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War and Peace 2013: Entry 2--Preliminaries Continued

In my first post about what I am affectionately calling WandP2013 (follow us on twitter at @wandp2013), I discussed the various translations available for Tolstoy's epic and the reading plan we'll follow as we move through 1300 pages of text. Now, I want to lay out what essentially would be considered supporting materials for the book. It's highly likely your edition of War and Peace comes with an editor's introduction that lays out the sort of material, written by someone who is both better informed and a better writer than I, so feel free to skip this and read that instead. Fair warning, however: such introductions often include what some people would consider "spoilers," which I will do my best to avoid.

Historical Context

War and Peace is a historical novel. Written in the 1860s, War and Peace is set largely from 1805-1812 during the Napoleonic Wars that raged in Europe in the early part of the 19th century. Indeed, it has often been joked that the novel is 1200 pages of War and about 100 pages (if that) of Peace. This is an epic of war, and of life in wartime. The Napoleonic Wars were a global conflict (sometimes called the first truly World War) that was a time of great upheaval and transition from the traditional ways of the 18th century to the rising modernity of the 19th. Of course, this was unknowable at time time, but Tolstoy, from his vantage point of 50 years later, saw both the importance of the period and the global scope of the conflict and realized he could use it to explore people of all backgrounds caught up in historical events.

The early portions of the novel deal with the campaigns in 1805 and 1807 where the Allied European powers (including Russia) tried, and failed, to stop Napoleon's relentless march across Europe. There are multiple battles discussed, the most famous of which is Austerlitz in 1805, but it's not overly necessary to understand every parry and thrust of the armies, and Tolstoy himself generally provides all the context necessary to understand the scope and importance of the battles. The later portions of the novel deal largely with Napoleon's disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812, including the Russian decision to abandon Moscow to the invaders. Again, there's no need to go and read some massive history to understand what Tolstoy is writing about. Many editions have footnotes explaining some of the more obscure historical references. More importantly, as a good author, Tolstoy generally presents to you what he wants you to know, curating and shaping the historical record to fit his themes. Which obviously transitions to...

Themes

A book of this size and scope is going to have many, many themes, and I know each reader takes away from any great book something different and unique--that's what makes them great books. However, there are a few themes that, for me, separate War and Peace from many other novels.

Growing Up: Due to the sheer size of the book, with dozens of named characters and at least half a dozen main characters who each essentially have their own novel, stretching over seven long years, Tolstoy has a rare opportunity to show us not just one main character come of age, but the struggle of multiple well-written, fully rounded characters, of both sexes and of multiple social circumstances, to become adults. In short (too late, I know), War and Peace can be viewed as the greatest bildungsroman ever written. The characters we meet at the beginning of the novel will change in ways both large and small as they find their own places in a society that is shifting around them.

Faith and Modernity: Russia before the 1917 Revolution was a very devout nation, with the Eastern Orthodox Church holding great sway both in the halls of power and in the personal lives of millions of ordinary Russians. The Napoleonic Revolution of the early 19th century claimed to spread the ideals of the French Revolution to all of Europe. Among these ideals, of course, was a strong anti-Church sentiment. In essence, this era was the final flourishing of the Enlightenment. Meanwhile, in Russia, serfdom was still in place. The clash of these two sets of ideals is one of the major recurring concerns in the text. There's even a fairly lengthy exploration of Freemasonry!

History: As the book unfolds, Tolstoy as author begins interpolating his thoughts on history itself more and more into the text. Indeed, the entire Second Epilogue is essentially a philosophical treatise on the nature of history and the role of individuals in history. But Tolstoy doesn't wait until then to start expounding his ideas, and we'll start encountering his lengthy excursions before the summer's even over. Philosophers such as Hegel, and Marx after him (bear with me), had argued before Tolstoy's time that history was essentially a force unto itself and that individuals were powerless to either resist or change it. The spirit, to use Hegel's term, moved through people and led inextricably to pre-ordained ends. I won't spoil Tolstoy's take, but his ideas are worth debating and I think they'll make for interesting reading, if not exactly the traditional domain of a novel. Speaking of which...

What Sort of Crazy Book Is This?

Tolstoy never referred to War and Peace as a novel. In his mind, his first novel was the later Anna Karenina. Of course, we'd almost certainly classify it as a novel if pressed, but Tolstoy saw it as a something else and, when reading the book, it's hard to disagree. Tolstoy clearly has aims of instructing and possibly even hectoring his readers with his ideas about history (see above), but also about other concepts. In today's terms, we'd probably consider War and Peace a philosophical novel or a novel of ideas. Fortunately, it's also superbly written and a cracking good story--but be prepared for lengthy discussions of things aside from the characters and what they're up to.

So, now that the preliminaries have concluded--grab a copy and start reading!

Comments

  1. The running commentary on history and the way it comes to dominate the last parts of the novel was the only thing I truly disliked when I read W&P last year. Indeed, I may have just not read the second epilogue, as I was so fed up with the subject by then. It's not that the content itself is necessarily poorly written, it's just that Tolstoy repeats the same material ad nauseum. That, and he compares Napolean's army to a wounded bear about 12 too many times. Ah, the curse of reading serialized novels in one sitting.

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