War and Peace. The very title incites both awe and no small measure of dread in many a reader’s heart. Indisputably one of the major achievements of the western literary canon—many would argue the greatest—Tolstoy’s masterwork is daunting in length and scope. At some 1,500 pages (depending on the typeface, of course), divided into 361 chapters, with nearly 600 characters, its sprawling narrative spans the eight years of Napoleon’s 1805-1812 invasion of Russia and beyond. It is a perennial bestseller, but how many who buy it actually read it?
As the title of Andrew D. Kaufman’s engaging new book signals, the distinguished American Tolstoy scholar wants us to Give War and Peace a Chance. And once you have taken Kaufman’s well--informed yet unintimidating tour of the Russian classic, it will very likely move up to the top of your literary bucket list. Kaufman’s mission is to share the wonder and power of this ageless novel he so clearly reveres and to make the case for its continuing relevance in the 21st century. He succeeds admirably.
“War and Peace is many things,” Kaufman writes. “It is a war novel, a family saga, a love story. But at its core it is a book about people trying to find their footing in a ruptured world. It is a novel about human beings attempting to create a meaningful life for themselves in a country being torn apart by war, social change, and spiritual confusion.” Those human beings, so vividly drawn by the Russian master, make mistakes and suffer, just like us. But they also experience what Kaufman calls “moments of transcendent bliss or sudden illumination” that sharpen their understanding of what it means to be alive.
Kaufman divides the book into 12 chapters, each exploring a theme of the novel, from happiness and courage to family, love and death. Drawing not only on War and Peace itself, but on many of Tolstoy’s other writings as well, he delves into the writer’s profound and sometimes seemingly contradictory precepts as played out in the events of the novel and the lives of its memorable characters. Kaufman also introduces aspects of Tolstoy’s own life (and, less effectively, his own) to underscore the universality of the worldview the novel shares. Intertwining a close reading of the novel with interpretations from past critics and the colorful details of Tolstoy’s storied life makes Give War and Peace a Chance a nice mix of literary criticism and biography, served up for the general reader. Kaufman also places the novel within the historical context of Tolstoy’s times, as well as the period during which the novel is set. (It was, after all, a historical novel, written with hindsight a half century after the events it depicts.)
Despite his scholarly credentials, Kaufman has not written a dry or academic book. Even without ever having cracked the spine of the novel itself, readers will feel as if they have, coming to know its characters and their dreams, failures and destinies. He brings them to life with such affection that even the most flawed among them becomes someone we wish to know better. Of course, it is Tolstoy’s genius that brings them to life with such complexity in the first place, Tolstoy who imparts the great truths of life.