How and Why to Read War and Peace

It is often said that when a reader loves a book she never wants it to end. If her favorite novel is War and Peace it almost never does. Eventually, however, she’ll find that the thirteen hundred or so pages of the novel have all finally been turned. She’ll be left only with the empty feeling that one of the great reading experiences of her life is now sadly behind her. She shouldn’t worry. If she really wants to prolong reading Tolstoy’s masterpiece, if she really wants to get to know the book that prompted Virginia Woolf to dub Tolstoy the greatest of all novelists, if she really wants to integrate War and Peace into her daily life there is a way to do so. I should know: I’ve been reading the book for the past seven years.

That isn’t to say it has taken me seven years to complete the novel. That would be insane; I’m just crazy. You see, I first read the novel about seven years ago. I loved it. I wanted to read it again as soon as possible. The problem, and I’m sure all the bibliophiles out there can relate, is that I also wanted to read other books. I’m just promiscuous like that. So the problem presented itself: How to stay true to my number one — Война и миръ — while keeping a steady flow of side books shuffling through my nightstand?

A solution soon presented itself. While reading Constance Garnett’s Modern Library translation I noted that the novel is divided into fifteen parts and a two-part epilogue. Each part, in turn, is further divided into many chapters. These chapters are relatively short. The longest, in fact, is a mere eleven pages. I know that because last year I started building a War and Peace spreadsheet seeking to compare the different translations. The average page length, in Garnett at least, is just shy of four pages. Four pages! That’s nothing. I figured I could fit four pages of reading into my daily routine. This notion turned out to be very interesting because as it happens there are 361 chapters in the novel. That means I could cycle through the book in roughly one year if I read just one chapter per day. And that’s what I’ve been doing ever since: reading one chapter of War and Peace a day. I cannot conceive of any scenario in the future in which reading the book isn’t a part of my day.

So that’s how I read War and Peace.

Now the question to answer is why would a twenty-first century American millennial want to read a novel about the nineteenth century Russian aristocracy?

First, and I’ll be blunt here, the chapter-a-day method makes for perfect commute reading. After all, there is no greater literary power move than boarding the subway, removing the massive tome from an NPR tote bag, throwing a wink at the nearest well-lettered and attractive person you can find, and then diving into the day’s reading with an air of gravitas only Tolstoy can provide.

For the less shallow and more serious reader there are plenty of other reasons. To begin with, it is an absolutely stunning novel of grand panoramic range and expertly observed microscopic detail. Here you’ll find broad descriptions of historic battles and also the nervous quiver of the downy upper lip of a beautiful princess as she contemplates her husband’s departure for war. Further, it shares with the nineteenth century a taste for experimentation. This is no mere narrative novel. The latter portions of the book morph into an historical/philosophical treatise and then back again into a traditional narrative. It can be a difficult novel to pin down.

At its most basic articulation War and Peace is the story of three aristocratic Russian families during the Napoleonic Wars. My favorite is the Bolkonsky family. I’m at once attracted to the stoic pragmatism and stern living of the father and son on the one hand and the soft-hearted, emotive religiosity of the daughter on the other. Some of the best lines of dialog in the book belong to the cantankerous old Bolkonsky. Though he is a bit of a prick, truth be told. Especially towards his daughter. Lucky for him she’s into the Christian virtues of forgiveness and redemption. In fact, it’s her anchoring in the daily practice of Russian Orthodoxy that allows her, amid all the absurdity and madness of the story, to emerge as the novel’s most stable character. And it is the book’s characters that keep readers coming back to War and Peace.

My favorite character of the book is, of course, Pierre Bezukhov. There is so much to say about Pierre. The first thing to say is that, with apologies to señor Quixote, Pierre is probably the greatest character in world literature. What a wreck! Just look at the shit he gets into: He inherits one of Russia’s largest fortunes. He ties a bear to a policeman and throws them into a canal. He marries a beautiful woman and shoots one of her paramours in a duel. Wracked with guilt he decides to join the Freemasons. His commitment doesn’t last long. He decides to free his serfs but settles on getting drunk and overeating instead. He discovers, based on absurd numerology, that history has chosen him to assassinate Napoleon. He is captured by the Russians and endures all manner of suffering. In short, he is the everyman, capturing the yearning and confusion of human life itself. We are Pierre. You’ll see when you start your one-chapter-a-day reading of the book.

The last of the great families of War and Peace is the Rostov family. The Rostovs are a family on the brink of financial ruin. The Rostov patriarch is, to put a point on it, a total loser. He spends money he doesn’t have, can’t say no to anybody and so constantly finds himself being taken advantage of. The two strongest characters of the Rostov family are the son Nikolay and the daughter Natasha. Natasha really is the heart of the novel. In her we find all the exuberance, folly, and heartbreak of young adulthood. Whether she’s dancing at the latest ball, falling madly in love with prince Bolkonsky or recuperating from a self-inflicted emotional wound to the heart, there is a raw energy to her magnificently rendered by Tolstoy. The reader finds herself eagerly awaiting Natasha’s next appearance. Nikolay, her brother, is much the same. We witness him transition from a boastful, though buffoonish, soldier in love with his Emperor to a very thoughtful man and the savior of his family. The tale of the Rostovs is a rich and worthy story to read and experience.

I’d like to close this essay with a brief comment on a scene with the Rostovs that, in my opinion, really captures the essence of the novel in all its complexity and beauty. I’m talking about the seventh chapter of the seventh book (Day 135 of the yearly cycle). Here we find Natasha and Nikolay visiting their uncle’s home after a busy day of hunting in the woods. There is a lot going on in their lives. Nikolay is on leave from a nasty war. Natasha is engaged to prince Bolkonsky but at the price of having to spend one year separated from him as a condition laid upon the engagement by the older Bolkonsky. All this while the family is on the brink of financial collapse. The night concludes with a trap ride home through the dark. As the trap sloshes along the wet earth road and as the horses splash through the mud below the two siblings drop into a deep contemplative quiet under the canopy of the moon shadowed trees above. It’s a moment we’ve all had: a seemingly insignificant, quotidian moment small to the world but expansive to the individual. Natasha’s sudden soft whistling of Russian folksong is the perfect punctuation to the scene as the two share this private and intimate moment while all about them history is on the move and nations are at war.

War and Peace is my favorite novel. I understand that long books like it are intimidating. But I believe, perhaps with the help of my chapter-a-day program, that readers can and should read it.

Go ahead: Give War and Peace a chance.