War And Peace / Leo Tolstoy

While having a vast scope, War and Peace has continued to resonate with contemporary readers because of its minute detail of personal moments, be it on the battlefield or behind high society’s façade.  The novel focuses on the French invasion of Russia in 1812.  In the first half of the book, covering the years 1805-1812, Tolstoy sets up the impending clash of the Napoleonic era with Tsarist Russia.  To do so, he concentrates on the intimate affairs of five aristocratic Russian families, and their overlapping entanglements.  Russian aristocracy during this time was highly influenced by French culture, to the point where the French language was more prevalent than Russian.  As in Anna Karenina, the action takes place primarily in St. Petersburg and Moscow, or on the country estates of the families Tolstoy is profiling.  In the second half of the book, the perspective shifts with France’s invasion of Russia in 1812, and the reader is given a bird’s eye view of the field of battle.  Just as the author is able to capture the nuances of social life among the country’s elite families, so too is he able to portray the stark reality of the conflict between the French and Russian troops.  Tolstoy does not glorify warfare; rather, he shows it to be senseless, bloody, and best avoided if possible.  Nonetheless, the battle scenes he recreates are gripping.  Some modern readers might have difficulty accepting Tolstoy’s editorializing.  Throughout the book, he lapses into philosophical discussions about what is taking place, especially regarding the actions of Kutuzov, the Field Marshall of the Russian army.  Much of the book’s epilogue is a critique of the influence of such individuals as Napoleon and Tsar Alexander I on events occurring during their overlapping reigns.  War and Peace is a daunting read because of its length, but well worth undertaking.  The reader will be rewarded with numerous human-interest stories, romance, heartbreak, a history lesson on the Patriotic War of 1812, and plenty of food for thought.  I had read this classic novel back in my college days, but this second reading deepened my appreciation of the book’s contents and Tolstoy’s gifted presentation.

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