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War and Peace, or the Art of Writing about Life – Check This Off Your NYR

A review of one of the greatest novels ever written. Why Reading W&P Should Be Part of Your NYR

A review of one of the greatest novels ever written. As 2020, otherwise known as the strangest and craziest year in the 21st century (so far…) comes to a close, it’s time to start drawing up your new year’s resolutions. Make Reading War & Peace part of your 2021 New Year’s Resolution! It’s the perfect candidate. So much so that there are podcasts, subreddits and medium blogs out there to guide you if you want to tackle exactly one chapter a day.

And by old habit he asked himself the question: “Well, and what then? What am I going to do?” And he immediately gave himself the answer: “Well, I shall live. Ah, how splendid!”

Book XV, Chapter 12

When you tell people your favorite book of all time is War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy you will likely get one of the following as a response: an eye roll, a sigh, or a look of fear and admiration. Part fiction, part history, part philosophy, part romance, part part social satire and 100% a realist novel, War and Peace is a 1300 page ode to the lives of early 19th century Russians fighting against the threat of the Napoleonic army’s growing power and influence in Europe (it should probably also be mentioned that a lot of Tolstoy’s own ancestors served as inspiration for the aristocratic families in the novel).

The sprawling epic opens with a St. Peterburg soirée that serves as our introduction to most of the novel’s central characters. The host, Anna Pavlovna Scherer is a former lady-in-waiting for the dowager Empress and is looked upon as the “social compass” of high society. The soirée is attended by various aristocratic families who form the central characters of the novel – the Bezukhovs, the Bolkonskys, the Kuragins and the Drubetskoys. The only central characters absent (or not mentioned) from the soirée are the Rostovs, who aren’t known in Petersburg society.

Character List (feel free to print this out)
  • Pyotr “Pierre” Kirillich Bezukhov: An illegitimate son of one of the wealthiest men in Russia, Count Kirill, who at the start of the novel has just come back from being educated in Paris. Though his radical views regarding social reform and lack of social graces make him a slight outcast, his kind-hearted and well-meaning nature shines through and many love his company – especially Prince Andrei Bolkonsky.
  • Prince Andrei Nikolayevich Bolkonsky: Pierre’s best friend, Andrei, is a young man disillusioned with life. His disdain for high society and his wife “The Little Princess”/Lise’s frivolity drive him to enlist in the Imperial Army as an adjutant – both to escape his reality and to seek glory. He is ambitious and wishes to do well in his military career and enjoys befriending and mentoring ambitious young men.
  • Prince Nikolai Bolkonsky and Princess Marya Bolkonskaya: Andrei’s father is a cranky old man with a temper who has withdrawn from society since his early retirement from court and treats his only daughter Marya with a strict “tough love” disciplinarian attitude. Princess Marya is a gentle, kind-hearted and very religious woman who despite her socioeconomic status is rarely presented in high society and befriend pilgrims.
  • Prince Vasili Kuragin: Pierre’s distant relative who is one of Anna Pavlovna’s closest friend and an influential member of high society. Prince Vassili is scheming and dislikes his three children (to be fair, who can blame him? I would go crazy if I had his children too) who he is constantly conspiring to marry off to rich young men and women.
  • Princes (and Princess) Anatole, Ippolit and Yelena “Helene“: Prince Vassili’s three children (also known as “the bane of his existence”) make life difficult for him as they are constantly embarrassing him and wasting his money. Thankfully, Ippolit at least has a good job while Anatole and Helene are very good-looking and can be married off to rich families.
  • Princess Anna Mikhailovna Drubetskoya: A distant relative of Pierre and Prince Vassili and a close family friend of the Rostovs, Anna Mikhailovna is a poor aristocrat who has grand ambitions for her beloved son Boris. She is shameless in her scheming and plotting because she knows a good career and social standing for her son are the only things she has control over.
  • Boris Drubetskoy: A close family friend and childhood playmate of the Rostovs, Boris joins the Guards (an elite military unit) is presented as a contrast to the idealistic and brash Nikolai. He and his mother are like-minded and Boris is the type to think and plan his actions carefully and avoids stepping on toes to maintain his social standing.
  • Count Ilya Rostov and Countess Natalia Rostova: The loving, slightly overprotective parents of Natasha, Nikolai, Vera and Petya. The Count is amiable, slightly foolish but extremely kind-hearted while the Countess is overprotective and dramatic but slightly more rational than the Count.
  • Natalia “Natasha” Ilyinichna Rostova: The young, naive and free-spirited girl with a beautiful voice. Her positivity and kind-hearted nature attract many of the men around her.
  • Nikolai Iyich Rostov: Idealistic, brash and very emotional. Nikolai drops out from university to join the Hussars in the army and is very eager to prove himself as a soldier. He looks down on people like Boris and Andrei as he thinks officers are “cowards” because they aren’t in the thick of the battle.
  • Sofia “Sonya” Rostova: A poor relative of the Rostovs, she has grown up alongside Count Ilya’s family. Her love for Nikolai is a cause for tension with Countess Rostova as she doesn’t want Nikolai to marry a poor girl.
  • Yulia “Julie” Karagina: A dear friend of Princess Marya and the Rostovs. She isn’t as much a character as she is a caricature of a typical high-society young lady of the time. Despite being both Russian and well-educated she can’t write in cyrillic without making mistakes as she is so used to writing in French and has “lost her Russian identity.”

“Stop, stop! You have your whole life before you,” said he to her. “Before me? No! All is over for me,” she replied with shame and self-abasement. “All over?” he repeated. “If I were not myself, but the handsomest, cleverest, and best man in the world, and were free, I would this moment ask on my knees for your hand and your love!”

Book VIII, Chapter 22. AKA one of the most romantic lines in literature (without being cheesy)
Help, I’m 10 Chapters In and I’m Sooo Confused!??!
  • Why is everyone a prince and princess? I was confused too when I first started reading Tolstoy’s works. First off, prince and princess are loose translations from the Russian words and don’t equate to titles of monarchy – rather they are equivalent to aristocrats in other western societies (perhaps a Duke or an Earl in Britain). Second, this is because Russia didn’t have primogeniture and hence titles were passed down to ALL children and along with that inheritance didn’t necessarily pass down only to the firstborn. For example, Count Ilya Rostov passes down the title of “Count” to BOTH his sons – elder Nikolai and younger Petya and on and on, which is why it can seem that everyone is a prince, princess and count.
  • Who is who, why are there so many names? Help! Russian names aren’t difficult once you get the hang of it, but War & Peace is extra difficult because many of the characters are referred to by the French version of their names. The characters list I provided above is spoiler-free and should come in handy. Just remember that in Tolstoy’s novels all the nicknames are quite standard Russian nicknames (Natasha for Natalia, Sonya for Sofia, Borya for Boris) or French nicknames (Pierre for Pyotr, Julie for Yulia) and that the French names are never different from their actual names – they are just translated. Another thing to note is that there may be multiple characters with the same first name. However I’ve never had a problem knowing who is who because in formal address the person is referred to by their first name and their patronymic and plus Tolstoy will give two characters with the same name different nicknames (i.e. Pierre and Petya – both are technically Pyotr but Tolstoy almost never refers to them as such, making our lives much easier).
  • Why is there so much French? I don’t speak French and I don’t want to read from the tiny footnotes! That’s fine, just make sure you research the translation that you want translates the French passages directly and not in the footnotes.
  • Which translation should I get? I’ve read from the Maude (updated Oxford World Classics, 2010) and Pevear & Volokhonsky translations and to be honest between the two I don’t have a preference. Both are wonderful choices and P&V is slightly easier and uses more modern language, but the Maudes were Tolstoy’s personal friends and their translation was given the nod of approval by Tolstoy himself. If you don’t want to read the French translations in the footnotes, go with the Anthony Briggs translation which is also highly praised.

Warning! Spoilers. Do not click “reveal” if you haven’t read the book.

So you’re one of the lucky people to have read War & Peace? Wonderful. Isn’t it one of the greatest books ever? I absolutely love the pacing, the character development and the (sometimes juicy) plotlines).

Bad

Great

The doctors were busily engaged with the wounded man the shape of whose head seemed familiar to Prince Andrei: they were lifting him up and trying to quiet him. “Show it to me…. Oh, ooh… Oh! Oh, ooh!” his frightened moans could be heard, subdued by suffering and broken by sobs. Hearing those moans Prince Andrei wanted to weep. Whether because he was dying without glory, or because he was sorry to part with life, or because of those memories of a childhood that could not return, or because he was suffering and others were suffering and that man near him was groaning so piteously—he felt like weeping childlike, kindly, and almost happy tears. The wounded man was shown his amputated leg stained with clotted blood and with the boot still on. “Oh! Oh, ooh!” he sobbed, like a woman. The doctor who had been standing beside him, preventing Prince Andrei from seeing his face, moved away. “My God! What is this? Why is he here?” said Prince Andrei to himself. In the miserable, sobbing, enfeebled man whose leg had just been amputated, he recognized Anatole Kuragin. Men were supporting him in their arms and offering him a glass of water, but his trembling, swollen lips could not grasp its rim. Anatole was sobbing painfully. “Yes, it is he! Yes, that man is somehow closely and painfully connected with me,” thought Prince Andrei, not yet clearly grasping what he saw before him. “What is the connection of that man with my childhood and life?” he asked himself without finding an answer. And suddenly a new unexpected memory from that realm of pure and loving childhood presented itself to him. He remembered Natasha as he had seen her for the first time at the ball in 1810, with her slender neck and arms and with a frightened happy face ready for rapture, and love and tenderness for her, stronger and more vivid than ever, awoke in his soul. He now remembered the connection that existed between himself and this man who was dimly gazing at him through tears that filled his swollen eyes. He remembered everything, and ecstatic pity and love for that man overflowed his happy heart. Prince Andrei could no longer restrain himself and wept tender loving tears for his fellow men, for himself, and for his own and their errors. “Compassion, love of our brothers, for those who love us and for those who hate us, love of our enemies; yes, that love which God preached on earth and which Princess Marya taught me and I did not understand—that is what made me sorry to part with life, that is what remained for me had I lived. But now it is too late. I know it!”

Book X, Chapter 37

Genius

Final Thoughts

I think what really makes the book such a favorite is Tolstoy’s amazing talent at bringing his characters to life. The characters are so real I found myself unable to stop reading for hours at a time because I was so invested in their fates. Will Natasha find love? Will Pierre finally settle on an occupation to fill the void that comes with his obscene wealth? Will Nikolai turn into an arrogant soldier and forget his family? And will Andrei please, please just smile for once? Towards the end of the novel, Pierre, Andrei, Marya, Natasha, Nikolai, and many others weren’t just fictional characters, I felt that they were my intimate friends. When Princess Marya shed a tear, I too wanted to cry with her. When Pierre is frustrated at the backwardness of Russia and wished to bring upon reforms, I was cheering him on though I knew most of his efforts were probably fruitless. And when a minor character (an aristocrat only mentioned in passing) hires a Russian tutor in order to properly speak and write his native tongue, I couldn’t help but laugh out loud and share it to my friends because we too are unable to speak our mother tongue as well as we speak the lingua franca of English. Times change, but people don’t.

Further Resources
  1. There is a wonderful podcast and accompanying subreddit called **A Year of War and Peace** by the Hemingway List which does one episode for each chapter in the book (which incidentally coincides with the number of days in the year). Each episode starts off with a reading of the entire chapter and ends with an analysis and discussion of the chapter. Whenever I had very strong feelings about a chapter I just read or was slightly confused I would listen to the corresponding podcast (or reddit thread).
  2. I watched the 2015 BBC adaptation and it was so, so good. The high production value and great acting made it such a joy to watch and because it is 6 episodes long it is very faithful to the original text (barely cutting out any scenes). The actors were incredible and I struggle to find someone who didn’t portray a character well. The standouts are James Norton (Andrei), Paul Dano (Pierre) and Jessie Buckley (Marya) who were nearly identical to how I imagined their characters in the book.

Leave a comment below, I’d love to know your thoughts on my favorite novel of all time.

29 replies on “War and Peace, or the Art of Writing about Life – Check This Off Your NYR”

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