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War and Peace
The Epic Masterpiece in One Sitting
By Joelle Herr
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A Running Press® Miniature Edition™
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Library of Congress Control Number: 2014941233
E-book ISBN: 978-0-7624-5560-7
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The Life of Leo Tolstoy
War and Peace
A Note on the Text
not only is War and Peace one of the longest novels ever written, but it's also one of the most universally revered—many proclaiming it the best novel, period. It has influenced the likes of such greats as Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Nelson Mandela, who wrote that, while unjustly imprisoned for twenty-seven years, "One book that I returned to many times was Tolstoy's great work, War and Peace."
So, what's all of the hubbub about? Tolstoy's account of the tumultuous Napoleonic Wars—as experienced by four aristocratic Russian families—is a masterpiece for so many reasons. Perhaps most importantly, the book is an insightful look into the heart of a nation, and, indeed, Tolstoy has been referred to as "the guardian of Russia's soul." Even though he employed a third-person narrator, Tolstoy's sprinkling of "we" and "our" throughout the book created an indelible connection between the author and readers—Russian readers, in particular.
Even beyond that, though, there is universality in Tolstoy's words. German writer Thomas Mann said, "To read him . . . is to find one's way home . . . to everything within us that is fundamental and sane."
Although you're just one sitting away from having "read" one of the greatest novels ever written, I would be remiss if I didn't encourage you to read the real thing someday. The hubbub is completely warranted. For now, though, get ready to be transported back to early nineteenth-century Russia, where you'll mingle with the most elite members of society and follow them through tragedy and triumph over the course of fifteen years. Though you'll venture far and wide, as Mann attests, you'll find yourself back home at the end, richer and wiser from the journey.
Leo Nicolayevich Tolstoy was born on September 9, 1828, at his aristocratic family's rural estate, Yasnaya Polyana ("Bright Glade"), situated 130 miles south of Moscow, in the Tula region. His family was very, very wealthy. When his parents married in 1822, his mother's dowry included a mind-boggling 800 male serfs.
Though privileged, Tolstoy's childhood was filled with death. His mother passed away when he was just one year old, his father dying of "apoplexy" when Tolstoy was nine. He and his four siblings—three brothers and one sister—were raised at Yasnaya Polyana by various extended family members (many of whom also died during Tolstoy's childhood) and educated at home.
In 1845, Tolstoy enrolled at Kazan University to study law and "Oriental languages." He was a horrible, undisciplined student and left before graduating.
Tolstoy inherited his share of his family's estate—which included 4,000 acres of Yasnaya Polyana and 350 serfs—in 1847. He spent the following years living between St. Petersburg, Moscow, and Yasnaya Polyana, developing a nasty gambling habit. He gambled away a lot of his wealth, incurring debts that had to be paid by selling off parts of Yasnaya Polyana. Another of his debaucheries involved bedding numerous peasant women, often.
In 1851, Tolstoy joined the army, stationed in Caucasus and eventually serving in the Crimean War, an experience that directly inspired War and Peace. It was during his service that his first works—novellas and stories—were published.
Weary of his addiction to gambling and women, Tolstoy began envisioning a more ascetic life—planting the seeds for the existential crisis he would have twenty years later. More immediate were a couple of attempts at social activism, including the 1859 establishment of a school to educate the children of his serfs.
After his military experience, Tolstoy traveled Europe, eventually winding up back in Moscow, where he met Sofya (called Sonya) Bers, who was from an enormously wealthy family that lived in the Kremlin. At the time of their marriage in 1862, Tolstoy was 34, Sonya only 18.
Perhaps setting the stage for the eventual dysfunction of their marriage, Tolstoy made Sonya read his diaries detailing the debauched escapades of his twenties, which included the fact that he had fathered an illegitimate son with a serf. Sonya was understandably scarred but apparently forgave her new husband for his cruel infliction. That said, they did, from time to time over the years, read each other's diaries, resulting in huge rows and lingering jealousies.
By all accounts, the early days of their marriage were happy ones, with Sonya giving birth to thirteen children over the course of twenty- five years. Eight of these children survived childhood.
Tolstoy continued to write during this time, chiefly on what would become War and Peace. Parts of the novel were serialized between 1865 and 1867, thoroughly captivating readers. When it was published in its entirety for the first time in 1869, it sold out nearly immediately. Critics, on the other hand, weren't quite sure what to make of the groundbreaking epic, though it didn't take long for them to come around and proclaim it a masterpiece.
Tolstoy's second masterpiece, Anna Karenina, began appearing in serial form in 1873. Fellow Russian writer Fydor Dostoyevsky proclaimed it "flawless as a work of art," and it sold about a zillion copies.
Shortly after the publication of Anna Karenina, though, Tolstoy began struggling with bouts of depression, futility, and self-doubt—even suicidal thoughts. He found some peace in the company of peasants, even working in the fields alongside his serfs. He started studying ancient Greek and apprenticed to a boot maker. He became increasingly moody and irascible—very difficult to live with. Poor Sonya tried to keep the household running smoothly.
In 1879, he published A Confession, which documented his existential crisis and articulated his belief that true meaning and satisfaction could be attained through denouncing his aristocratic ways of life and devoting himself to the fundamentally Christian notion of helping the less fortunate. He gave up meat, hunting, smoking, and denounced his earlier works— even attempting to put them in the public domain.
The fact is that, while making these public declarations, Tolstoy continued to enjoy many comforts of his aristocratic life—a hypocrisy that he seemed oblivious to but that rankled many around him, including Sonya. He preached the benefits of abstinence—even within marriage—but didn't practice it himself. That said, his pacifism and benevolence did improve the lives of countless Russians.
- On Sale
- Sep 30, 2014
- Page Count
- 248 pages
- RP Minis