How is the book War and Peace

"War and Peace": Tolstoy's chronicle of the epochs

Status: 10/20/2019 12:06 p.m. | archive

In the knowledge series "Great Novels of World Literature"let's stroll through the story of the novel from its beginnings to the present. This episode is all about Lev Tolstoy's "War and Peace".

Leo Tolstoy shows Russian life at the time of the Napoleonic wars from the highest aristocratic circles to the serf peasants.

Like no other writer in Russia and the whole of world literature, Leo Tolstoy embodies abundance, breadth, philosophical wealth, elementary strength and, last but not least, artistic perfection. Virginia Woolf once called him "the greatest of all novelists" and for Somerset Maugham "War and Peace" was "the greatest of all novels".

Tolstoy's novel is set in the time of Napoleon

"War and Peace" was published in 1869 and takes place in a period of upheaval for all of Europe, the time of the Napoleonic Wars. It is as much a chronicle of epochs as it is a panorama of Russian life. The entire society of that time passes the reader by, from the highest court, aristocratic and military circles to the serf peasants and simple soldiers. The novel is set in Petersburg salons, Moscow princely houses and shows the country life of noble families in the Russian provinces.

At the same time, the battles of Austerlitz and Borodino, the fire in Moscow and the fleeing retreat of the French are also discussed. Tolstoy describes the camp life of the soldiers, the hardships of the long marches, the agony of the prisoners of war and the indiscriminate execution of alleged arsonists - the whole immeasurable variety of scenes, events and episodes is unfolded and linked in broad descriptions on two thousand pages.

Lev Tolstoy has done extensive research

Tolstoy spent many months studying the documents. He obtained the works of historians, studied files and manuscripts, memoirs and diaries. And he toured the battlefield of Borodino and spent two days inspecting the hilly terrain on which in 1812 the most costly battle of the war had taken place. The great historical duel, which Tolstoy saw personified in Napoleon and the Russian commander-in-chief Kutuzov, moved more and more into focus. Napoleon is consistently viewed with irony, reduced to a human level, as an actor who likes his role, even as a machine that has strayed far from the human.

"War and Peace": historical and at the same time immediate

"War and Peace" is commonly considered a historical novel, but for today's reader the impression of the historical vanishes thanks to the force and immediacy with which Tolstoy brings a bygone era to literary life, thanks to his unerring sense of time and thanks to the fact that his Clock, as Vladimir Nabokov wrote, ticks with the same rhythm as the clocks of his readers. People shy away from applying the meaningless formula "realism" to their powerful portrayal of reality. Almost without comparison in his descriptions of nature, in his portrayal of social life with its stifling conventions close to the great French, Tolstoy uses his protagonists to describe a way inwards, quite comparable to the heroes of the German educational novel. They develop, deepen, are in search of the goal of existence and the meaning of life.

This is especially true for Pierre Visitow, who in this novel is most likely to play the role of the protagonist without an actual main character; in any case, Tolstoy put his own search for meaning on his shoulders the most. As he staggers through the novel, always in the right place at the right time, he reminds in some ways of the fellow in the fairy tale who sets out to learn to be afraid. He's got huge fortunes that he doesn't care about, he experiences many adventures and trials, gets lost on some wrong paths, and in the end he wins the princess in the form of the beautiful Natascha Rostova. The sufferings of war, the experience of the executions and the long march of the prisoners are his deepest experiences, from which he emerges purified. Pierre learns that man's unhappiness comes from abundance and that happiness lies within himself. In such passages you can already see the outline of a preacher behind the greatest of all novelists. Tolstoy himself gave the most succinct description of his work when he said: "... without false modesty - that is something like the Iliad."

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NDR culture | NDR culture knowledge | 10/18/2016 | 9:20 a.m.