‘At a glittering society party in St Petersburg in 1805, conversations are dominated by the prospect of war. Terror swiftly engulfs the country as Napoleon’s army marches on Russia, and the lives of three young people are changed forever. The stories of quixotic Pierre, cynical Andrey and impetuous Natasha interweave with a huge cast, from aristocrats and peasants, to soldiers and Napoleon himself. In War and Peace (1868-9), Tolstoy entwines grand themes – conflict and love, birth and death, free will and fate – with unforgettable scenes of nineteenth-century Russia,to create a magnificent epic of human life in all its imperfection and grandeur’.
At 1444 pages, War and Peace may seem a daunting size, yet the book isn’t a difficult read, unlike Crime and Punishment, War and Peace(or at least the Penguin classics edition) dispenses with the Patronyms and multiple characters of the same name that were prevalent in the aforementioned title and leaves you free to explore the characters lives and emotions. Despite a large ensemble of characters, Tolstoy introduces them all steadily avoiding confusion, in fact apart from two pairs of characters none of the other 496 characters that are mentioned have names similar enough or the same as each other to cause any befuddlement.
Humanist and existentialist issues are tackled against a backdrop of war with Napoleon and the French. Battle scenes are juxtaposed with the frivolity of Russian high society, leading characters to question their choices in life and their world views. You really can’t get much more ambitious than this sprawling story, which is essentially three books in one, a war story, a civilian away from the war story but always with the tension and an essay on war, history and politics. Is this the greatest ever novel? No but certainly a great one. Perhaps the sprawling nature of the book does end up giving the impression that it is all a bit of a mess but certain passages are beautifully written and will stay in my mind until i get senile and that is afterall the point of a book that attempts to capture so many different aspects of life.