18 Novel Facts About War and Peace

GETTY IMAGES (TOLSTOY) // AMAZON (BOOK COVER)
GETTY IMAGES (TOLSTOY) // AMAZON (BOOK COVER)

Leo Tolstoy's epic novel—featuring hundreds of characters, numerous plot threads, and a battle sequence that lasts more than 20 chapters—is the literary equivalent of a marathon. Here are a few facts about the author (who was born 190 years ago today), his struggles to bring War and Peace to life, and the lasting impact the work has had in Russia and beyond.

1. ITS ORIGINAL TITLE WAS THE YEAR 1805.

The first installment of Tolstoy’s work—"The Year 1805"—appeared in the journal Russian Messenger in February 1865. Serializing a work of fiction was common for writers at the time, and a way for Tolstoy to support himself as he continued working on the novel. The stark title indicated the year in which his story—and the rumblings of revolution—begins, and it’s one Tolstoy always saw as a placeholder. Other provisional titles followed as he continued working on the story, including, for a short time, “All’s Well That Ends Well.”

2. TOLSTOY WAS INSPIRED BY THE DECEMBRISTS’S REVOLT OF 1825.

The Russian count’s original plan for War and Peace was nothing like the end product. Tolstoy envisioned a trilogy that centered on the attempted overthrow of Tsar Nicolas I by a group of military officers who became known as The Decembrists.

The first book would examine the officers’ lives and ideological development during the Napoleonic Wars. The second book would focus on their failed uprising, with a third book following the officers during their exile and eventual return from Siberia. Tolstoy saw the uprising as a seminal moment in Russian history—a turning point in the nation’s history when Western ideals clashed with traditionally Russian ideals. As Tolstoy began writing, he was so taken with the time period surrounding the Napoleonic Wars that he decided to make it his sole focus.

3. HIS WIFE WAS INVALUABLE TO HIS WRITING PROCESS.

Tolstoy would often insist that his wife Sofya sit with him while he wrote. She also served as her husband’s first reader, cleaning up his copy and noting changes she thought he should make. At Sofya’s insistence, Tolstoy axed a particularly racy scene from Pierre Bezukhov’s wedding night. Sofya would also copy her husband’s drafts into a more legible form for his publishers. As Rosamund Bartlett writes in Tolstoy: A Russian Life, her deciphering of Tolstoy’s “execrable handwriting, and then preparing a legible final draft of the manuscript was a gargantuan task.”

4. SOFYA WAS ALSO SHREWD ABOUT THE BUSINESS SIDE.

Tolstoy was pleased to see “The Year 1805” in serial form. The story was a hit with readers, and the publishers of Russian Messenger paid him well. But Sofya Tolstoy urged her husband to publish the work in book form, arguing that he could earn more money and reach a wider audience. They led to the 1867 novel War and Peace, which was only half the final novel. The book’s success inspired him to speed up his writing, which had begun to lag, and the complete novel was published in 1869.

5. TOLSTOY BASED MANY OF HIS CHARACTERS ON FAMILY MEMBERS.

While visiting family in Moscow in 1864, Tolstoy read his relatives sections of his work in progress. The family was surprised to hear numerous similarities between themselves and the characters. In a novel with as many characters as War and Peace (559 in all), this was, perhaps, inevitable.

It also added shades of authenticity, since some of Tolstoy’s family members, including his distant cousin Prince Sergey Volkonsky, had actually fought in the Napoleonic Wars. (As the name similarity might indicate, Tolstoy’s descendants inspired numerous members of the fictional Bolkonsky relatives). According to Bartlett, though, this was a common practice for Tolstoy. “Throughout his writing career, Tolstoy pillaged his family history for creative material,” she writes.

6. FRIENDS AND FAMILY HELPED WITH HIS RESEARCH.

A historical novel as long and involved as War and Peace required exhaustive research. Tolstoy read as many books about the Napoleonic Wars as he could. He also conducted interviews with veterans and visited battlefields like Borodino. But being one man, he didn’t have time to research everything himself. So he called on his father in law, Andrey Bers, who clipped old newspaper articles for Tolstoy and reminisced about his childhood in the early 1800s. Tolstoy also turned to historian friends for help, carrying on lengthy correspondences and even bringing some of them to his estate of Yasnaya Polyana. The most important asset in Tolstoy’s research may have been Moscow’s first public libraries, which opened in the 1860s as part of the cultural awakening that swept through the city.

7. IT TOOK HIM A YEAR TO WRITE THE OPENING SCENE.

War and Peace opens at a high-society soiree that introduces the reader to many of the novel’s principal characters. It’s an elegant beginning that took Tolstoy 15 drafts and nearly one year’s time before he was satisfied. A perfectionist, Tolstoy insisted on getting the introduction right before moving on. Thankfully for him, the rest of the novel came out at a faster pace.

8. TOLSTOY WAS CONSTANTLY REVISING.

Scholars note that Tolstoy’s progress on War and Peace frequently stalled as the author reworked portions of the book again and again. The constant churn could be frustrating to the author, who would often clear his head with hunting excursions on his estate at Yasnaya Polyana. Even after the six volumes of War and Peace were completed, Tolstoy went back and revised. He cut out pages and pages of commentary, eventually whittling the work down to four volumes.

9. HE FOUGHT FOR A BIG PAY DAY—AND GOT IT.

When he had previously published in Russian Messenger, Tolstoy received 50 rubles for each printer’s sheet. For Tolstoy’s war epic, publisher Mikhail Katkov wanted to continue paying the author at this rate. But according to Bartlett, Tolstoy knew he was worth more than that, and demanded 300 rubles per sheet. After hours of tense negotiations, Katkov agreed to the rate, and Tolstoy received 3000 rubles for the ten sheets that made up the first installment of “1805.” Consider that the average monthly wage for a Russian worker was 10 rubles, and you get some idea of just how much money Tolstoy was bringing in.

10. IT APPEARED IN RUSSIAN MESSENGER AT THE SAME TIME AS ANOTHER RUSSIAN MASTERPIECE.

In 1866, as the last installments of Tolstoy’s “1805” were being published; another story appeared in Russian Messenger that generated considerable buzz: Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Appearing in monthly installments, the story—alongside “1805”—made Russian Messenger one of the most significant literary journals in history. The significance may have been lost on Katkov who, in addition to paying through the nose to Tolstoy, struggled to get Dostoevsky’s monthly submissions in on time.

11. CRITICS WERE BEWILDERED.

“What genre are we supposed to file it into?” a reviewer in the journal Golos asked. “Where is fiction in it, and where is history?” The question reflected a common sentiment amongst critics upon reading a novel that told of real events, re-created real battles, and included real people like Napoleon Bonaparte and Tsar Alexander I. Was War and Peace fiction, or was it non-fiction? The truth, of course, is that it was both.

In dramatizing history with such scope and detail, Tolstoy had taken a massive leap towards the modern historical novel. History, Tolstoy believed, is the chronicle of individual lives, and fiction is the best way to reveal those lives. Many readers were on board, and War and Peace became a smash success. “It is the epic, the history novel and the vast picture of the whole nation’s life,” novelist Ivan Turgenev wrote.

12. IT PRESENTED A REVOLUTION IN NARRATIVE PERSPECTIVE.

Tolstoy wasn’t the first author to utilize internal monologue (or the internal thoughts of characters), but many scholars credit him with revolutionizing its use. According to Kathryn Feuer, a Tolstoy scholar who had access to the author’s early drafts, the author mastered the art of presenting a character’s internal response to external objects and events.

She also noted, as others have, Tolstoy’s seamless use of multiple perspectives, from sweeping battle scenes that situate the reader high above the mayhem, to the intimate goings-on within the minds of Pierre Bezukhov, Natasha Rostova, and other characters.

13. TOLSTOY WROTE A DEFENSE OF THE BOOK.

Despite an overwhelmingly positive response to War and Peace from readers and critics, Tolstoy wanted to address those who criticized the work's genre ambiguity. In the journal Russian Archive, Tolstoy wrote an essay titled “A Few Words About the Novel War and Peace’” (which, being Tolstoy, was much more than a few words).

He made clear his apathy toward European literary forms, famously claiming that War and Peace was not, in fact, a novel: “What is War and Peace? It is not a novel, still less a [narrative] poem, and even less an historical chronicle. War and Peace is what the author wanted to and could express in the form in which it was expressed.”

14. IT TOOK A TOLL ON HIS HEALTH.

The six years Tolstoy toiled away on War and Peace taxed both his mind and body. Toward the end of the writing process, he developed migraines, which he often tried to work through but which would sometimes stop him in his tracks. After finishing the work, he came down with a severe case of the flu that left him feeling drained for weeks. The author took a prolonged hiatus from writing, focusing instead on learning Greek and building a schoolhouse for the children who lived at Yasnaya Polyana.

15. MILITARY MINDS PRAISED THE BATTLE SCENES.

Tolstoy was no stranger to war. He served as an artillery officer during the Crimean War, where he witnessed the bloody orchestra of battle at places like Sevastopol. Tolstoy channeled his experiences into the battle sequences of War and Peace. The Battle of Borodino, in particular, which comprises more than 20 chapters of the book, is widely praised as the finest battle sequence ever written. Russian military commanders offered glowing praise for the novel’s descriptive powers of battle and one former general even wrote that it should be required reading for all Russian Army officers.

16. TOLSTOY WASN’T MUCH OF A WAR AND PEACE FAN.

Maybe it was all the time he spent with the story and all of its characters, or maybe the development of his sensibilities as an artist, but Tolstoy became disenchanted with his seminal work shortly after finishing it. He wrote to a friend that he hoped to never again write something as bloated as War and Peace. In his diary, he wrote, “People love me for the trifles—War and Peace and so on—that they think are so important.”

17. THE SOVIET FILM ADAPTATION OF THE WORK WAS APPROPRIATELY EPIC.

When American audiences think of grand, costly films, the likes of Gone with the Wind (1939), Cleopatra (1963), and Titanic (1997) typically come to mind. But Sergei Bondarchuk’s 1966 adaptation of War and Peace has them all beat. Filmed over six years—the same time it took Tolstoy to write the novel—and lasting six hours, the film supposedly had all the resources of the Soviet Union at its disposal. This included more than 120,000 extras, many of them Red Army soldiers, used to film the movie’s staggering battle sequences, and a budget that ballooned to more than $100 million.

But talking to National Geographic in 1986, Bondarchuk said that these numbers largely weren’t real: it was actually eight hours (“some tradesman in America cut it without my knowledge”) and the 120,000 extras was an exaggeration and “all I had was 12,000.”

The movie, shown to audiences in two parts, was intended to bolster patriotism and to showcase the strength of the Soviet film industry. That it also balances action with strong performances and odd, intimate moments, like a soldier demanding a commendation in the middle of a battle, is a testament to Bondarchuk’s artistry. “You are never, ever going to see anything equal to it,” wrote Roger Ebert.

18. RUSSIA RECENTLY HELD A 60-HOUR LONG LIVE READING.

In 2015, Russian state television aired a unique live reading of War and Peace. Over the course of 60 hours, more than 1000 Russians from all over the world read the book in three-minute increments. One by one, readers from Washington, Paris, Beijing, Nepal and numerous other locations took their turn. Cosmonaut Sergei Volkov, situated aboard the International Space Station, even read an excerpt. The event was organized by Leo Tolstoy’s great-great granddaughter, and included family members reading from Yasnaya Polyana, Tolstoy’s estate.

The Books You Should Pack For 4 Types of Flights

iStock/ baona
iStock/ baona

Choosing the right book for traveling is never easy: If it's one you haven't started yet, there's the fear that it won't be good and you'll get stuck. But bring a book you have begun, and the consequences could be worse: You might finish it mid-flight with nothing more to read. To solve the book/flight conundrum, here’s a list of recommendations by trip type.

1. SHORT COMMUTER FLIGHTS

DEAR EVAN HANSEN BY STEVEN LEVENSON AND BENJ PASEK

For short flights, consider reading a play: The majority are written to last around two hours, after all. And if you’re flying into or out of New York, make it Broadway. Thematically, Steven Levenson’s original work that eventually transformed into Tony-winning musical Dear Evan Hansen is like a modern-day version of the play Our Town. Like the Thornton Wilder classic—which we also recommend—Dear Evan Hansen uses youth and relationships to show how we all crave connection in an increasingly isolated world. If a play’s not your thing, author Val Emmich’s novelization of the same name is also available.

2. CROSS-COUNTRY TRIPS

THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD BY CHARLES DICKENS

On longer flights, delve into a mid-length classic. Like the rest of his novels, Charles Dickens’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood deals with the problems of poverty, focusing on inheritances that may or may not arrive. What makes Drood unique and the perfect length for flights? Dickens died before he finished writing it, so it’s not very long (at least compared his other works). Consider an edition with supplemental commentary (like Modern Library Classics) in case you get delayed.

ON THE ROAD BY JACK KEROUAC

For those who like their tomes more complete, there’s Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, an autobiographical novel about freedom, travel, and youth. Bonus points if you’re flying to San Francisco, where he and other Beat writers made their name.

3. LONG-HAUL INTERNATIONAL FLIGHTS

SHE WOULD BE KING BY WAYETU MOORE

Wayetu Moore’s She Would Be King uses the power of story to show the injustice African women face across time and place. From a plot perspective, the novel describes how the country of Liberia began. But on a deeper level, Moore crafts a world where women undeniably are not victims: They are a driving, creation force.

BECOMING MRS LEWIS BY PATTI CALLAHAN

Patti Callahan’s Becoming Mrs Lewis describes how theologian CS Lewis met his wife. But this isn’t the shallow love story its name might suggest: Literary in nature, Becoming Mrs Lewis takes time to digest, making it perfect for longer trips. Well-structured and impeccably researched, characterization drives this story to completion with a narrative so intimate, you’ll forget you’re on a plane.

ONCE UPON A RIVER BY DIANE SETTERFIELD

Set to publish December 4—just in time for holiday vacation—Diane Setterfield’s Once Upon a River explores the lives of multiple characters after one man finds a girl who appears to be dead in the Thames. With the richness of her language, the author creates a mystery where all the characters' stories intersect. They all claim the child is theirs—not for her sake, but for their own. In this story, every word matters, and you'll enjoy wading through all the stories to find the truth about the little girl and where she really came from.

4. TRIPS WITH A LAYOVER:

THE O. HENRY PRIZE STORIES 2018 OR PEN AMERICA BEST DEBUT SHORT STORIES 2018

Short stories are ideal for commuter flights, as you can finish one then gauge how much time's left before starting another. They’re also great for layovers for the same reason: Interruptions don’t mean pulling yourself out of the story; they come naturally as you move from one tale (or plane) to another. And if you don’t like one, you can always skip it and move on. That’s why we recommend anthologies over single-author collections.

Knopf Doubleday’s The O. Henry Prize Stories 2018, a 20-story anthology, or Catapult’s PEN America Best Debut Short Stories 2018, a collection of 12. Both include the best short fiction published by literary magazines over the last year. Together, they serve as a greatest hits list for contemporary fiction, a way to quickly get up to speed on what’s being published without slogging through journal after journal.

THE OTHER WOMAN BY SANDIE JONES

Want to stick to novels instead? Pick up Sandie Jones’s The Other Woman, a psychological thriller where the “other woman” the main character’s soon-to-be mother-in-law. It’s fairly light reading, which means you won’t lose track when you have to change planes. The deeper you get into the story, the more compelling it becomes, so you’ll definitely want power through to the ending before you land.

Rupert Grint Reveals He Almost Left Harry Potter After Goblet of Fire

Frederick M. Brown, Getty Images
Frederick M. Brown, Getty Images

The Harry Potter franchise, from books to films to spin-off films, has become so ingrained in popular culture that it has more or less become the defining serialized media to represent Generation Y. The movies, a vital aspect of the franchise's structure, became a crucial platform for veteran British thespians to introduce themselves to young audiences.

It also shoved a generation of young actors to the forefront of Hollywood culture, probably sooner than they were ready—and almost certainly more abruptly than they were prepared for. In a recent interview, ​Rupert Grint, who starred as the oafish but loyal Ron Weasley from the time he was
11, revealed that he considered leaving the series after the fourth movie due to the stress it was causing him.

"It’s a big sacrifice," Grint told ​Independent. "You take for granted anonymity, just doing normal stuff, just going out. Everything was different and a little bit scary. There were times when I was like, 'I’m done.'"

During the period in question, Grint had just finished taking the GCSEs, a standardized test in Britain, and was considering moving on from acting. "I thought, ‘Do I actually ​want to keep doing this? It’s a bit of a drag,'" he admitted.

Thankfully, ​Grint persevered through to the end of the series, though he faced the same dilemma once he was finished with the films.

"When I started, [acting] was never something that I aspired to do," he explained. "I did acting with school plays and stuff like that. But it was never something that I actively dreamed of. I mean, I fell in love with it while I was doing it."

Grint has taken something of a leisurely pace since the series wrapped back in 2011, signing up for mostly smaller roles in a smattering of films. However, he has recently ​been making an impact as a television actor, and has drawn praise for his roles on Sick Note and Snatch.

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