'War and Peace': A Few Comments about the Novel
I imagine that if a British author were to sit down today and write a comprehensive epic novel about Britain’s battle against fascism in the Second World War, crossing real life people with fictional characters, and chronicling the adventures of five upper and middle class families, he or she might, if they persisted with it, come up with something like a British War and Peace. Written by the Russian author Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace was first published in its entirety in 1869, about 60 years after the great events of the Napoleonic War which had had such an impact upon his homeland. It’s regarded today as one of the great works of world literature, and is considered Tolstoy's finest literary achievement, along with his other major prose work, Anna Karenina, written a few years later. (1873–1877). It’s a difficult book to categorise -in some ways, it’s not a novel at all but a treatise about life, looking at it under conditions of war and peace. Although it describes in graphic detail the events surrounding the French invasion of Russia in 1812, and the impact of the Napoleonic era on Russian society at that time, through a range of characters, it almost at times ceases to be fiction as large portions go off on a tangent from the ‘story’ to analyse military strategies and the politics of the age. Tolstoy himself regarded Anna Karenina as his first true novel, and said of War and Peace that it is ‘not a novel, even less is it a poem, and still less a historical chronicle’, believing that the best Russian literature does not conform to standards.
It’s a very interesting example of what fiction really is and the power that it has to take a strictly non-fictional idea -a philosophical set of concepts or opinions, for example- and ‘play them out’ using things called ‘characters’ against a backdrop of real and semi-real events, to see what happens. Like a great experiment in words, Tolstoy then assesses his work, concluding certain things about life -and we, the readers, assess the results too. Have we ‘bought into’ the ideas that Tolstoy outlines, because we have been captivated by the lifelikeness of the characters? It’s certainly true that Tolstoy’s grasp of historical events and the inner psychology of people is masterly. You will have to judge for yourself as to whether the work as a whole is convincing. It’s definitely powerful and possibly unique.
Nevertheless, Newsweek in 2009 ranked it first in its list of the Top 100 Books, and in 2003, the novel was listed at number 20 on the BBC's The Big Read survey.