords begin to sound; they come from the immense area of Russia, over which episodes and characters have been scattered, which accumulate grandeur and sonority after we have passed them.” –J. B. Priestley

• “Here is the greatest novel ever written. It has been called ‘life itself.’ Everything is in it. And it’s also as free as life. Its private joys and sorrows seem to continue when one has closed the pages.” –E. M. Forster

• “There is hardly any subject of human experience that is left out of War and Peace.” –Virginia Woolf

• “The greatest novel in all literature. This magnificent work has taught me more about life than any other novel in any language…. The vast canvas is covered by hundreds of figures, every one alive and distinct, and some of the leading characters, like Natasha and Prince André, are companions for one during the rest of one’s life.” –Hugh Walpole

• “War and Peace is generally considered the greatest novel of all novels…. Tolstoy couldn’t state the theme short of writing 1400 pages…. For Tolstoy… anything that human beings do has its glory. Humanity is equally glorious in its wars, its peace, its quarrels, its love affairs.” –Mark Van Doren

• “Reading War and Peace for the very first time is one of the greatest literary experiences; reading it again and again is to realize the immeasurable gulf that is fixed between a merely good book and a great one. It may be regarded as the greatest novel that has been written, the supreme fictional achievement in the literature of the world.” –J. Donald Adams

(1828 – 1910)

One of his ancestors, Count Peter Tolstoy, had been a celebrated statesman during the reign of Peter the Great. Tolstoy’s father, Count Nicholas Tolstoy, had married Princess Marya Volkonski, an heiress with a great fortune. Leo was one of five children. Sadly, his mother died when he was only three, and his father six years later. So the boy was raised by his Aunt Tatyana, who he’d always adore. The children were all born on the Princess’s ancestral estate, Yasnaya Polyana (about 200 miles southwest of Moscow). Leo would study with tutors until he was old enough to attend university classes. Though he attended two, he never graduated from either. Thanks to his aristocratic connections, he was able to attend society’s balls, soirées and parties in Kazan, Moscow, and St. Petersburg.

Early on, he lost faith in Christianity because of the wide variance between belief and daily living. At that time, atheism appeared to be the only rational alternative to him. Without any spiritual keel, he became a heavy drinker, reckless gambler, and frequenter of brothels. He even lost his ancestral home, Yosnaya Polyana, for a time because of his out-of-control gambling. So it seemed wise to join the army in its wars in the Caucasus Mountains and Crimea (it was then that he contracted syphilis).

Eventually, he came to his senses, realizing that atheism provided no hope at all. Thus he once again turned to Orthodox Christianity. But he was disillusioned so often that he would spend the rest of his life formulating his own type of Christianity, based almost solely on Christ’s earthly ministry as chronicled in the Gospels. This evolution of his spiritual philosophy of life would take the rest of his life.

At 34, he belatedly decided to settle down. He settled on a lovely eighteen-year-old, Sonya Behr. She had a graceful figure, great vitality, high spirits, and a beautiful speaking voice. On their engagement night, he almost lost her, when he lent her his diaries, in which he’d faithfully recorded not only his hopes and thoughts, prayers and self-reproaches, but also his perceived faults, including detailed descriptions of his many sexual escapades and liaisons. Sonya read and wept all night. By morning, her virginal attitude towards life was so seared, she never fully recovered. Almost, she broke the engagement, but finally forgave him–but she never forgot.

During the first eleven years of marriage, the Countess would bear eight children; during the next fifteen, five more–thirteen in all.

And so the Tolstoys settled down to rural life. He and Sonya were very much in love with each other, and they reveled in family and family education and activities. And he wrote; he had been doing so for a number of years, and his literary reputation continued to grow within the Russian Empire. And then—

Campaign of 1805

Campaign of 1805

And then . . . he was 36 years old, in the prime of life, when he began writing a book about Russia’s Decembrist Revolution. But he kept wondering more about the events of 1812 when Napoleon invaded Russia–and in so doing, changed the course of world history. He now moved the heart of the novel to 1812. Initially, the book was primarily about family, life among the gentry, the historical incidents merely a background. But the book grew . . . and kept growing. Sonya hand-copied the entire book. Eventually, apparently, seven times! before her husband was satisfied with it. It would be published during the six years it took to write it, in installments (1865-1869). First, he’d read segments aloud to his family. They quickly realized that there were real people they knew whose personalities were woven into the novel.

Though around 500 characters people the epic, four families are central: the Rostovs, the Bolkonskis, the Kuragins, and the Bezukhovs.
• It is said that the thriftless Count was inspired by Tolstoy’s grandfather.
• The pathetic yet charming Princess Mary, by his mother.
• The two “heroes,” Pierre Bezukhov and Prince André, it is generally concluded that they were modeled on Tolstoy’s own divided persona, and that he wrote the book in order to better understand himself. Alike in that, just as was true with himself, both characters seek mental peace, the answers to the mysteries of life and death, and neither finds it. Both are in love with Natasha, Count Rostav’s younger daughter. Maugham maintains that, in her, Tolstoy has created the most delightful girl in fiction. Natasha is undeveloped when the story begins: entirely natural, sweet, sensitive, sympathetic, willful, childish, already womanly, idealistic, quick-tempered, warm-hearted, headstrong, capricious, and in everything enchanting. Tolstoy would go on to create many memorable women, but never another who wins the affections of the reader like Natasha. Apparently, Natasha was modeled on Sonya and her sister, Tatiana.

Napoleon in Russia - 1812 - from the Inner Sanctum Edition of "War and Peace" (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1942)

Napoleon in Russia – 1812 – from the Inner Sanctum Edition of “War and Peace” (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1942)

But for Tolstoy, the real hero of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia was the Russian Commander-in-Chief, General Kutusov. Why? Because he did nothing, avoided battle, and merely waited for the French armies to destroy themselves. Just let Napoleon lead his armies so deep into Russia that his lines of communication can easily be severed. Result? The “Little Emperor” reaches the point where his once vast army is so thoroughly demoralized they’re nothing but sitting ducks for the Cossacks who sweep in and out, free the Russian prisoners, seize valuable supplies, and pick the French off, one bullet at a time.

Thus, the force dominating characters of the novel are Pierre, Prince André, Natasha, and Kutusov. Kutusov because, unlike vainglorious self-centered Napoleon, he remains humble, selfless, unmoved by personal glory.

Helen Muchnik maintains that, in the book, all the panoply of war, all its supposed military heroes, are secondary to events and forces beyond their control, secondary to what participants make of themselves.

John Bayley maintains that marriage is the novel’s ultimate theme, its climax, its apotheosis. The book ends with marriage, and features more happy marriages than in any other novel. Furthermore, that Tolstoy had planned and replanned the development of these destinies with such immense care, interweaving what actually occurred in history with his own invention of what must occur to complete and justify the fiction, until the reader can no longer see where truth ends and fiction begins: what happens appears inevitable. A prodigious one-of-a-kind tour de force—the world’s greatest novel.


First of all, seek out a complete unabridged text. Then, over the next two months revel in a book unlike (and unequaled) any other.


Vincent F. Hopper and Bernard D. N. Grebanier’s Essentials of World Literature, Vol. Two (Woodbury, New York: Barron’s Educational Series, Inc., 1952).

Maugham, W. Somerset’s W. Somerset Maugham Selects the World’s Ten Greatest Novels (Greenwich, Connecticut: Faucett Publications, Inc, 1958).

Muchnic, Helen, An Introduction to Russian Literature (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1947, 1964).

* * *

Aylmer Maude’s Introduction to War and Peace (New York: The Heritage Press, 1938).

John Bayley’s Introduction to War and Peace (New York: New American Library, 1968, 1980).


What Was the World Like 100 Years Ago?


September 3, 2014

In a nutshell, it was a different world from the one we live in today. In many ways, changed very little from what it had been for more than a millennium. As 1914 approached, so many things seemed to be going right for the nobility, princes and princesses, kings and queens and emperors.

Ever since Darwin, there had been the perception that the world was rapidly becoming a better place. According to evolutionary theory, it was assumed we could expect global peace in the future. As Emile Coeu famously put it, “Every day, in every way, I’m becoming better and better.” It was then easy to believe in the goodness of God: God would no longer permit mankind to do terrible things to each other.

Back then, England ruled the world, thus, ruling over one quarter of the globe, it was said, “The sun never sets over the British Empire.” At the height of Queen Victoria’s reign, her sway extended over half of North America, slices of Central and South America, a vast part of Africa, a whole continent in Australia, some of the richest lands in Asia (including India), plus other island possessions spread clear across the globe. It was the British sea-power that enabled it to rule over the ocean, and Britain’s merchant fleet that made Britain the greatest of all trading nations.

On the European continent, the Hohenzollern Kaisers had gradually forged such a powerful military power that the German army was perceived as being almost invincible. And now, vain, impulsive Kaiser Wilhelm II worshiped the art of war. A huge naval shipbuilding program had begun in order to challenge Britain’s supremacy over the seas.

France had mostly recovered from its 1870 defeat at the hands of Germany. France now had a world-wide empire, second in size only to the British.

East was the vast land called Russia, composed of one-eighth of the land mass of the world. A proud and imperialistic nation ruled by the Romanoff czars, now Nicholas II. Nicholas, a narrow-minded aristocrat who wholeheartedly believed in the divine right of kings and was totally oblivious to the plight of his people, was incapable of handling the forces sweeping across the steppes of the empire. Politically inept, he was dependent on his strong-willed czarina, Alexandra, who was herself manipulated by the Svengalian mystic, Rasputin.

Dominating Central Europe was the far-flung Austro-Hungarian Empire, ruled by its beloved emperor, Franz Joseph, last of the great Hapsburg monarchs. The empire shouldn’t even have existed, yet somehow did, composed as it was of 12,000,000 Germans, 10,000,000 Magyars [Hungarians], 6,000,000 Czechs, 5,000,000 Poles, 4,000,000 Ukrainians, 3,700,000 Serbs and Croats, 3,300,000 Rumanians, 2,500,000 Slovaks, 1,300,000 Slovenes, and 800,000 Italians. But all those diverse peoples remained a unit mainly because of the respect they had for the emperor. In reality, it was just one big powder keg waiting to explode. And Franz Joseph was old.

Then there was the increasingly formidable Japanese Empire. To the north, Japan annexed the Kuriles; to the south and east, the Ryukyus, the Bonins, the Volcanoes, and Marcus Island. After its victorious war against China in 1894-95, the Japanese annexed Taiwan and the Pescadores; and Korea became a vassal. In 1904, Japan had an epic showdown with Russia, and won. Nicholas II never recovered from that ignominious disaster. So now, Japan was spoiling for a fight in order to acquire even more territory.

Thus the western world was ruled from five great cities: London, Berlin, Moscow, Vienna, and Paris. Most all the European royal houses had intermarried to the extent that they were all cousins.

It is fascinating to read eighteenth and nineteenth century fiction. The protagonists, the heroes and heroines of that age were invariably royal, among the nobility, or aristocratic. In America, it seemed every girl yearned to marry a prince, duke, earl, count, or lord. And many did just that. Reason being that the European aristocracy and nobility, due to their frivolous and lavish lifestyles, were almost always in debt: desperately needing money. Since there were plenty of rich Americans who had lots of money, and would gladly pawn off their daughters to the highest bidder, Americans bought their way into European high society. That most of those marriages had nothing to do with love, yoking title to money, more often than not, they proved disastrous.

It would not be until the end of World War I, and the resulting doom of royal supremacy, that fictional heroes and heroines shifted away in the direction of media, entertainers, and sports protagonists, such as we see today.

The tragedy of 1914 was that, in reality, no one deep down really wanted war. Times were good. Sidewalk cafes were full. Monarchies were becoming ever more democratic, the middle class was increasingly prosperous, education was becoming more and more accessible to all, European tours were something more and more people wanted to take. In most cases the populace would rather have the ruler they had (the devil they knew) than the ruler they didn’t know (the devil they didn’t know).

Then came June 28, 1914, when the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Crown Prince of Austria-Hungary, in Sarajevo, Serbia, on a state visit, was assassinated.

And the world exploded into war . . . and has never been the same since.

References: The Five Worlds of Our Lives (New York: Newsweek, Inc., 1961).