Considered by many critics the greatest novel ever written, War and Peace is also one of the most feared. And at 1,500 pages, it’s no wonder why. Still, in July 2009 Newsweek put War and Peace at the top of its list of 100 great novels and a 2007 edition of the AARP Bulletin included the novel in their list of the top four books everybody should read by the age of fifty. A New York Times survey from 2009 identified War and Peace as the world classic you’re most likely to find people reading on their subway commute to work. What might all those Newsweek devotees, senior citizens, and harried commuters see in a book about the Napoleonic Wars in the early 1800s? War and Peace is many things. It is a love story, a family saga, a war novel. But at its core it’s a novel about human beings attempting to create a meaningful life for themselves in a country torn apart by war, social change, political intrigue, and spiritual confusion. It is a mirror of our times.
Give War and Peace a Chance takes readers on a journey through War and Peace that reframes their very understanding of what it means to live through troubled times and survive them. Touching on a broad range of topics, from courage to romance, parenting to death, Kaufman demonstrates how Tolstoy’s wisdom can help us live fuller, more meaningful lives. The ideal companion to War and Peace, this book “makes Tolstoy’s characters lively and palpable…and may well persuade readers to finally dive into one of the world’s most acclaimed—and daunting—novels” (Kirkus Reviews).
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Give War and Peace a Chance
The mind’s game of chess goes on independently of life, and life of it.
—Tolstoy’s diary, March 1863
As a nineteen-year-old nobleman and proprietor of a vast estate, Tolstoy had big plans for his future. He listed them in his diary:
(1) To study the whole course of law necessary for my final examination at the university. (2) To study practical medicine, and some theoretical medicine. (3) To study languages: French, Russian, German, English, Italian and Latin. (4) To study agriculture, both theoretical and practical. (5) To study history, geography and statistics. (6) To study mathematics, the grammar school course. (7) To write a dissertation. (8) To attain an average degree of perfection in music and painting. (9) To write down rules. (10) To acquire some knowledge of the natural sciences. (11) To write essays on all the subjects I shall study.
And, in order to keep himself on track, he created an extensive list of rules that he’d intended to follow religiously. Here are just a few of the headings taken from his diary:
RULES FOR DEVELOPING THE PHYSICAL WILL
RULES FOR DEVELOPING THE EMOTIONAL WILL
RULES FOR DEVELOPING THE RATIONAL WILL
RULES FOR DEVELOPING THE MEMORY
RULES FOR DEVELOPING ACTIVITY
RULES FOR DEVELOPING THE INTELLECTUAL FACULTIES
RULES FOR DEVELOPING LOFTY FEELINGS AND ELIMINATING BASE ONES, OR, TO PUT IT ANOTHER WAY, RULES FOR DEVELOPING THE FEELING OF LOVE AND ELIMINATING THE FEELING OF SELF-LOVE
RULES FOR DEVELOPING SOUND JUDGEMENT
A Man with a Plan: Tolstoy as a student in 1849.
Oh, and Tolstoy had one more rule: “The first rule which I prescribe is as follows: No. 1. Carry out everything you have resolved. . . . I haven’t carried out this rule.” Nor was he exaggerating. Within five years of writing down that list of intentions he had the following accomplishments to show for it:
• Briefly attended Kazan University, but withdrew without graduating
• Moved to Petersburg, planned to enroll in the university and enter the civil service, but having become distracted by cards, women, and booze, did neither
• Failed as a farmer, estate manager, and agricultural reformer
• Opened a school for peasant children on his estate with no success
• Gambled away tens of thousands of rubles (in today’s money, around a half million dollars) at the card table
• Lost the house in which he was born in a game of cards
• Failed at every romantic relationship he attempted
• Visited a brothel with his brother, and wept from shame when it came time to settle the bill
• Was hospitalized on multiple occasions for venereal disease
• Exhibited increasing signs of severe hypochondria as well as pathological fear of death
• Lost his faith in God, regained it, and then lost it again
True, Tolstoy had been promoted to ensign for distinction in action in the Caucasus. And, interestingly, he’d enjoyed success in one pursuit he hadn’t thought to include in his list of youthful ambitions: the writing of fiction. These were, however, among the very few bright spots on an otherwise dismal CV. Up to that point he’d failed at pretty much everything he tried, forcing him to come to a sobering conclusion: “It is easier to write ten volumes of philosophy than to put a single precept into practice.” Not that this prevented him from trying. Future generations of readers, moreover, may be thankful that Tolstoy’s life wasn’t exactly turning out as he’d planned, for while he was amassing an impressive list of failures, he was also acquiring wisdom essential for the creation of War and Peace.
“The mind’s game of chess goes on independently of life, and life of it,” Tolstoy wrote in his diary in 1863. So it is with his characters’ every intellectual conviction and rational intention. Whether in the ballroom or on the battlefield, as soon as they come into contact with real life, their ideas and plans disintegrate like so much meteor dust. The characters who come to recognize how little they know about what will happen, Tolstoy suggests, are actually the ones who know the most.
Toward the novel’s beginning, the night before the battle of Austerlitz in 1805, a council of high-powered generals and military strategists prepare for the upcoming battle—analyzing troop movements, estimating the size of Napoleon’s army, evaluating strategies. With all that planning you’d think victory was a sure thing, right? Actually, the Russians and their allies, the Austrians, will get trounced, and not in spite of all their good planning, but precisely because of it.
Hovering self-assuredly over a great map spread out before the council, the Austrian general Weyrother intones for an hour, in nauseating detail (and in German), his written “disposition for the attack on the enemy’s position behind Kobelnitz and Sokolnitz, 20 November, 1805” (261). Alas, unlike the map so beautifully illuminated by candlelight the evening before, the actual battlefield the next morning is shrouded in a fog that prevents the attacking army from seeing where in the hell they’re going! As Tolstoy would write later in the novel about another battle, “[a]s in all dispositions, everything was beautifully thought out, and, as with all dispositions, not a single column arrived where it was supposed to at the appointed time” (994).
By the time the Russians do arrive at Kobelnitz and Sokolnitz, the place where they’d intended to begin the action, they are no longer the attackers, but the ones being attacked. It is a contingency Weyrother’s plan hasn’t provided for. Nor did it include a provision for the vexation felt by the Russian troops toward their supposed allies, those “muddleheaded” Germans, or the ill-humor felt by the commanders and superior officers, who are understandably frustrated that the action being undertaken bears no relation to what they’d proposed at the council of war. Dispirited to have arrived late, unable to see, and finding themselves now under assault, they are entirely unprepared to cheer up their troops.
Considering all of the crucial details that Weyrother’s brilliant battle plan has left out, Commander in Chief Mikhail Kutuzov’s decision to catch some shut-eye during the war council appears in retrospect a pretty good use of his time. “ ‘There’s nothing more important before a battle than a good night’s sleep,’ ” Kutuzov murmurs to the chattering strategists at the military council, upon waking for a moment (264). For he knows what Tolstoy knows: nothing in battle ever goes according to plan—so just get some rest. That way when the unforeseen cannonballs are whizzing toward you in the morning, you may at least respond quickly and, with any luck, get out of their way.
History, Tolstoy reminds us, proved Kutuzov right. Though the Russians lost the battle of Austerlitz, they ultimately won the war against Napoleon in 1812, and no thanks to the bickering strategists, either. Kutuzov eventually defeats Napoleon not because he has a perfect plan, but because he manages to be present to what’s happening in the moment. His nattering generals, motivated by self-interest and entirely removed from the realities on the ground, urge Kutuzov to attack the wounded French army after the battle of Borodino and hold on to Moscow. But “Kutuzov saw one thing: the defense of Moscow was in no way physically possible, in the full meaning of those words” (827).
And so, out of sheer necessity the Russian troops retreat, unintentionally luring the overconfident French army into the abandoned capital. That “conquest” is the beginning of the end of Napoleon’s army, for while enjoying their wartime booty they are at the same time depleting the very resources needed for the long march out of Russia. How did Kutuzov, the nincompoop, as many of his compatriots called him, plan for that? He didn’t, and that’s just Tolstoy’s point: “Kutuzov’s merit consisted not in some strategic maneuver of genius, as they call it, but in that he alone understood the significance of what was happening” (990).
Kutuzov was in his sixties at the time, with a long military and diplomatic career behind him. But he had sufficient humility to throw all of his “knowledge” out the window when necessary, letting go of preconceived notions about how things are supposed to go on the field of battle, and embracing instead what is occurring right in front of him. Actors sometimes refer to this as “being in the moment.” Buddhists call it “nonattachment to concepts.” Tolstoy sees it simply as the key to living wisely and leading effectively in a radically uncertain universe.
To appreciate Tolstoy’s interest in the topic of plans, it is helpful to know something about Russia in the heady days of the 1850s and 1860s. The hard sciences were becoming all the rage, and most educated Russians were convinced that you could solve the vast majority of problems facing their society through the rigorous application of the principles of science and reason. Leading that charge was the so-called radical intelligentsia, a motley crew of edgy intellectuals, journalists, and writers who studied French sociology, devoured Darwin, and traveled to Europe to worship at the feet of the German philosopher Karl Marx and the exiled Russian nihilist Mikhail Bakunin. The imprisoned revolutionary Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s rather bad programmatic novel What Is to Be Done? (1863) was their bible, as it would be for nearly all future Russian revolutionaries, not least Lenin himself. The intelligentsia was ingesting, too, the writings of the French philosopher Charles Fourier, who envisioned a perfectly organized society that would feature seas made out of lemonade, androgynous plants that copulate, four lovers or husbands per every adult female, and approximately 37 million poets of the caliber of Homer and 37 million mathematicians with the genius of Newton.
Everybody in those days, it seemed, had a Plan—everybody, that is, except for Tolstoy, who by the early 1860s had hunkered down on his estate to write, hunt, have kids, raise pigs, tend bees, and picnic with his family in the sprawling fields of Yasnaya Polyana. It’s not that he didn’t care about what was happening around him; he cared very much, if his letters and diaries of the period are any indication, and for that very reason stayed out of the ideological screaming matches, which he believed were not only hurting everybody’s ears but were in fact harmful to Russia itself.
Chastening personal experience had taught him that life’s most important truths cannot be understood by means of scientific theory, that even the most brilliant social engineering project is bound to fail. That’s because, while the idea of a perfect utopia is enticing, we imperfect humans are incapable of actually living in one. So, as Tolstoy understood, what begins as an intention to create heaven on earth almost inevitably leads to the exact opposite. Even a brief glance at twentieth-century Russian history, in which plans to build a socialist paradise produced a totalitarian society far more brutal than the nineteenth-century autocracy it replaced, proves just how prescient Tolstoy was.
It’s little wonder, then, that he rejected the fashionable insistence in the 1860s that the purpose of fiction writing was to promote the “correct” social agenda. For starters, nobody at that time could agree on what that agenda was; and beyond that, the very notion of fiction as a vehicle for ideology was anathema to the man who said that the artist’s goal is to represent “life in all its countless, inexhaustible manifestations.” Later in his life, of course, Tolstoy would not always practice what he preached, but at the time he wrote War and Peace, the author believed that fiction should do neither more nor less than tell the truth about things the way they are, rather than the way an author thinks they should be. And the way things are, Tolstoy reminds his readers throughout his greatest novel, is far more fluid and unpredictable than the dyed-in-the-wool proponent of one or another social agenda generally cares to acknowledge.
Where was all this progressive thinking coming from in the first place? Tolstoy wondered. As early as the 1850s he searched for an answer to this question by delving into Russian history and became particularly fascinated by the so-called Decembrist Revolt of 1825, when a small band of Russian officers led thirty thousand men in a protest against the assumption of power by Tsar Nicholas I. Taking place just three years before Tolstoy’s birth, the event loomed large in his imagination, as it did for many of his contemporaries. The poorly organized rebellion failed miserably, with some of the rebels executed, and the rest exiled to Siberia. Still, it was bitter confirmation of something most thinking Russians had long suspected: that their country was in dire need of social reform—reform, though, not a revolution as such, or some grand utopian project of the sort the more radical intelligentsia were advocating. For Count Tolstoy was loath to throw out what was precious in his country’s past along with what was admittedly pernicious.
And so, with these ideas in mind, he set out to write a novel about a Decembrist returning to Russia in the 1850s after a quarter-century Siberian exile. It was to be a polemical work whose goal was to arouse sympathy for his hero’s progressive aims while at the same time showing that he was a better breed of man than those shrill reformers he encountered upon his return to a changed Russia. The hero’s name? Pyotr Labazov, the earliest incarnation of none other than Pyotr (aka Pierre) Bezukhov.
Where had all these good men gone? Tolstoy wondered. Come to think of it, where had they come from in the first place? They were forged, he concluded, in the crucible of the Napoleonic campaigns, and in that transformative year of 1812, in particular, a time of horror and shock during which the entire country—aristocrats, peasants, government, and all—came together in a spontaneous explosion of collective resistance against a foreign invader. In spite of all that hardship—or because of it?—Russians experienced a national unity they had never known before, and would not experience again until World War II, or, as the Russians call it, the Great Fatherland War. The crisis that tore the country apart, Tolstoy believed, also brought people closer together. Moreover, the future Decembrists were men who, traveling to the European capitals in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, became acutely aware that Europeans not only enjoyed a higher living standard than Russians, but were less intimidated by their rulers, and freer to express their political opinions.
These insights came later, of course. All Tolstoy wanted to do initially was write a book focusing on Russia in the 1850s. But the more he worked, the more he realized that in order to understand his hero, it would be necessary to know how he lived at the time of the uprising in 1825. And to make sense of that event, it would be essential to understand the critical formative events of the year 1812. But wait: How could he tell the story of 1812 without first describing the years leading up to it, beginning in 1805? Fortunately for us, Tolstoy stopped with 1805, finding it, as a starting point, suitable for his purpose. Otherwise, War and Peace might have ended up 15,000 pages long rather than a mere 1,500.
One thing is clear, though: at no point did Tolstoy know what the final version would look like. He admitted as much when, at the end of 1864, he wrote in an unpublished draft of an introduction to his novel: “I cannot determine how much of my work will consist of what is now being published, because I do not know myself and cannot foresee what dimensions my work will assume.” He wasn’t kidding. The book came together over countless different stages of writing, during which the writer’s interests and intentions continually changed, so much so that it seemed to some readers of the Russian Herald, where the novel was being published in installments, that later portions might have been written by someone else altogether.
Not only was the shape of Tolstoy’s novel unclear to him; its very title eluded him. When he first conceived of the idea of a novel about a returning Decembrist back in 1856, he thought the book would be called, sensibly enough, The Decembrists. Having scrapped that idea soon thereafter, he then put the title Three Eras on his manuscript. By the time he actually started publishing the novel in the pages of the Russian Herald in 1865, he was calling it 1805. The next installments, however, appeared in 1866 under a different title altogether: War. In April of that same year Tolstoy had another change of heart, confident that he’d finish the book the following year, and that it would be called, with apologies to Shakespeare, All’s Well That Ends Well.
A lot can happen in a man’s life over a year, particularly in one as dynamic as Tolstoy’s. For instance, a well-known French philosopher by the name of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, whom Tolstoy had met in Brussels several years earlier, in 1861, would suddenly die, unleashing a spate of articles about him in the Russian press. Surely Tolstoy was paying attention, for he was himself already deeply interested in Proudhon’s highly publicized books about warfare, as well as social and economic issues. One of Proudhon’s works in particular, which the Frenchman had completed just around the time Tolstoy met him in Brussels and appeared in Russian translation in 1864, kept flitting around Tolstoy’s brain: it was called La Guerre et le Paix, or War and Peace, a title that Tolstoy, presumably rather liking it, now decided to borrow. This, of course, was the title he settled on through future stages of writing and publication, which took him another two years to complete.
Yet here is the interesting point: All those lost threads, failed plans, starts and stops, and shifts in direction—none of it amounted to time wasted. For almost everything, in some form or another, ended up in the book. The character of Pyotr, for instance, makes it through all of the drafts with just a slight name change, and the Decembrist theme, too, is still alive and well, for, as any Russian reader in the 1860s would have known, the heated political discussions taking place in the epilogue are harbingers of the future Decembrist uprising that would occur only a few years after the novel’s ending. Even the planned title 1805 is not discarded, since the first quarter of the novel takes place in that pivotal year. The theme of War is omnipresent, as is the fundamental optimism about the world underlying the novel’s previously plundered title, All’s Well That Ends Well.
Had Tolstoy rigidly stuck to his original intention, the novel might easily have become just another long-winded addition to the ideological shouting matches of his time. But because he allowed the creative process to guide him, rather than the other way around, he ended up producing a masterpiece that manages to re-create life in all its unpredictable misery and splendor. The very existence of War and Peace, then, is testimony to the wisdom contained in the novel itself: Plans may very well not work, but planning is well worth doing anyway. Or, as General Eisenhower would put it nearly a century later: “In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” So it is, Tolstoy continually reminds us, on the battlefield, in the creative process, in life itself.
A page from the ninth draft of the opening of War and Peace: Plans don’t work, but they’re worth making anyway.
Table of Contents
An Invitation to the Reader xiii
Chapter 1 Plans 15
Chapter 2 Imagination 27
Chapter 3 Rupture 45
Chapter 4 Success 61
Chapter 5 Idealism 79
Chapter 6 Happiness 95
Chapter 7 Love 113
Chapter 8 Family 133
Chapter 9 Courage 151
Chapter 10 Death 171
Chapter 11 Perseverance 189
Chapter 12 Truth 203
Appendix 1 Meet Leo Tolstoy: A Chronology of the Writer's Life 225
Appendix 2 Who's Who in War and Peace?: A Guide to Characters' Names 233
Suggestions for Further Reading 247
Author's Note on Translations of War and Peace 251
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Give War and Peace a Chance includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Andrew D. Kaufman. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Despite War and Peace’s long-lived position at the top of many critics’ lists of the greatest novels of all time and abiding popularity with readers all over the world, few of us think of the famed novel as relevant to our modern era as well as to our daily lives. But according to professor Andrew D. Kaufman, War and Peace is not only a mirror of our times, but also an urgent moral compass and a celebration of the complexities, joys, and challenges in our lives. By breaking the 1,500-page novel into chapters that touch on each of the book’s most important themes—whether Death or Love, or Courage or Perseverance—Kaufman highlights Tolstoy’s topics of wisdom for the modern reader. By showing how the quest of the book’s characters to find themselves in a ruptured world reflects our own contemporary quest for meaning, Andrew Kaufman reveals just how much Tolstoy has to say about being alive in troubled times, and surviving them.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Professor Kaufman’s primary goal in writing Give War and Peace a Chance was to demonstrate the contemporary—and indeed, eternal—relevance of Tolstoy’s great novel. Having read the book, do you agree there is a place for War and Peace in contemporary society? Do you feel that War and Peace is less, or more, specific to its time and place than other literary classics?
2. In the introduction and throughout the book, Kaufman makes it clear that his near quarter-century relationship to Tolstoy, and to War and Peace in particular, is one of the deepest and most influential of his life. He says: “If initially I’d been losing myself in Tolstoy, I soon enough began to find myself there (xii).” What author or book, if any, has this prominence in your life? Why does it connect with you so powerfully? Do you think that connections like these are unique to literature, among cultural products?
3. The composition of Give War and Peace a Chance is a balance of backstory and history, analysis, and sketches or quotations from Tolstoy’s work. Which of these do you find the most compelling, and why? Do you feel you came to know Tolstoy and his characters better through Kaufman’s work?
4. One of the themes that emerges through Give War and Peace a Chance is what Kaufman identifies as Tolstoy’s “combination of skepticism and hope.” Why does Kaufman find this so powerful? Does it speak to you? How do you relate to this way of being in the world?
5. Another theme Kaufman draws out of his analysis is the relationship between the time War and Peace is set (about 1805–1812), the time it was written (the 1860s), and the modern era. How did you come to understand the relationship between these three different time periods? What are the similarities, if any, that persist across the great span of time?
6. “An idea is something you can argue for or against, but a work of art . . . [offers] a portrait of life in all its irreducible contradiction (12).” Do you agree that great works of art are more about ‘portraits of life’ than ‘polemic positions,’ as Kaufman urges? How does Kaufman’s analysis of War and Peace support this claim? How do you understand the relationship between contradiction and truth?
7. Drawing on his understanding of Tolstoy’s life and the trials and tribulations of the novel’s characters, Kaufman makes the argument that failure is often instructive and indeed essential to later success. Do you agree with this claim? Why or why not? Are there moments in your own life when you’ve learned or grown through a failure?
8. In the chapter “Imagination” Kaufman compares the large, messy, and “badly composed” War and Peace with the elegant, clean structure of Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, to demonstrate the way in which Tolstoy intended War and Peace to reflect life, rather than to refine it (29–30). How does War and Peace accomplish this goal of reflecting life as we live it? Can you think of other examples of books that strive for this goal? How does this attempt to encompass the whole of life fail or succeed in these books, especially War and Peace?
9. One of the other ways War and Peace reflects real life, Kaufman contends, is in its interplay between chance and destiny. Throughout the book, there are many moments of powerful coincidence, balanced out by events that appear to have no logic or reason. Do you find this true in your own life? How do you understand coincidence and fate?
10. In a moment of clarity, Tolstoy contemplates starting his own religion, one Kaufman refers to as “the religion of life itself.” Although Tolstoy does not actually follow through on this, do you see any suggestions of this kind of religion in War and Peace? And, if so, how might it reinforce the themes of complexity, chance, and love that Kaufman draws out of Tolstoy’s life and novel?
11. Kaufman uses several moments from War and Peace—Nikolai’s hearing Natasha sing, Prince Andrei’s glimpsing the “lofty sky” during a battle, and Nikolai’s hunt—to illustrate the way certain events in life can illuminate larger truths, or wider realities. What do these events have in common, and how do they differ? What are some moments in your life, crises or otherwise, in which you tapped into something larger than yourself?
12. Throughout the book, Kaufman uses War and Peace to define his themes in sometimes idiosyncratic ways. Revisiting his chapters on success and courage, do you agree with the definitions he arrives at? How would you define success? Courage?
13. To Kaufman, War and Peace is a powerful illustration of the ways in which happiness plays a role in day-to-day life, and how it can be achieved. How does the success or failure of Tolstoy’s characters reflect his argument that only by coming to know life and embrace it as it truly is, with all its imperfections, may happiness be achieved? Do you find this to be true in your own life? What does happiness mean to you?
14. One of the most striking chapters of Give War and Peace a Chance is the chapter on love, primarily because of the picture it draws of Tolstoy’s relationship with his wife. How does your knowledge of this relationship change your picture of War and Peace or of Tolstoy? Do you think the private lives of authors should be a part of understanding a novel? Why or why not?
15. On pages 177–178, Kaufman argues that a consciousness of death is an important part of living, and that ignoring it, or pretending it will not happen is an impediment to leading a rich life. Do you agree that this is the case? What do you make of Tolstoy’s understanding of, and depiction of death? Do you find it morbid? Uplifting? Why?
16. The concept of truth is clearly a major theme in Tolstoy’s novel and in Kaufman’s analysis. How do you understand Tolstoy’s idea of the relationship between truth and art? How is War and Peace an undertaking to reveal what is true? What do you think truth is?
17. Near the end of the chapter on truth, on pages 212–214, Kaufman elaborates on one of Tolstoy’s central metaphors—the relationship between “the higher musical harmony of the world” as represented by the fugue, and the “conflict and instability” represented by the globe. Why are these metaphors so closely intertwined for Tolstoy? What relationship do they have to each other? How does the relationship between the fugue and the globe underscore the complexity and contradiction that Kaufman argues is so central to comprehending War and Peace?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Reading Give War and Peace a Chance would be incomplete without at least a sampling of War and Peace itself. If you aren’t inspired to read the entire 1,500-page novel, try a few chapters, or even a few pages. How does reading Tolstoy’s prose bring some of Kaufman’s points to life? How does having so much knowledge about the backstory, history and composition of the novel change your experience of reading it?
2. There are a number of film and television adaptations of War and Peace. Choose one to screen for your book club! Discuss the differences and similarities between the two forms and the difficulties in adapting such a large book for the screen. Can you see the themes Kaufman speaks to emerge even in adaptation?
3. Choose one of your own favorite novels, one as close to your heart as War and Peace is to Kaufman’s, and write a brief essay meditating on its relationship to one of Kaufman’s chosen themes, or even one of your own. How does the book you’ve selected argue for a particular understanding of something like courage, love, or death? How does your choice differ from War and Peace? How is it similar? Share your work with your group!
A Conversation with Andrew D. Kaufman
Q: It’s been a long time since you first read War and Peace, and this is your second book on Tolstoy. What made you decide to write this book, which seems to be aimed at a wider audience? What made you want to reintroduce people to a novel written 150 years ago?
A: War and Peace had been roaming in and out of my life for about twenty-five years—in almost a “When Harry Met Sally” kind of way. Each time I encountered the novel, it was a different book, evoking whatever was most alive inside me at that point. I happened to be rereading the novel in 2008, around the time of the financial crisis that was turning many peoples’ lives upside down—mine included. War and Peace became a new book yet again. I was able to clearly glimpse something I’d only vaguely understood in my previous readings: that whatever else this novel is, it’s a book about people trying to find their footing in an unstable, ever-changing world. How do you live in such times? Where do you find meaning and even joy in a troubled world? In 2008 these became deeply personal questions to me, and I sensed that many other people were—and are—struggling with them as well. I came to recognize War and Peace as the book for our times.
Q: One of the things that really stands out in your analysis is Tolstoy’s persistence in grappling with life’s big questions. Do you think this is the key to War and Peace’s enduring power?
A: Yes, that’s certainly one of the keys to its enduring power. But for Tolstoy and his characters, the big questions are always personal questions. He was never interested in the sorts of abstract debates that have long fascinated academic philosophers—about, say, the existence or nonexistence of God, the nature of good and evil, or how many angels dance on the head of a pin. What concerns Tolstoy is philosophy in action, in life. The Russian philosopher Vassily Rozanov put it well when he called Tolstoy a philosopher “through images.”
What gives War and Peace its enduring power is how Tolstoy grounds the “accursed questions”—Who am I? Why am I here? How should I live?—in concrete situations and characters that all readers can identify with. Few writers capture the texture of everyday life, the nuances and complexities of human behavior, the sounds and sights of nature as powerfully or precisely as Tolstoy. And at the same time, few writers go straight to the heart of life’s most fundamental questions as unabashedly as he does. That union of big ideas with the tiniest details of everyday life is one of the hallmarks of War and Peace.
It’s no coincidence that one of the most philosophically profound scenes in War and Peace—the conversation between Pierre and Prince Andrei, about life’s purpose (which I discuss in Chapter 5)—happens to take place in the luxuriance of a beautiful spring evening, on a ferry raft, no less. In fact, the natural surroundings become a part of the discussion itself as Prince Andrei hears in the waves gently bumping up against the ferry raft a solution to his persistent problem: an inability to believe. “It seemed to Prince Andrei that this splash of waves made a refrain to Pierre’s words, saying: ‘It’s true, believe it.’” Who other than Tolstoy would have one of his most important philosophical messages stream from the mouth of…the gently lapping waves?! Genius.
Q: As a trained academic, what do you see as the crucial difference between the way academics and nonacademics interact with literature like War and Peace? What are some of the advantages, and disadvantages, of academic training?
A: One of the things I appreciate about my academic training is that it’s taught me to question assumptions, to dig for facts, to find evidence and documentation confirming what I think I know. Most important, it’s taught me to look closely at the text itself. I’ve always been a proponent of the so-called “close reading” approach to literary analysis, both in my writing about and teaching of literature. Whenever I find myself getting lost in generalizations or suspect myself of imposing my own ideas onto the work, I return to the text and let it guide my thinking, rather than the other way around. That’s an important discipline graduate school instilled in me.
But this sort of rigorous training comes with its limitations, as well. Academic literary study tends to prefer analysis over emotion. Yet we cannot leave our personal feelings and judgments at the door when we read, so why pretend otherwise? Doing so is not only disingenuous, but frankly, dangerous. One way or another, our personal truths are going to come out in our discussion of a work of literature. I prefer to bring them out in the open, rather than hide behind a veil of seeming objectivity or intellectual abstraction. Academia would be a kinder, gentler place if we literary scholars would all just acknowledge that we tend to prefer our own interpretation of a work because, well, it’s ours and we love it. There’s no shame in that admission. Rather than denigrating the personal dimension in the experience of reading, I’d like to make it a part of the discussion. I want to celebrate it.
Another faux pas in academic literary criticism—these days especially—is to talk about fictional characters as if they were real people. But when I’m immersed in War and Peace, Pierre and Natasha and Andrei are real to me, to Tolstoy, and to his readers. It’s a testament to Tolstoy’s power as a novelist. I encourage readers to suspend their disbelief. I want them to enjoy the magic of the reading experience even before exploring the hows and the whys. If you’re not going to allow yourself to first be seduced by a work, then you’re not likely to develop much of a meaningful, long-term relationship with it, either. T. S. Eliot once wrote: “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.” Experience first, analyze later.
Q: As you learned about Tolstoy’s life, and the composition of War and Peace, how did your relationship with it evolve? What affected or surprised you the most in your study?
A: When I first seriously encountered Tolstoy in college, he still had the Great Writer halo surrounding him. The first several years of our relationship were a kind of honeymoon period, in which he was the untouchable literary giant and I the eager disciple. But the more I learned about his life, and the more I was able to see him as a real human being, the more compelling it all became. When I was in graduate school, I enjoyed reading through all of Tolstoy’s letters and diaries from his twenties. It made me realize the extent to which he, too, was wracked with self-doubt, struggled with relationships, and didn’t have a clue as to his life’s purpose. In fact, Tolstoy lifts specific passages from those very diaries and plants them in the pages of Pierre’s diaries in War and Peace. One of the most inspiring insights for me has always been the ways in which Tolstoy’s early failures became crucial sources of material for War and Peace.
By the time I was pouring over my third or fourth biography of Tolstoy, however, I’d say our honeymoon period was definitely over. I knew too much to be able to uncritically adore everything about him. I can’t condone how treated his wife in the later years. Nor do I agree with his wholesale rejection of capitalism, or his decision to give away the copyright on his earlier works. His preaching of celibacy in and out of marriage has always struck me as rather hypocritical for a man who sired thirteen children. And the career advice he gave his eldest son, Seryozha, upon graduating from the university—“Take a broom and sweep the streets”—is as dismissive as it is irresponsible. But, then, it’s all part of the man, and in order to understand Tolstoy and his fiction, I’ve had to learn to take the bad with the good. His shortcomings, quirks, and contradictions, after all, are what make his writing so real, so human.
Q: Your love for Tolstoy’s characters really shines through in your writing—do you have a secret favorite (beyond Natasha, of course!)?
A: Another character I love is Konstantin Levin in Anna Karenina, an older, wiser version of Pierre Bezukhov, who has the same sort of searching spirit. But loving someone doesn’t always mean liking him or her. For example, there are moments I want to shake Pierre and scream in his ear: “Wake up! Can’t you see you’re being taken advantage of!” Frankly, Natasha can be insufferable at times, too, in her need to be the center of attention. As in life, though, it’s often the things that annoy us most about someone that endear us to them, as well.
What I appreciate is how Tolstoy brings out the full humanity in each of his characters. Nobody is all good or all bad in War and Peace. Even Napoleon, whom the writer positively dislikes, is, at least, interesting. There are even a few moments when Tolstoy allows us to glimpse into his soul and feel his pain, as when Napoleon surveys the corpse-strewn battlefield of Borodino, only to realize the full extent of his cruelty, as well as his impotence.
As a writer, then, Tolstoy follows his own injunction to “relate, portray, but do not judge.” I think that’s good advice for relating to people in life, as well. Tolstoy always gives us a wider context for understanding why people are the way they are. He’s respectful of all his characters, and I’ve tried to do the same in my writing about them.
Q: You discovered War and Peace at a relatively young age and have carried it with you since. Do you think that there’s a peak time to be introduced to Great Literature? Are the novels you read from age eighteen to twenty-two destined to be the ones that remain with you?
A: I don’t think there’s any right age to introduce people to great books. I was introduced to War and Peace in college, but Russians read the novel in the tenth grade, where it’s part of the regular curriculum. Other readers tackle the novel for the first time later in life. What makes a great book great, in my view, is its capacity to meet and engage a reader, regardless of where they happen to be in life.
In general, I’ve found the college students I teach very receptive to the ideas and struggles captured by great books. College is a transitional time in which young people often face decisions that challenge their values and find themselves searching for their purpose in life. Literature can help them grapple with those issues in a way that is fundamentally different from the discussions they might have at home, with their friends, or in their places of worship. Reading and discussing great books provides us all with an education in life that is both intellectually and spiritually demanding.
Q: You make a good case for the universality of Tolstoy’s work while also highlighting its ground in a particular place and time. What do you see as being distinctively Russian about Tolstoy’s work?
A: I’m always careful when answering a question like this, because discussions about “Russianness” can sometimes devolve into unhelpful generalization, or worse, nationalism, which Tolstoy vehemently opposed. Still, there is a very good reason that Russian soldiers during World War II found inspiration in War and Peace, and that Russians today still consider the novel their nation’s greatest epic. The fact is, War and Peace is a deeply patriotic work. It memorializes a key historical moment—the defeat of Napoleon in 1812—during which Russia established itself on the international stage. Where the rest of the world had failed to defeat Napoleonic France, Russians succeeded. And they did it in their own odd, unique, Russian sort of way.
It’s a message that would have resonated with Tolstoy’s readers in the 1860s. And it still resonates today. Throughout history most Russians have been conscious of their political and economic backwardness in comparison to Europe. But War and Peace transforms that “backwardness” into a virtue. The reason Kutuzov defeats Napoleon is precisely because he doesn’t think like a French or German military strategist. Rather, he embraces change, welcomes uncertainty, and heeds his instinct. Pierre Bezukhov is happy and alive at the end of the novel precisely because he doesn’t play the game like all the socialites, who, it’s worth noting, wind up in the dustbin of historical irrelevancy by the end.
War and Peace achieves its distinctive place in the history of the novel precisely because it isn’t like any other novel. In response to early reviewers who criticized Tolstoy for breaking the rules of good (read: European) novel-writing in War and Peace, the author wrote: “From Gogol’s Dead Souls to Dostoevsky’s Dead House, there is not a single work of artistic prose in the modern period of Russian literature, rising slightly above mediocrity, that would fit perfectly into the form of the novel, the epic, or the story.” A uniquely Russian work, in other words, is one that doesn’t fit into any existing genre, and doesn’t kowtow to the literary models established by other countries. It is sui generis, or of its own kind, like Russia itself. In this respect, War and Peace may be the most Russian of all the great Russian novels.
Q: Do you see Tolstoy’s influence in contemporary literature? How did War and Peace change the literary landscape?
A: War and Peace revolutionized the European novel as people knew it—so much so that the first critics were scratching their heads, wondering what this behemoth of a book was all about. It certainly was a very different book from anything they’d encountered before, with its formal oddities, mixture of different genres, and eschewal of literariness for its own sake. In short, War and Peace was a game-changer in the history of novel writing. Yet what was avant-garde in the 1860s had by the twentieth century become part of the literary establishment to such a degree that writers, whether they knew it or not, were already playing the game Tolstoy had invented a half century earlier.
Every Russian war novel after War and Peace—from Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry (1926) to Mikhail Sholokhov’s And Quiet Flows the Don (1959) to Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago (1959) to Vassily Grossman’s Life and Fate (1960)—would inevitably be compared to War and Peace. Outside Russia, Tolstoy’s influence could be felt on twentieth-century modernists ranging from James Joyce and Marcel Proust to Willam Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway.
More recently, the late Alexander Solzhenitsyn could be considered Tolstoy’s most direct literary descendent, because of the latter’s unadorned style of language, as well as his belief that art should serve a moral purpose. Though War and Peace is not a preachy work of the sort Tolstoy wrote later in his career, it is nevertheless deeply concerned with moral questions. And that’s an aspect of Tolstoy’s s legacy Solzhenitsyn inherited and brought into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
Yet Solzhenitsyn was essentially ignored in his homeland in the years leading up to his death in 2008. This is an indication of how out of step his literary world view (and by extension, Tolstoy’s) seems with the ironic, postmodernist mode that’s come to dominate contemporary life and literature in Russia. But as I’ve tried to show, Tolstoy is maybe the most important Russian writer for our times, in that he shows us not only who we are in all our modern confusion, but also who we can become. He invites us to widen our gaze beyond the neuroses and obsessions of the moment in order to see the bigger picture, to glimpse eternity. Other than Solzhenitsyn, I’m unaware of any contemporary writer who has openly picked up this Tolstoyan mantle in any conscious sort of way.
And yet . . . Tolstoy is always there. No Russian writer today could sit down and write two pages of a novel without War and Peace looming somewhere over his shoulder—as an inspiration or a provocation. For War and Peace remains to this day the standard-bearer of the Great Russian Novel. And I’m pretty confident that will be the case for many, many years to come.
Q: If you had to condense it down to one lesson—what’s the most important thing you’ve learned from Tolstoy?
A: To “love life in all its countless, inexhaustible manifestions.”
Q: What can fans of Give War and Peace a Chance look forward to next? Are you working on another book project?
A: I am. Five years ago I created a program at the University of Virginia called Books Behind Bars: Life, Literature, and Leadership. Undergraduate UVA students meet regularly with similarly aged incarcerated youth to discuss classics of Russian literature. Recently, as an extension to this program, I spent a summer reading and discussing Crime and Punishment with a small group of these incarcerated youth. It was a life-changing experience for all of us.
These young men, clad in sanctioned khakis and polo shirts, their pens carefully counted as they were retrieved at the end of each class, devoured Dostoevksy’s book with a passion and urgency I’ve rarely encountered as a teacher. Crime and Punishment became a tool for them to confront their own most important questions: Who were they? Why had they committed their crimes? Were they worthy of being loved? How would they live their lives moving forward? As I explored these and other questions with teenage prisoners among my students, Crime and Punishment became a new book for me, as well, raising urgent personal and social questions I could no longer ignore. There’s something about discussing the world’s greatest novel of crime and redemption in a juvenile correctional center with seemingly irreverent incarcerated teenagers that makes the novel and the characters, well, come alive.
My next book, tentatively called Crime and Punishment Behind Bars: Conversations About Dostoevsky, His Work and His Wisdom, will tell that story. I hope to bring readers on a journey with me and ten incarcerated youth as we meet weekly in a prison classroom to listen, argue, laugh, and sometimes even cry our way through heated discussions of Crime and Punishment.
Moving back and forth between the bizarre and the beautiful, the gritty and the godly, these discussions reintroduce readers to a Russian classic, while bringing them into the discordantly antiseptic world of the correctional center—a world that, for all its strangeness, becomes, in the course of the conversations, strangely familiar. Readers will discover, as I myself have, how conversations about Russian literature become confrontations with real life.