You are on page 1of 4

Everyone who wishes to be considered cultured and educated should read Tolstoy’s epic,

War and Peace. Today’s topic is the importance of the reading of War and Peace for the
intellectual development of people who wish to develop their intellects, which everyone
should because we all need an elite that is better read than everyone else. This means you.
The part about being part of an elite, I mean.

As to War and Peace I haven’t, well, read it myself. But I have listened to all 44 or so
tapes of an audio version produced for Books on Tape Inc. and I have seen a 12 or so
episode BBC TV version from the early 1970s and just tonight I copied out from various
Web sites some of the novel’s key passages. Equipped, therefore, as I am with a good
grasp of what War and Peace is all about I am in as nearly as good a position as someone
who has read the novel to authoritatively and unanswerably urge you to read it and in that
capacity I hereby do so and herewith are some of the reasons you should.

First of all, there are many references in popular culture to War and Peace. As in, “It’s
nearly as long as War and Peace.” Or, “Now that I am retired, I’ll have time to read War
and Peace.” War and Peace is common parlance for excessive length and you won’t really
appreciate all these jokes until you have plowed through all roughly 1400 (depending on
the translation and what edition you are reading) pages of the novel. I myself, as I say,
haven’t read the novel. But I have listened to all those audiotapes and watched all those
videotapes and both of those activities took plenty of time, I can tell you. Thus, I giggle
far more than others might at jokes about the length of War and Peace and once you have
read it, you too can laugh heartily at such wisecracks. We all need merriment in our lives
and I can think of no better way to bring some into them than by reading a long Russian
novel in which much of the action revolves around the invasion of Russia and death and
destruction on a massive scale.

Anyway, the length of War and Peace is just one reason to read it. Another reason is that
it is a key work in the Russian literary canon. Why should you want to master one of the
masterworks of Russian literature? Well, Russia used to be a very important country. It is
rather like War and Peace. It is big and nobody is quite sure why he or she should know
about it right now.

One distinction of the Russians is that they are very good at defeating the armies of
nations whose leaders are stupid enough to invade Russia, like France under Napoleon
and Germany under Hitler. Military leaders like Napoleon and Hitler get cocky by
defeating major military powers that were wondrously skillful at losing battles as in
Austria’s case in Napoleon’s case in the late 18th and early 19th centuries and most of their
country (but only temporarily) in France’s case in WWII in Hitler’s. The Russians usually
lose tens or hundreds of thousands of people to the invaders and a lot of time before
trouncing their attackers in the end and elsewhere. This is the sort of thing that Tolstoy
deals with in truly memorable fashion. If you read War and Peace you will see why
English schoolboys in 1941 were so pleased that Hitler’s armies attacked the Soviet
Union. They knew that that was a big boo-boo on Hitler’s part. So will you if you read
War and Peace.
I had started talking about Russian literature, but I got onto history and theorizing on
geopolitics. That’s another reason to read War and Peace--in it there is a lot of impressive
sounding theorizing and philosophizing about man and events and war and the impact on
history of great men whom, actually, Tolstoy doesn’t consider great men but merely
players in the great drama of fate which is directed by God although God per se doesn’t
play as big a part in War and Peace as God would in Tolstoy’s later works of fiction and
he stopped writing fiction eventually because of his religious beliefs, regarding by then
the writing of fiction as impious. But that was only after writing War and Peace, which
you should read.

Here would be a good spot to inject historical background. Tolstoy does quite a bit of that
and of scene setting in War and Peace, which is a good thing because it covers the years
1805 to around 1819 and in that time a good bit has happened and much of what has
happened in the novel is important for those of us who want to be erudite to assimilate.

For instance, we learn that shortly before the 1805 Battle of Austerlitz (not that there was
any other Battle of Austerlitz as far as I know) the Austrian commander Karl Mack lost
an entire army to Napoleon. Mack ended his life not in battle but in disgrace, as losing
armies was not a good thing for military leaders to do in those days and probably not in
ours. Before heading off into disgrace, Mack shocks the Russian commander Prince
Mikhail Kutuzov with the news of Mack’s disaster. Kutuzov hadn’t exactly anticipated
that he would have to fight Napoleon at Austerlitz with considerably less help from the
Austrians than he had been counting on. It was always a mistake to count on the
Austrians for anything militarily.

Getting back to the Battle Austerlitz. Ah, here is another reason to read War and Peace. In
order to enjoy it, you have to do a lot of reading in secondary sources. Otherwise, you
won’t get the significance of what is going on. Luckily for you, War and Peace is a
historical novel. Therefore, you can pretty easily look people up and find out who they
were and why what happened to the Unfortunate Mack caused major problems for
Kutuzov at Austerlitz which, incidentally, is considered Napoleon’s greatest victory and
where the setback for the Austrians and Russians is said to have contributed to the death
of one of Napoleon’s most effective foes, the British politician William Pitt the Younger. I
don’t think Pitt is mentioned in War and Peace, but Mack and Kutuzov are and Napoleon
definitely is.

Ah, Napoleon. Now, a major reason for reading War and Peace is that it covers in an
entertaining way in its often dull roughly 1400 pages a good deal of European history.
The opening paragraph of War and Peace illustrates Tolstoy’s brand of historical fiction.
Here is the opening scene of the novel:

"Well, Prince, so Genoa and Lucca are now just family estates of the Buonapartes. But I
warn you, if you don't tell me that this means war, if you still try to defend the infamies
and horrors perpetrated by that Antichrist- I really believe he is Antichrist- I will have
nothing more to do with you and you are no longer my friend, no longer my 'faithful
slave,' as you call yourself! But how do you do? I see I have frightened you- sit down and
tell me all the news."

This is said by a minor character of the sort that abounds in War and Peace and who host
soirees and balls at which major fictional characters meet and discuss real historical
figures some of whom appear in the novel and say things, as opposed to just being
mentioned in dialogue at soirees and balls. In this scene we meet one such minor
character, a society hostess who is addressing the major secondary character Prince Vasili
Kuragin, a slimy high government functionary and the father of two loathsome children
who are also major secondary characters, one of whom is married to the hero of the novel
Count Pierre Bezukhov although you could also make a case for the hero really being
Pierre’s friend Andrei Bolkonsky who is deep and thoughtful and capable whereas Pierre
is thoughtful and bumbling. Prince Vasili’s son Anatol seduces Natasha Rostova whom
Pierre loves and ultimately marries, but only after she has been betrothed to Andrei whom
she nurses back to health just before he dies quite some time after Pierre is so angry at
Anatol that he nearly kills him well before Anatol's awful sister Hélène dies under
suspicious and scandalous circumstances and as you can see there is quite a bit of plot to
keep straight. But you can do it especially given that much of the plot is based on real
historical events the details of which you can look up and in so doing become an
educated person who knows all about why the Russian ruling class disapproved of
Napoleon’s political intrigues in Italy, many of which involved his siblings of whom he
had quite a few and which included Joseph, Lucien, Elisa, Louis, Jerome, Pauline and
Caroline who, incidentally, was married to one of Napoleon's generals, Murat, who is a
character in War and Peace as is his capable and courageous comrade, Ney who like
Murat ended up shot by people who were fed up with the bloodshed and upheaval caused
by Napoleon's generals, who had a habit of changing sides with dizzying frequency
although usually only once apiece.

Generals. They are another reason to read War and Peace. Tolstoy was fascinated by
military men and his portrayal of Kutuzov is masterly. In his late sixties, fat and weary
Kutuzov is a sort of Eeyore who knows that if he is simply allowed to retreat a lot of the
time, Napoleon’s army will collapse under the weight of the Russian winter and the
ensuing deprivation. Such travails afflict men who loyally follow megalomaniacal leaders
fool enough to invade Russia in disastrous campaigns, such leaders being regarded as
heroes nonetheless by the French probably because many of the unfortunates who died
fighting in Napoleon's ranks over the years were Poles and assorted other Europeans and
not Frenchmen.

Generals plan battles. Along with Austerlitz (see above) another reason to read War and
Peace is to learn about the Battle of Borodino. Eeyore, I mean Kutuzov, doesn’t really
want to meet Napoleon in pitched battle. Most generals at the time didn't, as Napoleon
was, admittedly, quite good at winning battles. But Kutuzov is being pressed into the
glory of pointless carnage by Tsar Alexander I who was actually fairly capable as tsars go
and there is no use fighting fate, according to Tolstoy. So there ensues the bloodbath at
Borodino in 1812 at which more lives were lost than at either Waterloo or Gettysburg and
which Napoleon painted as a victory though nothing much was accomplished by either
side and Napoleon proceeded farther into Russia and fled it months later abandoning a by
then shattered army. It took forever for the French people to decide that, given that
Napoleon had a habit of abandoning armies (there was also that one in Egypt years
before), maybe they should find other leaders.

By this point in War and Peace, Nikolai and Maria are happy as well as married, as are
Pierre and Natasha all to each other--in pairs anyway. Andrei, Anatol (no great loss),
Hélène (ditto) are dead as is Petya and the serf by whom Pierre is (tediously for some
readers--like this writer) taught the meaning of life. If you like romance there is a lot of it
in War and Peace. Things generally work out and Nikolai promises not to strike his serfs
anymore, which habit of his upsets Maria and you learn all about the lifestyles of the
Russian aristocracy and gentry of the 19th century which is useful background as you
read further in Russian literature much of which is sprinkled with French conversation.
But you will be reading English translations, anyway.

Finally, is useful to read Tolstoy because doing so makes you curious about who his
contemporaries and immediate predecessors were in the novel biz. You learn that by the
time that Tolstoy was working on War and Peace (1864-1869) Dickens, Melville and
Thackeray had already writen most of their greatest work or were dead, in Thackeray’s

Literature is a wonderful thing.

You might also like