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What is War and Peace about?

War and Peace is an historical epic that tells the story of Russia’s wars with Napoleon at the beginning of the nineteenth century, culminating in Napoleon’s failed invasion of Russia in 1812.  Considered by many critics to be the greatest novel ever created, War and Peace was written and published before Anna Karenina, from 1865 to 1869 (when Tolstoy was in his late 30s), and it traces the journeys of four aristocratic families—the Bezukhovs, Bolkonskies, Rostovs and Kuragins—whose personal lives become caught up in the tumultuous events of the time.

In War and Peace, Tolstoy maintains a delicate balance between stirring scenes of major historical events and intimate portraits of daily life. In 361 chapters (approximately 1500 pages), the author moves back and forth between ballrooms and battlefields, marriages and massacres, private lives and public spectacles. No character is too small and no subject too large for Tolstoy's broad literary canvas. He depicts a vast array of characters (nearly 600 in all) from all walks of life, each one of them remarkably real and irreducibly individual. In fact, Tolstoy's realism has had such a lasting impact that even today an ordinary Russian can usually recall in colorful detail how their favorite character in War and Peace speaks, dresses and behaves, as if the character were someone from their own life.

Tolstoy's sprawling novel still arouses in readers a sense of mystery and awe before the infinite possibilities of human life. Depicted are the joys, sorrows, struggles and sensual delights of the world. Many of the novel's greatest moments, such as Natasha Rostova's first grand ball, the Rostov's wolf hunt and Prince Andrei’s vision of the "lofty infinite sky" on the battlefield at Austerlitz, are among the most moving and memorable scenes in all of world literature.

Of the important messages in War and Peace, one is that every human being is sacred and integrally connected with one another. While none of us can control the large, impersonal forces of history, war and death, each of us can make positive choices in our everyday lives—choices that help create happiness for ourselves, our families, and our communities. History, Tolstoy tells us, is what happens to us. Destiny is what we do with it.

Why is War and Peace considered one of the greatest novels ever written?

In short, War and Peace does nothing less than describe “life in all its countless, inexhaustible manifestations.” If a human being has ever experienced it, War and Peace depicts it—and it does so with a lifelikeness and an accuracy that no writer either before or since Tolstoy has matched. Add to that the fact that War and Peace is also one of wisest guides to living one will encounter, and you can appreciate why the novel has been translated into over 50 languages and has endured for generations.

What Tolstoy offers in the novel is not so much a set of answers to life's every situation as an attitude toward living. He invites readers not to settle for the prescriptions of others, but to join him and his characters in their quest for deeper meaning, to keep asking the important questions and seeking out authentic experience on our own. Tolstoy engages readers’ minds, hearts, and souls with a depth of insight, humanity, and creative energy found in very few other works of literature.

Why you should give War and Peace a chance?

Widely acknowledged as one of the greatest novels ever written, War and Peace is also a perennial bestseller, with new editions appearing regularly, almost a century and a half after its first publication. Here are just a few of the reasons Tolstoy's epic continues to entertain, enlighten, and inspire readers of all ages and backgrounds, and why you, too, may want to consider putting it at the top of your reading list:

1. It’s a mirror of our time.

At its core War and Peace is a book about people trying to find their footing in a world being turned upside down by war, social and political change, and spiritual confusion. The existential angst of Tolstoy and his characters is entirely familiar to those of us living at the beginning of the twenty-first century, and his novel has important things to say to us in this moment. Over and over again the book shows how moments of crisis can either shut us down or open us up, helping us to tap into our deepest reservoirs of strength and creativity.

2. It's a riveting history lesson.

If you like history, you'll love War and Peace, which depicts a transformative era in a way that continues to stir and enlighten readers. Tolstoy brings the past alive by taking you inside the forgotten little moments of everyday life that historians often overlook. He's so successful, in fact, that many Soviet soldiers who were given sections of War and Peace to read in their barracks during World War II claimed to have been more moved by Tolstoy's descriptions of the war than by the battle taking place before their very eyes. And because of War and Peace, most Russians have regarded the war of 1812 and the famous, bloody battle of Borodino as a unique Russian victory. Tens of thousands of their countrymen were slaughtered at Borodino, but that battle happened to anticipate Napoleon's fateful retreat from Moscow--a turn of events that would change the course of European history forever and that Tolstoy described as powerfully as any historian ever has.

3. It'll help you understand Russia today.

If you want to understand why Russians today have such a complicated relationship with the West, read War and Peace. The novel's description of Napoleon's failed attempt to conquer Russia in 1812 would become a deeply ingrained cultural trope that future Russian leaders drew on to illustrate both their country's greatness as well as her vulnerability to outsiders. Putin is drawing on precisely that idea when he tries to convince his people that they're under threat from the West, evening blaming the crisis in Ukraine on Western interference. But in War and Peace there is also a message of universal humanity that transcends politics altogether. Tolstoy offers a model of patriotism free of nationalism that Putin would do well to heed.

4. It's one of the wisest self-help books you will ever read.

War and Peace isn't just a great novel. It's also a guide to living. From parenting to death, courage to romance, the novel addresses the challenges that we face every day, and shows us how to make better decisions, discover our individual truths, and live fuller, more authentic lives each moment. For those of us going through times of hardship, the novel shows us how to reframe our very understanding of what it means to living through troubled times, and survive them. Tolstoy helps us to see that, while life may often be unfair or uncontrollable, every human being has the power to fill the world with meaning and shape our own destiny.

5. It's an engrossing read.

War and Peace revolutionized the modern novel, in part, by packing in more human experience than any other work of fiction had ever attempted. Henry James called Tolstoy "a monster harnessed to his great subject--all of life." In 361 cinematic chapters of a few pages each, he moves seamlessly back and forth between ballrooms and battlefields, marriages and massacres, private lives and public spectacles. You see, hear, and feel everything in Tolstoy's world: glistening sunrises, whining cannonballs, exhilarating troika races, glorious births, brutal deaths, and everything in between. If a human being has ever experienced it, War and Peace depicts it.

6. You'll get to know a lot of fascinating people.

Almost 600 of them, in fact. How often do you have the opportunity to meet that many people from so many different walks of life? Each one of them, even the minor ones, is utterly recognizable and fully alive. Nobody is all good or all bad in War and Peace, which is what makes these characters so real, so human. Even Napoleon himself, the closest thing to a villain in the novel, is, at least, interesting. There are even a few moments when Tolstoy allows us to glimpse into his soul and feel his pain, as when Napoleon surveys the corpse-strewn battlefield of Borodino, only to realize the full extent of his cruelty, as well as his impotence. As a writer, Tolstoy follows his own injunction to "relate, portray, but do not judge," and in so doing, he creates characters that live and breathe.

7. It'll make you feel better about being alive.

This book chock full of moments of human brutality, of battlefields drenched in blood, also contains some of the most powerful moments of transcendent bliss you'll encounter in world literature: Prince Andrei, seeing the gorgeous immensity of the universe for the first time while lying prostrate on the battlefield; or Natasha, when she dances and sings, as if nobody were watching; or Nikolai Rostov, immersing himself animal-like in the thrill of the wolf hunt. "Man is flowing," Tolstoy once wrote. "In him there are all possibilities: he was stupid, now he is clever; he was evil, now he is good, and the other way around. In this is the greatness of man." The world, Tolstoy shows us in his greatest novel, is a mysterious place where things aren't always what they seem, today's tragedy often paving the way to tomorrow's triumph. That's the message that inspired an incarcerated Nelson Mandela, who called War and Peace his favorite novel, and it's one that can comfort and inspire readers in our own troubled

What are the best translations of War and Peace?

My personal favorite translation is the one by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, published by Alfred A. Knopf.

My second choice would be the translation by Aylmer and Louise Maude published by Oxford University Press.

Tolstoy is one of those writers whose lucid prose, utterly recognizable characters, and universal truths seem to speak for themselves in any language, and through any translator. Still, you do lose a little something in translation.  In the case of War and Peace, you lose a bit of the novel’s iconic style that combines stark realism with poetry, and childlike awkwardness with polished elegance. Unfortunately, most translators before Pevear and Volokhonsky focused only on the elegance and the realism of Tolstoy’s style, resulting in translations that sound more proper and Victorian than Tolstoy’s prose actually is. There’s an awkwardness, a feistiness to his writing that Pevear and Volokhonsky nicely capture. They don’t try to smooth out the rough edges, such as the repetition of exact words or even phrases multiple times in the same paragraph. Nor do they translate the French passages, which comprise about  2½  percent of the novel, into English, as many translators have done. They let the contemporary reader experience this book in all of its overflowing, charming clumsiness and poetry.

What’s the best movie version of War and Peace?

The single greatest adaptation of War and Peace to date is the 1967 Soviet film directed by Sergei Bondarchuk. It is available in Russian with English subtitles. One of the reasons Bondarchuk’s adaptation is so good is that he knew that the audience for his movie would be Russians who grew up with War and Peace in their blood. With that kind of pressure, combined with the financial support given to the movie by the Soviet government, he could not permit himself to deviate at all from the facts of the novel. Of course, he doesn’t try to fit everything in, but what he does include in the movie is exactly true to the novel.

Secondly, the movie is sensually stunning. The natural imagery and sounds are terrific, and the war scenes are spectacular. The climactic battle of Borodino and subsequent burning of Moscow are a tour de force of cinematic art in their own right. In fact, the Soviet government lent Bondarchuk thousands of Soviet soldiers as extras for those scenes.

Finally, Bondarchuk is a great and sensitive reader of the novel. In the movie he avoids reducing the novel to a political message, as was often done in Soviet times, and instead he visually captures the universal humanity and philosophical depth of Tolstoy’s work more successfully than any other movie adaptation of the novel.

Why you need a companion to guide you through War and Peace?

The fact is, reading War and Peace can be a major time investment. The investment is well worth it because it’s not only an engrossing read, but it offers profound lessons that can be applied to your personal and professional life. Since you’re going to be investing a decent chunk of time in reading this work, you might as well make sure you’re getting the most out of the experience.

That’s why I wrote my book, Give War and Peace a Chance: Tolstoyan Wisdom for Troubled Times. It’s a highly readable companion to the novel that makes it more accessible and enjoyable to all readers, whether they’ve read Tolstoy before or are encountering him for the first time. My book distills many years of research and thinking about Tolstoy and War and Peace into easily digestible nuggets of life wisdom offered by Tolstoy on a whole host of topics, such as family, happiness, death, courage, perseverance, and love.

At the same time my book interweaves relevant background information about War and Peace with a digest of the plot, stories from Tolstoy’s life, and stories from my own 25-year journey with the writer.  To read War and Peace is to embark on a literary adventure unlike any other—an adventure that will both entertain and expand you. To make the most of your time with Tolstoy’s masterpiece, I recommend that you use my book as your guide. You can find it here:

Five things you probably never knew about Tolstoy and War and Peace.

  • 1 War and Peace almost didn’t get written.
  • 2 Tolstoy inspired Gandhi, Mandela, and Martin Luther King.
  • 3 Tolstoy’s military service inspired him to write.
  • 4 Tolstoy helped pave the way to the Russian Revolution.
  • 5 Tolstoy gave away his copyrights.