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  • Writer's pictureIshfaaq Peerally

The greatest novel of all time?

"I started out very quiet and I beat Mr. Turgenev. Then I trained hard and I beat Mr. de Maupassant. I’ve fought two draws with Mr. Stendhal, and I think I had an edge in the last one. But nobody’s going to get me in any ring with Mr. Tolstoy unless I’m crazy or I keep getting better."

- Ernest Hemingway in The New Yorker (13 May 1950)

War and Peace

You will see many lists on the internet about the greatest novels of all times and you'll definitely see War and Peace(Война и мир) standing on the pedestal. It is not the first work of Leo Tolstoy that I'm reading and it is certainly not the last but there is something that I have noticed in all of Tolstoy's work, a message. No, a revelation.

The first time I heard about the Russian writer was in 2011 when I was reading the autobiography of Mahatma Gandhi, The Story of My Experiments with Truth. Somewhere, Gandhi wrote about the books that influenced him when he was a law student in London and he did mentioned Tolstoy. And when he went to South Africa, he set up a colony called the Tolstoy farm. Gandhi is himself such an emblematic figure in world history and Tolstoy was his inspiration. Since then, I wanted to read Tolstoy, his life and his work. But I didn't really got the opportunity to do so until 2014 (I must admit that I wanted to learn Russian well first then read Tolstoy).

The first book by Leo Tolstoy that I read was The Kingdom of God is within you(Царство Божие внутри вас) in 2014 in English. I was going through a faith crisis at the time, I really needed to find my place in the universe with or without religion, with or without a god. This book greatly helped me. The book was about Christian Anarchism and was initially banned in the Russian Empire. Tolstoy advocates non-violence as a way to change the world. He did not believe in governments or organised religions. For him Jesus' Sermon on the Mount was the key to leading a good life irrespective of your nationality or religion. Then I read A letter to a Hindu(Письмо индусу). This letter was published in Gandhi's South African newspaper. If you're lost in this post and don't understand where it is going(it was supposed to be a review of War and Peace) don't worry, it will all make sense soon. There is one sentence that changed the way I see the world in this letter.

"A commercial company enslaved a nation comprising two hundred millions. Tell this to a man free from superstition and he will fail to grasp what these words mean."

The quote is about how The British Empire colonised India. Or how the Indians enslaved themselves. I read another of Tolstoy's masterpiece last year, Anna Karenina(Анна Каренина). The main topic of the book is about unhappy marriages(The book needs its own review post). Anna Karenina is one of my favourite novels but I think that I prefer War and Peace(I might be biased by the fact that I recently read it).

Painting at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow

So why did I like War and Peace for it to deserve a review? First of all, the context. The story in takes place from 1805 to 1812(excluding the epilogue) mainly in Russia. After the French revolution and the rise to power of Napoléon, the whole of Europe was at war(some historians would even call it a world war). Many of the French aristocrats moved to Russia to escape the tyranny which followed the revolution. In 1805, France and Russia were at war(in Prussia) and Russia(as was the whole of Europe) was divided about whether or not to side with Napoléon. Was Napoléon evil or just a visionary leader? War and Peace tries to answer this question by going into the thoughts of the French emperor. Not only Napoléon but also the Russian Tsar Alexander I and other players of the war were examined. In 1807, France and Russia became allies again and Napoléon became a much loved figure in Russia until 1812 when, with his Grande Armée, he invaded Russia. Tolstoy took the liberty to change historical fiction forever. He was able to merge real historical characters with the ones that he created. Of course there was never a Pierre Bezukhov(one of the main characters of the novel) in reality but he could as well be real. History would not have been different.

War and Peace studies the tragedy of war and its absurdity. Tolstoy argues that history itself is absurd. Some will say that Napoléon was a genius, others would claim that he was the Antichrist but for Tolstoy he was just a man, like you and me. A man, subjugated by factors beyond his control like any other man. The fate of the world was not in that man's hands but rather the fate of that man was in the hands of the world. Indeed, without Napoléon history would have been different but isn't it history who created Napoléon? If there never was a French Revolution, would there be a Napoléon? Question difficult to answer. That's what Tolstoy concluded. One cannot look at history as just the action of a few great men but rather as the collective action of the masses. The same goes for the world domination of the British Empire or any other empires. You think that you're small and insignificant? Tolstoy tells you that indeed you are. Most of the things that you do are beyond your control(it looks like we don't have free will). But Napoléon The Great was small and insignificant too. And if he did make history so can you.

Painting located at the museum of the patriotic war of 1812, inMoscow

The book is not only about the philosophy of history. It is also a book about love. It explores different kinds of love and marriages. How and why some fail? What to and not to expect from love? To fall in love and to fall out of love is human. There is nothing to be ashamed of if you have fallen in love with the wrong person. We are all going to fall in love with the wrong person. We will all marry(if we choose to) the wrong person. Another subject which Tolstoy studies is religion. Since, Tolstoy was a believer he puts the emphasis that there is a Supreme Being. He also looks into Freemasonry. I'm not going to debate about the existence of god here but what Tolstoy wants us to realise is that the main purpose of religion or freemasonry is to do good.

War and Peace is in four volumes, half a million word(mostly in Russian and French with some German) and I'll not be able to give a proper review in about a thousand words. I don't have a favourite novel or a list of favourites but there are novels that I would like to reread after a few years and War and Peace is one of them. It is long but not hard to read. If you want to know what it is to live in Russia during the Napoleonic wars. What it is to be a freemason. Or how to choose the ideal life partner. Then I would definitely recommend this book.

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