War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy’s epic novel of Russia in the Napoleonic wars, has for some time borne the unfortunate, if mildly humorous, cultural role as the ultimate unread doorstop. (At least before David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest or Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle.) The daunting length and complexity of its narrative can seem uniquely forbidding, though it’s equaled or exceeded in bulk by the books of early English novelist Samuel Richardson or later masterworks by the German Robert Musil and French Marcel Proust (not to mention the 8,000 page, 27-volume roman Men of Goodwill by Jules Romains.)
But where it may be necessary in certain circles to have a working knowledge of À la recherche du temps perdu’s “madeleine moment,” one needn’t have read every volume of the painstaking work to get the main flavor for this reference. Tolstoy’s novel, on the other hand, is all of a piece, an operatic text of so many disparate threads that it’s nearly impossible to follow only one of them. And “anyone who tells you that you can skip the ‘War’ parts and only read the ‘Peace’ parts is an idiot,” writes Philip Hensher at The Guardian. (Now he tells me….) Hensher also swears one can read War and Peace “in 10 days maximum.” Very likely, if you approach it without fear or prejudice, and take some vacation time. (But “could you read War and Peace in a week,” Tim Dowling teased in those same pages?)
Tolstoy’s massive psychological portrait of Tsarist Russia in thrall to the French emperor remains a cornerstone of world, and of course, Russian literature. Without it, there may have been no Doctor Zhivago or August 1914. “War and Peace is a long book, sure,” concedes the TED-Ed video above from Brendan Pelsue, “but it’s also a thrilling examination of history, populated with some of the deepest, most realistic characters you’ll find anywhere.” Like most hulking novels of the period, the book was originally serialized in a magazine—the pre-HBO means of disseminating compelling drama—but Tolstoy had not intended for it to grow to such a length or take up five years of his life. One story—that of the Decembrists—led to another. Grand, sweeping views of history emerged from examinations of “the small lives that inhabit those events.”
Pelsue makes a persuasive rhetorical case, but also—for most type-A, over-employed, or highly distractible readers, at least—inadvertently makes the counterargument. There are no main characters in the book. No Anna Karenina or Ivan Ilyich to follow from start to bitter end. “Instead, readers enter a vast interlocking web of relationships and questions” about the nature of love and war. Maybe you’ve already got one of those—like—in all the time you spend not reading novels. So (snaps fingers), what’s the payoff? The upshot? The “madeline moment”? (No offense to Proust.) Well, no one can—or should attempt to—summarize a complex literary work in such a way that we don’t need to read it for ourselves. Nor, can any interpretation be in any way definitive. To his credit Pelsue doesn’t try for anything of the kind.
Instead, he offers up Tolstoy’s “large, loose baggy monster,” in Henry James’ famously dismissive phrase, not as a novel, nor, as Tolstoy countered, an epic poem or historical chronicle, but as a distinctly Russian form of literature and “the sum total of Tolstoy’s imaginative powers, and nothing less.” A blurb that needs some work? We’re only going to miss the point unless we meet the work itself, whether we read it over 10 days or 10 years. The same can be said for so many epic works that lazy people like… well, all of us at times… complain about. There is absolutely no substitute for reading Moby Dick from start to finish at least twice, I’ve told people with such conviction they’ve rolled their eyes, snorted, and almost kicked me, but I haven’t myself been able to digest all of War and Peace, nor even pretended to. Tolstoy’s greatest work has sadly come to most of us as a book it’s perfectly okay to skim (or watch the movie).
It’s a frustrating work, sometimes boring and disagreeable, didactic and annoying. It has “the worst opening sentence of any major novel,” opines Philip Hensher, and “the very worst closing sentence by a country mile.” And it is also perhaps, “the best novel ever written—the warmest, the roundest, the best story and the most interesting.” Tolstoy not only entertains, but he accomplishes his intention, argues Alain de Botton, of increasing his readers’ “emotional intelligence.” I wouldn’t take anyone’s word for it. We are free to reject Tolstoy, as Tolstoy himself rejected Shakespeare, calling the veneration of the Bard “a great evil.” But we’d have to read him first. There must be some good reasons why people who have actually read War and Peace to the end refuse to let the rest of us forget it.