Leo Tolstoy | War and Peace

“We can know only that we know nothing. And that is the highest degree of human wisdom.” 
― Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace

I finished reading War and Peace today. I think I can affirm that it is the best novel I have yet read in my life. Definitely in my top 5… I am not sure what I would consider my top 5. Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and Samuel Beckett’s Molloy, assuredly. Maybe Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the shore? Dostoyevsky’s Crime and punishment? Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar? Mmm, no. Oh, I love Milan Kundera, he definitely needs to be in there, I just don’t know which novel to choose… The unbearable lightness of being? Life is elsewhere? Well I have not thought this through. Proust’s À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleur was so beautiful too… Clearly I wouldn’t know which novel to choose for this top 5. But War and Peace would definitely be in there. Probably number one. Yes. Most definitely number one. Why? Oh, for so many reasons.

The book was not what I expected. I thought it would be a treatise on war, something harder to read, not Hegelian, but close. Apparently Tolstoy did not consider War and Peace as a novel, hence, I was not expecting a novel. I don’t want to contradict Tolstoy, but it is a novel. Yes, a lot of it is historical; the battles, some events and a lot of characters are real or based on real persons. But it’s all romanticized. You get to meet the Tsar Alexandre 1, Napoleon, Prince Mikhail Kutuzov. You live through real battles : Austelritz, Otrovno, Shervardino, etc. You experience real events : executions, treatises, the great comet of 1811, the fire of Moscow, etc. But everything as seen through the eyes of different personages.

War and Peace has no hero or heroine, you spend time in the head of some main protagonists, it passes from mind to mind (a bit like Virginia Woolf’s stream of consciousness technique) and the beauty of it all is that you mature with them. You see them age, change their minds, wonder why some things happened, only to understand -or not- with them, years later, why they acted one way or another. And as you spend time in the head of separate people, you get a glimpse of different personalities, different thought patterns, different beliefs. So much like real life. Some characters were going through the same interrogations I am going through now. Which was interesting because I saw them change their mind later on and adopt altered views. It made me realize that nothing is fixed, nothing is forever, but forever changing and mutating, and that what seems to me right now to be of imperative importance, might be completely irrelevant in a couple of years, once I have gone through various experiences, once I have gone through life.

Everything is so exquisitely delivered, it moved me. The love stories are real, sincere, accurate, poetic. They are the backbone of the novel. And then you realize love is the backbone of life. War and peace. It says it all. A book about human relationships through war -hardships- and peace -love-. And what amazes me is that even if the plot takes place a couple of centuries ago, it is still completely relevant. Humans are humans. Whatever historical period, the path, the evolution, the emotions, the thoughts are always the same. The costumes and the settings might change, but the rest is unaltered. A perpetual rebirth. The circle of life… Life or theatre?

“Seize the moments of happiness, love and be loved! That is the only reality in the world, all else is folly. It is the one thing we are interested in here.” 

― Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace

The first book is the least interesting of the four. It is confusing as a lot of characters are introduced, some that are there for just one scene, and since you don’t know the protagonists yet, you are not sure which ones you need to focus on. But keep faith, keep on reading. By book two, you will start to understand who’s who. It is also in book two that the romance begins and hooks you. After that it is just joy; the pleasure of reading to it’s highest degree. You live through the highs and lows of war battles, feel the wounds, experience the desolation, witness the injustices, suffer the losses, celebrate the victories. You decipher family relationships, the way dissimilar parenting styles will breed unalike thought patterns and personalities in their children. You experience death, it’s injustice, it’s harshness, it’s peacefulness, it’s void. And you contemplate romantic love, how it alters thinking, how it changes and transmutes the ones in or out of love, how it is the principal, basic, all-important motor of life.

Such a grand and deep novel. If you have not read it, you definitely should. I know I will undeniably read it more than once.

War and peace selon wikipedia

(Source : Wikipedia)

War and Peace is a literary work mixed with chapters on history and philosophy by the Russian author Leo Tolstoy, first published serially, then published in its entirety in 1869. It is regarded as one of Tolstoy’s finest literary achievements and remains an internationally praised classic of world literature.

The novel chronicles the French invasion of Russia and the impact of the Napoleonic era on Tsarist society through the stories of five Russian aristocratic families.

Tolstoy said War and Peace is “not a novel, even less is it a poem, and still less a historical chronicle.” Large sections, especially the later chapters, are philosophical discussions rather than narrative. The writer rewrote the novel several times. Tolstoy also said that the best Russian literature does not conform to standards and hence hesitated to call War and Peace a novel. Instead, he regarded Anna Karenina as his first true novel.

Composition History
Leo Tolstoy

Tolstoy began writing War and Peace in 1863, the year that he finally married and settled down at his country estate. In September of that year, he wrote to Elizabeth Bers, his sister-in-law, asking if she could find any chronicles, diaries or records that related to the Napoleonic period in Russia. He was dismayed to find that few written records covered the domestic aspects of Russian life at that time, and tried to rectify these omissions in his early drafts of the novel. The first half of the book was written and named “1805”. During the writing of the second half, he read widely and acknowledged Schopenhauer as one of his main inspirations. Tolstoy wrote in a letter to Afanasy Fet that what he had written in War and Peace is also said by Schopenhauer in The World as Will and Representation. However, Tolstoy approaches “it from the other side.”

The first draft of the novel was completed in 1863. In 1865, the periodical Russkiy Vestnik (The Russian Messenger) published the first part of this draft under the title 1805 and published more the following year. Tolstoy was dissatisfied with this version, although he allowed several parts of it to be published with a different ending in 1867. He heavily rewrote the entire novel between 1866 and 1869. Tolstoy’s wife, Sophia Tolstaya, copied as many as seven separate complete manuscripts before Tolstoy considered it ready for publication. The version that was published in Russkiy Vestnik had a very different ending from the version eventually published under the title War and Peace in 1869. Russians who had read the serialized version were eager to buy the complete novel, and it sold out almost immediately. The novel was immediately translated after publication into many other languages.

Tolstoy was instrumental in bringing a new kind of consciousness to the novel. His narrative structure is noted not only for its god’s eye point of view over and within events, but also in the way it swiftly and seamlessly portrayed an individual character’s view point. His use of visual detail is often comparable to cinema, using literary techniques that resemble panning, wide shots and close-ups. These devices, while not exclusive to Tolstoy, are part of the new style of the novel that arose in the mid-19th century and of which Tolstoy proved himself a master.

The standard Russian text of War and Peace is divided into four books (comprising fifteen parts) and an epilogue in two parts. Roughly the first half is concerned strictly with the fictional characters, whereas the latter parts, as well as the second part of the epilogue, increasingly consist of essays about the nature of war, power, history, and historiography. Tolstoy interspersed these essays into the story in a way that defies previous fictional convention. Certain abridged versions remove these essays entirely, while others, published even during Tolstoy’s life, simply moved these essays into an appendix.


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