Many people start to read War and Peace for the same reason as others climb Mount Everest: because it's there. It is to serious readers what Everest is to serious mountaineers: the ultimate challenge, the ultimate experience. But, although that might account for why some people read the novel, it doesn't answer why so many people, myself included, absolutely love it. War and Peace is not just a 1300-page, 559-character beast of a book: it's also an unforgettable, profound, moving work of art.
War and Peace offers a rich, multi-layered, gripping narrative, comprised of tense battle scenes, written from Tolstoy's perspective as a veteran soldier; sweeping historical drama, carefully researched to bring to life historical figures like Napoleon, Tsar Alexander I, and General Kutuzov; a psychological coming-of-age tale, and a tender family saga, interwoven with love stories romantic enough to weaken the knees of the most hardened Jane Austen reader.
Aside from its daunting length, the most common criticism of War and Peace is aimed at Tolstoy's lengthy digressions into historical philosophy. While these are interesting in their own right, they do stand out from the rest of the novel. Tolstoy himself seemed a bit ambivalent about these passages. Some of his critics have questioned whether his final intention was to shift them to an appendix, where they could be read or ignored at the reader's discretion. In the third edition, Tolstoy did confine these passages to an appendix, but subsequent versions restored them to their original places in the text, where we encounter them now. However by the time of these later editions Tolstoy had renounced his literary work, handing the responsibility for such decisions to his wife, with whom he frequently quarrelled. It's difficult to tell what his final wishes would have been, which means that readers are more than justified in skimming over these sections, as I often do. There is plenty left of the book to savour.
As soon as you begin War and Peace, you never want it to end. The reader is swept into the glamourous world of the Napoleonic Wars and imperial Russian society, where the focus shifts from the intimate to the epic and back again to offer a dizzying panorama of life. In many ways, War and Peace is a love poem addressed to Tolstoy's own class, the aristocracy, who he saw as both the cause of and the solution to Russia's social and economic problems. When he was writing this novel, his vision for Russia was not one of the equal, Christian Anarchist society he came to believe in later in life, but one in which the aristocracy maintained its position yet exercised power in an humane, intelligent way that relieved the suffering of the lower classes. This vision can be seen in his portrayal of Nikolai Rostov in the epilogue: a benign, farming-obsessed, apolitical landowner.
Tolstoy affection for and profound understanding of the Russian aristocracy is at the heart of the novel's success, as it informed his vivid, complex and generous characterisation. Both Prince Andrei and Pierre's inner struggles were drawn from Tolstoy's own experiences, but his deep understanding of human nature means he was able to access the thoughts and emotions of characters who were quite different to himself as well. In fact, he shows more insight and sympathy for women in this book that he showed to his wife in real life, especially during their later years together.
War and Peace is quite simply a wonderful book that leaves its readers changed for the better. I only wish Tolstoy had written his planned sequel, dealing with the consequences of the Decembrist Uprising, so that the whole thing could be twice as long.
"If life could write, it would write like Tolstoy." Isaac Babel
"The greatest of all novelists - for what else can we call the author of War and Peace?" Virginia Woolf
"A large, loose, baggy monster [...] Tolstoy is a reflector as vast as a natural lake; a monster harnessed to his great subject—all human life!" Henry James