If you search for a book, you might go to a library or a bookstore. You might be looking for a magazine or newspaper, or even searching online for an ebook. As you search, you will find that modern fiction dominates. In some places, such as used bookstores, you will find hundreds of fiction books for every nonfiction book. Though fiction is older than Homer’s Iliad, what we think of as fiction today was in many ways born with a Russian we know in the West as Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910). Born Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, War and Peace, along with Anna Karenina, are not only his masterpieces, they are some of the greatest works of all time for any culture.
This is just a very brief mention of the plot and a few very brief comments on style. These comments are supported by a few passages I found interesting.
War and Peace opens in Petersburg, Russia, when Napoleon Bonaparte controls France. It is set in a drawing room where rich aristocrats gather for a social evening. Tolstoy writes down the thoughts and motives of various people, as well as a brief description of the surrounding and a record of the conversations. Leo Tolostoy firmly believed in the gospels, especially the Sermon on the Mount. He adopted a very similar writing style to that found in the first three Gospels and Acts.
Though he goes into the details of individual people’s motives, this is also a sweeping epic of Napoleon’s march across Europe to capture Moscow as told from the Russian point of view. Children become debutantes, get married and have their own children. Men join the army and are killed. Fortunes are made and lost. Yet the entire story is told from the viewpoint of individuals. Like the gospels, no detail is insignificant. “The visitor made a gesture with her hand,” shows both condescension and a desire to change the subject.
The number of characters is bewildering. I never did keep everyone straight. When I saw a movie based on the book, it helped me understand who was who. If you see the movie before reading the book, understand that the movie is “based on” the book. It is not the book.
The main characters are fictional, though they are composites of real people. Real people, such as Napoleon, are referred to, but either do not appear at all in the story or their appearances are well verified by historical documents.
Though Tolstoy was a famous writer by the time War and Peace was published, Leo Tolstoy and his wife took years completely rewriting the story at least seven time. Portions were published in serial form under the title 1805 while they were busy editing it. This created a massive demand for the work, so that War and Peace was translated into at least ten different languages soon after it was written.
The beginning of the story centers around an old sick man, Cyril Vladimirovich Bezukhov, the richest man in all Russia. He is not mentioned by name for several chapters. He has at least one legitimate son and several close relatives. His illegitimate son, Pierre, was sent away to Paris for tutoring. Pierre arrives in the drawing room and horrifies the people there by defending Napoleon. Prince Andrew is given charge of Pierre, but Pierre leaves Prince Andrew and goes back to some friends, gets drunk, and is thrown out of Petersburg.
Tolstoy shifts the scene to women gossiping in Moscow. The gossip scene gives us vivid detail both about society in Moscow and about Pierre.
“That is what comes of a modern education,” exclaimed the visitor.  “It seems that while he was abroad this young man was allowed to do as he liked, now in Petersburg I hear he has been doing such terrible things that he has been expelled by the police.”
“He is a son of Marya Ivanovna Dolokhova, such a worthy woman there, just fancy! Those three got hold of a bear somewhere, put it in a carriage and set off with it to visit some actresses! The police tried to interfere, and what did the young men do? They tied a policeman to the bear back to back and put the bear into the Moyka Canal.”
Since Tolstoy is so skilled at keeping the story moving chronologically, it is difficult to name a “main character.” How the illegitimate son Pierre becomes sole heir to his father’s estate is interesting in itself, but the important point is that Pierre has both a heart for the plight of the Russian peasant and an understanding through his foreign education as to what to do to help them. Pierre represents “doing what is right” when the entire world is fighting you. His father’s estate actually gives him tools to win some battles.
We are introduced to Natasha and Sonya as fifteen year olds. “…just at that charming age when a girl is no longer a child, though the child is not yet a young woman.” They become the romantic focus of the rich and powerful nobility.
Nicholas is my personal favorite. Of noble birth, his parents lose their property and he becomes an officer to support his family. As a trained hunter, he is given a group of what we might call “special forces” to harass Napoleon’s huge army. These are the men, according to Tolstoy, who are the real saviors of Russia, when the regular army is overrun. Yet when he returns to civilian life, his mother does not understand their dire financial situation, which forces Nicholas into desperate circumstances.
Before Pierre is declared legitimate, he goes to Moscow and shows some the same confusion I have.
“Ah, Count Rostov!” exclaimed Pierre joyfully. “Then you are his son, Ilya? Only fancy, I didn’t know you at first. Do you remember how we went to the Sparrow Hills with Madame Jacquot?…It’s such an age…”
“You are mistaken,” said Boris deliberately, with a bold and slightly sarcastic smile. “I am Boris, son of Princess Anna Mikhaylovna Brubetskaya. Rostov, the father, is Ilya, and his son is Nicholas. I never knew any Madame Jacquot.”
Pierre shook his head and arms as if attacked by mosquitoes or bees.
“Oh dear, what am I thinking about? I’ve mixed everything up. One has so many relatives in Moscow! So you are Boris?”
My feelings exactly.
Much latter on, during the battle for Moscow, Pierre’s close friend, mentor and romantic rival, Prince Andrew is mortally wounded by a cannon ball.
“‘Lie down!’ cried the adjutant, throwing himself flat on the ground.
Prince Andrew hesitated. The smoking shell spun like a top between him and the prostrate adjutant, near a wormwood plant between the field and the meadow.
“‘Can this be death?’ thought Prince Andrew, looking with a quite new, envious glance at the grass, the wormwood, and the streamlet of smoke that curled up from the rotating black ball. “I cannot, I do not wish to die. I love life-I love this grass, this earth, this air….’ He thought this, and at the same time remembered that people were looking at him.
“‘It’s shameful, sir!’ he said to the adjutant. “What…”
“He did not finish speaking. At one and the same moment came the sound of an explosion, a whistle of splinters as from a breaking window frame, a suffocation smell of powder, and Prince Andrew started to one side, raising his arm, and fell on his chest.”
While there are happy marriages, there is also lingering death through illness, as in the case of Princess Mary’s father and Natasha. Strategies, conferences with generals, rulers and diplomats, hypocrisies, hope and new children are all painted with vivid realism.
As the book draws to a close, Tolstoy explains why he believes what he does.
The life of the nations is not contained in the lives of a few men, for the connection between those men and the nations has not been found.
Only the expression of the will of the Deity, not dependent on time, can relate to a whole series of events occurring over a period of years or centuries, and only the Deity, independent of everything, can by His sole will determine the direction of humanity’s movement; but man acts in time and himself takes part in what occurs.
The presence of the problem of man’s free will, though unexpressed, is felt at every step of history.
All seriously thinking historians have involuntarily encountered this question. All the contradictions and obscurities of history and the false path historical science has followed are due solely to the lack of a solution of that question.
If the will of every man were free, that is, if each man could act as he pleased, all history would be a series of disconnected incidents.
If there be a single law governing the actions of men, free will cannot exist, for then man’s will is subject to that law.
In this contradiction lies the problem of free will, which from most ancient times has occupied the best human minds and from most ancient times has been presented in its whole tremendous significance.
This issue of the Divine direction of history versus man’s free will takes up many chapters and closes the book War and Peace.
But as in astronomy the new view said: “It is true that we do not feel the movement of the earth, but by admitting its immobility we arrive at absurdity, while admitting its motion (which we do not feel) we arrive at laws,” so also in history the new view says: “It is true that we are not conscious of our dependence, but by admitting our free will we arrive at absurdity, while by admitting our dependence on the external world, on time, and on cause, we arrive at laws.”
In the first case it was necessary to renounce the consciousness of an unreal immobility in space and to recognize a motion we did not feel; in the present case it is similarly necessary to renounce a freedom that does not exist, and recognize a dependence of which we are not conscious.