The War is Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812, which disrupts the Peace of Russian high society in Moscow, Petersburg and various country estates. We follow several aristocratic families as the war begins, gets worse, turns around and finally ends. Lots of characters, but mostly in the upper classes so everything is viewed through that lens.
Throughout the book there are extended passages, and in some cases entire chapters, of Tolstoy expounding his philosophy of history. It is interesting and there is a lot to be said for it, though Tolstoy does say a lot, somewhat repetitively. He does not believe in the “Great Man” theory of history, but maybe he heads too much into fatalist territory. Anyway, this is illustrated by two historical figures in the novel: Napoleon Bonaparte, the “great” French commander, and Kutuzov, the highly experienced Russian general. Bonaparte is brash and confident that he can make things happen just by willing it; Kutuzov has seen it all before and understands that things happen due to larger historical forces that aren’t easily influenced. We all know who prevailed in the end. (Hint: not Napoleon.)
Since this is quite a long book, Tolstoy is able to spend quite a lot of time on specific events. There are several evocative chapters describing a fox-hunt, which is one of my favourite sequences. There are also extended sequences describing various historical battles, but mostly told from the point of view of individuals. Even there, there are glimpses of the extremely privileged situation of the upper crust – the characters in the book have to go to quite a lot of effort to actually fight in the war, rather than just argue with other officers. Even when Pierre is captured by the French, he manages (reluctantly) to spend time drinking claret with a French officer. His status as a “gentleman” means he floats above the privations suffered by the hoi polloi.
Apart from the quite enchanting world of the Russian elite, and the likeable yet flawed characters, I like the way Tostoy writes about people’s inner thoughts and motivations. He mentions a few times how a character feels a certain way, but does not know it. I find this quite insightful – it rings true. On that note, I really enjoyed the epilogues to the story. They offer snapshots of life for the main characters after the turmoil of war is over. Much less exciting, but very layered, very human and satisfying. (There is also quite a lot more historical theory, just for good measure.)
Everyone I know who has read this book has mentioned the confusion caused by characters being referred to by different names. I would recommend either looking up some online resource like a list of characters, or else reading it in the original Russian. Probably actually being Russian would help too. As for me, I did get used to it after a few dozen chapters.
The photo for this piece is of an abridged version of War and Peace that I bought a while ago. The entire novel, reduced down to twelve words (and some truly lovely felted dioramas). It actually does a surprisingly good job of conveying something of the book. I recommend reading both.