'War and Peace' is Published

Writing War and Peace in the aftermath of the Crimean War, when Russian national feeling was pronounced, Tolstoy was interested most of all in the inner life of Russian society during the Napoleonic Wars.

He presents the war of 1812 as a crucial watershed in the culture of his class, the aristocracy, a moment when nobles like the Rostovs and Bolkonskys struggle to break free from the foreign and artificial conventions of their society and begin to live more truly to themselves, on Russian principles. War and Peace is a “national epic” in this sense—the gradual revelation of a “Russian consciousness” (a “Russian Truth” as nationalist critics such as Strakhov would have it) in the life of its characters. Tolstoy shows the aristocracy switching from the French language to Russian, renouncing haute cuisine for Spartan lunches of rye bread and cabbage soup, adopting national dress, settling as farmers on the land, and rediscovering their country’s native culture, as in the immortal scene when Natasha, a French-educated young countess, dances to a folk song in the Russian style.

Tolstoy wrote this enormous not-a-novel between 1863 and 1868, and it is thought that one of his early intentions was to write a domestic saga in the English, Trollopian mode. In his diaries for September, 1865, one can find the following: “Read Trollope, good.” A few days later, he is still admiring Trollope, who “overwhelms me with his skill.” But by October 3rd he has “finished Trollope. Too much that is conventional.” That is the key to the restless zeal with which he began to write and rewrite his novel, his impatience with conscripted conventions. Though “all of life” may course through the book—birth, death, marriage, warfare—the writing has none of the serial vividness of Thackeray or Dickens or, indeed, Dostoyevsky. (One thinks of the gathering in Dostoyevsky’s “Demons” into which a man bursts shouting, “The suburbs are on fire!”) The undulations of “dramatic conflict” are levelled. Cliff-hangers become hill-walkers. The beginning seems arbitrary (a trivial salon) and the fatigued closure still tends to disappoint (an epilogue concerning quiet domestic life seven years after the great events of 1812).