At 1,500 pages, with a cast of nearly 600 characters, the book Henry James called a “loose baggy monster” looms as an intimidating project. But Kaufman (Literature/Univ. of Virginia; Understanding Tolstoy, 2011, etc.) thinks reading it is worth the effort: “Times are tough, anxiety and fear are pervasive, and people are searching for answers to questions big and small.”
If this seems an apt description of our own times, it also describes Russia between 1805 and 1812, the setting for Tolstoy’s epic, as well as the 1860s, when he wrote the book, revealing his continual quest for personal and philosophical enlightenment. Kaufman looks to the novel for guidance, “not so much a set of answers to life’s every challenge as an attitude toward living.” To that end, he focuses on a dozen themes: plans, imagination, rupture, success, idealism, happiness, love, family, courage, death, perseverance and truth. In each chapter, Kaufman analyzes how the novel speaks to those themes, offers insights into Tolstoy’s life “of extremes and contradictions,” provides relevant Russian history, and shares personal anecdotes about his own “tumultuous, spiritual journey.” Besides War and Peace, Kaufman refers to some of Tolstoy’s shorter fiction, which he teaches in a course titled Books Behind Bars: Life, Literature, and Leadership. All of Tolstoy’s works, Kaufman contends, deal with big questions: “Who am I? Why am I here? How should I live?” His students, young men incarcerated in a juvenile correctional center, find the readings startlingly relevant—not surprising since Kaufman makes Tolstoy’s characters lively and palpable: free-spirited, tender Natasha; “wide-eyed” Pierre; “coddled young” Nikolai; “the handsome, maleficent rake” Dolohkov. Readers will even find a guide to pronunciation of their names in a helpful appendix.
Kaufman’s enticing invitation may well persuade readers to finally dive into one of the world’s most acclaimed—and daunting—novels.