“We can know only that we know nothing, and that is the highest degree of human wisdom.”
— Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ ⠀⠀ ⠀⠀⠀⠀ ⠀⠀⠀ ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ ⠀⠀⠀ ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
Alright kids, prepare yourself I’m going to be merciless, perhaps even cruel. If you claim to be a “bibliophile” and have not read War and Peace—the most exquisite masterpiece ever to grace humble parchment—sit back down, you have some reading yet to do. There will never be another book published like War and Peace.
Let me tell you why:
• War and Peace is considered a bilingual novel with noteworthy fragments of dialogue in French. If you do not speak French I suggest keeping Google Translate close by.
• With over 160 historical figures and at 1,308 pages thick it is the literary equivalent of a marathon—trust me.
“The strongest of all warriors are these two — Time and Patience.”
You will need both when reading War and Peace. Tolstoy tediously frames each battle in vivid detail, contouring between the Russian army and Napoleon’s armies. Being no stranger to war he channeled his experiences when he served as an artillery officer during the Crimean War.
• The Battle of Borodino, which comprises more than twenty chapters of the book, is widely praised as the finest battle sequence ever written. Tolstoy took it upon himself to visit the sites where these battles took place, drawing maps of the area to give these chapters realistic depth. He studied letters, diaries, old newspaper articles and had the unique opportunity and honor to interview veterans who were there.
“Nothing is so necessary for a young man as the company of intelligent women.”
• It took Tolstoy a year to write the opening scene—a high-society soireé where you meet the principal characters.
• Before War and Peace was published as a novel, it appeared in the Russian Messenger at the same time as Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (which I am currently reading).
• It took six years for Tolstoy to write War and Peace. The process affected his health, he would have migraines. After finishing the book he had a severe case of the flu that left him in poor health for weeks.
• Tolstoy was devoted to telling the story of what truly happened. The battles are made real not only because of his obsession with detail but also because every character counts. Not just Tsar Alexander and Napoleon, it is everyone even the bastard son of a Prince, Pierre Bezukhov—unequivocally my favorite character in literature.
“Pierre was right when he said that one must believe in the possibility of happiness in order to be happy, and I now believe in it. Let the dead bury the dead, but while I’m alive, I must live and be happy.”
This is another reason why I love Pierre:
‘Do you really not recognize her?’
Pierre looked again at the companion’s pale delicate face, with its black eyes and peculiar mouth, and something near to him, long forgotten and more than sweet, looked at him from those attentive eyes.
‘But no, it can’t be!’ he thought. ‘This stern, thin, pale face that looks so much older! It cannot be she. It merely reminds me of her.’ But at that moment Princess Marya said ‘Natasha!’ And with difficulty, effort, and stress, like the opening of a door grown rusty on its hinges, a smile appeared on the face with the attentive eyes, and from that opening door came a breath of fragrance which suffused Pierre with a happiness he had long forgotten and of which he had not even been thinking – especially at that moment. When she smiled, doubt was no longer possible, it was Natasha and he loved her.
Yasss, finally. Thank the Slavic gods.
Despite Pierre’s misjudgments (which are many) and negligence, he transforms and is somehow made better in the end. He is so painfully human and heartbreakingly genuine. Pierre feels real anguish for who he has become, and so he sets out on a journey to be a better person.
As you read, you will realize you too should change just as Pierre Bezukhov. Perhaps you won’t have to join the Brotherhood of the Freemasons, however, you may find yourself feeling more conscious of your faults; actively and acutely mindful of who you are. All great literature will do that to you. Much like Fyodor Dostoevsky, Tolstoy had a talent for examining the soul then painting it in vibrant colors with black ink. This is not just a story about real events, at the heart of War and Peace it is an examination of humanity.
“Man cannot possess anything as long as he fears death. But to him who does not fear it, everything belongs. If there was no suffering, man would not know his limits, would not know himself. ”
Gone are the days when words were crafted in such a way that the sharp reality of them could tear your soul apart only to remake it into something new—something better. While reading War and Peace you will feel the depths of human depravity, most acutely your own. This story will change you.
Sounds like fun, right? So grab your fur coat, get out your finest Russian crystal, and let’s have a Russian toast: За здоровье! [za zda-ró-vye] “To your health!” as you read one of the finest books ever written—and after you are finished you can officially call yourself a bibliophile.
One more thing, if you’re not into vodka I suggest pairing the book with Quilt Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s what I like to call a cozy cab, however, if you are feeling fancy af and want to experience life like a Tsar (if only for a moment) then go all out and open a bottle of Krug champagne. C’est la vie!
*You can find my collection of War and Peace here.