Making a case for the relevance of Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’

Since its publication in 1869, War and Peace has been a rite of passage for intrepid readers, like a mountain beckoning to be conquered. At more than half a million words, it is two-thirds the length of the Bible. But if you pick up a good translation of this Russian epic, you will find it as accessible as any of George R.R. Martin’s thousand-pagers.

Unlike Martin, Tolstoy never forgot how to bring a story to its wintry conclusion. But style and pacing are not literary scholar Andrew D. Kaufman’s main concern; he prefers to focus on the life-affirming lessons this deeply humanistic work has to offer.

Kaufman’s table of contents looks like it belongs in a self-help manual, with one-word titles such as “Success,” “Courage,” “Happiness” and “Love.” This Oprah-ization of a classic is fitting, given that Kaufman served as a Tolstoy expert for the Queen of All Media when she chose Anna Karenina for her book club.

But Kaufman is an adept guide, knowledgeable and passionate about his subject. His argument is mischievously compelling: Why waste money on motivational tapes and seminars when this fictional account of the Napoleonic Wars provides greater (and cheaper) salve for the soul?

Tolstoy’s flaws are not ignored. Kaufman acknowledges that his prose can be “maddeningly clumsy.” But Tolstoy was a consummate realist; art, like life, need not be orderly.

“Rather than shoving his world into nice, neat conceptual containers, Tolstoy invited readers to loosen up those containers to fit the very largeness of life.” His characters embody this belief: Pierre Bezukhov, the closest thing to a hero in the novel, makes dozens of mistakes; he is beaten, deceived, and humiliated, but he grows as a human being. He refuses to harden himself or turn bitter. His willingness to feel, a weakness to many, is shown to be a foundation of wisdom.

Lest you think Tolstoy’s head was in the clouds, few novelists had a firmer grasp of the darker aspects of our nature. Tolstoy saw men at their worst: violent, addicted, cowardly, wasteful and malevolent. Although hailed as a saint in his old age, he could be, as Kaufman puts it, “a complete ass.” In his youth he was a bad boy, whoring and gambling up a storm. He cleaned up his act, but self-pitying narcissism still coursed through him. It was especially evident in the callous treatment of his long-suffering (and much-maligned) wife, Sofya.

Nothing escapes Tolstoy’s vision in War and Peace. This is as total and faithful a rendering of existence as you will find in literature. And an attaboy to Kaufman for reminding us of its relevance to our anxious century.

Ariel Gonzalez teaches English at Miami Dade College.