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.

A Book Fair for Grown-Ups Is Coming to New York

seb_ra/iStock via Getty Images
seb_ra/iStock via Getty Images

Amid all the prepubescent drama and uncertainty of elementary school was one glimmering spot of hope and happiness: the Scholastic Book Fair. Getting to take just a few minutes out of your regular school day to wander the temporary bookshelves seemed about as enchanting as walking through the wardrobe into Narnia.

For folks who’ve been chasing that particular brand of ecstasy well into their adult lives, we have some big news. Next month, Penguin Random House is hosting a book fair for grown-ups. The Pop Insider reports that the event will take place at Lightbox in New York on Saturday, November 23, and you must be at least 21 years old to attend.

It’s not intended to be an exact replica of the book fair from your own school days, but rather a full-fledged recreation of your entire grade-school experience. The electronic invitation promises pop culture trivia, Mad Libs, an “awkward school photo booth,” spin art, snap bracelets, Mr. Sketch markers, cubbies, and “severe middle school flashbacks.”

There will also, of course, be books for sale, though it’s not clear if the inventory will include throwback series like Junie B. Jones and The Magic Treehouse, or just books for adults.

In addition to tsunami-sized waves of nostalgia, the event will feature appearances from some of Penguin Random House’s beloved authors. The list hasn’t been revealed in full, but Viking Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House, tweeted that its author John Hodgman will be there to promote his new book, Medallion Status.

Tickets are $25 for a one-hour time slot, or you can pay $50 to stay for the whole five hours. And your afternoon of embracing your inner kid will benefit actual kids—Penguin Random House will donate a portion of ticket sales to Read Ahead, a non-profit that uses reading to help students learn life-long social and emotional skills.

While the Scholastic Book Fair is still going strong in schools today, the same can’t be said for card catalogs, dodgeball, or these other things.

[h/t The Pop Insider]

12 Quirky Books for Imaginative Kids

Simon & Schuster
Simon & Schuster

Though childhood classics like A.A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh and Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are never truly go out of style, each year brings a new cache of funny and fantastical books that will feed the expanding imaginations of young readers everywhere. From a self-conscious sewer monster who wants to make friends to a gluttonous dinosaur who gobbled up Christmas, this guide has the perfect quirky story for every kind of kid on your holiday gift list.

1. Rumple Buttercup // Matthew Gray Gubler ($9)

This whimsical tale about a self-conscious sewer monster is written and illustrated by Criminal Minds star, and king of quirk, Matthew Gray Gubler. While cute characters and a simple message about embracing your individuality make it a great gift for very young kids, its absurdist humor makes it a laugh-out-loud read for older kids and adults, too.

Buy it: Amazon

2. President Taft Is Stuck in the Bath // Mac Barnett ($8)

president taft is stuck in the bath
Candlewick/Amazon

Mac Barnett’s good-natured retelling of William Howard Taft’s infamous (though unconfirmed) bathtub blunder teaches children two things. One, history is far from a tedious list of names, dates, laws, and battles. And two, even the most stately world leaders have embarrassing moments.

Buy it: Amazon

3. It’s Only Stanley // Jon Agee ($15)

it's only stanley book
Dial Books/Amazon

When strange noises wake the Wimbledon family at night, they assume their dog Stanley is cleaning or fixing something; in reality, Stanley is transforming their house into a rocket ship that will carry them to an alien-inhabited planet. Fans of The Secret Life of Pets and Phineas and Ferb’s Perry the Platypus will love this rhyming read-aloud (and surely wonder what their own pet is up to when they’re not around).

Buy it: Amazon

4. Frankie Sparks and the Big Sled Challenge // Megan Frazer Blakemore ($6)

frankie sparks and the big sled challenge
Aladdin/Amazon

Third-grade inventor Frankie Sparks is back for the third book in her STEM-inspired series, and this time, she’s about to learn that the hardest part about creating a competition-winning sled is less about sled-building and more about team-building. Great for elementary school kids who love to create anything—be it art or architecture—as well as anyone who’s ever had to work on a group project.

Buy it: Amazon

5. The Pigeon HAS to Go to School! // Mo Willems ($10)

the pigeon has to go to school
Hyperion Books/Amazon

Mo Willems’s original pigeon book was Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!, a thoroughly riotous, award-winning tale about a pigeon trying to convince readers to let it drive the bus when the bus driver asked them not to. In the latest story, the headstrong pigeon pivots to something it very much does not want to do—go to school. It sends a message about the value of doing things you don’t want to do, but, most importantly, it’s also really funny.

Buy it: Amazon

6. The Glass Town Game // Catherynne M. Valente ($11)

the glass town game
Simon & Schuster/Amazon

Catherynne M. Valente spins a riveting fictional tale from the true story of Charlotte, Emily, Anne, and Branwell Brontë’s childhood in a Yorkshire parsonage, where they passed the time dreaming up an intricate fantasy land populated with toy soldiers. In Valente’s novel, the fantasy land comes to life, complete with whale-sized flies, Champagne flutes that play music, and fire-breathing porcelain roosters, and the siblings must use all their wit and imagination to figure out how to get home. It’s a little like Alice in Wonderland meets The Chronicles of Narnia, and perfect for fans of both.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Lambslide // Ann Patchett ($13)

lambslide
HarperCollins/Amazon

The internationally bestselling author of Bel Canto and Commonwealth is just as clever when it comes to writing for kids. In Lambslide, a group of lambs mistakenly hear lambslide instead of landslide and begin a farm-wide campaign for an actual slide for lambs. With quaint illustrations, endearing characters, and an engaging plot, this is the type of book that ends up in the family for generations.

Buy it: Amazon

8. The Book With No Pictures // B.J. Novak ($9)

The Office alum B.J. Novak turns storytime into a full-fledged comedic performance with The Book With No Pictures, a book filled with nonsense words and phrases like blork and blaggity blaggity, which the reader has to read aloud. For parents, it’s a blueprint for embracing their silly side. For kids, it’s a chance to see their parents not seem so parental.

Buy it: Amazon

9. Spencer’s New Pet // Jessie Sima ($14)

spencer's new pet
Simon & Schuster/Amazon

The author of Not Quite Narwhal returns with another adorable story, this time about a boy who must avoid sharp objects in order to protect his balloon-animal pet dog. The mostly black-and-white illustrations (except for the dog, which is red) give Spencer’s New Pet a refreshingly old-fashioned feel, and the tale itself is sweet, evenly paced, and timeless.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Serafina and the Black Cloak // Robert Beatty ($8)

serafina and the black cloak
Disney-Hyperion/Amazon

When children begin disappearing from the Biltmore Estate, Serafina, who secretly lives in the basement, knows the culprit is a mysterious man in a black cloak who prowls the corridors at night. This novel has everything a quality middle-grade fantasy needs, including secret passageways, a forbidden forest, unknown magic, and a scrappy heroine. And the chills and thrills don’t stop at the end—it’s the first in a series of four (so far).

Buy it: Amazon

11. The Dinosaur That Pooped Christmas // Tom Fletcher and Dougie Poynter ($18)

the dinosaur that pooped christmas
Aladdin/Amazon

This jolly, strange story about a ravenous pet dinosaur who gobbles up all of Christmas is hilarious enough on its own—and perhaps even more so when you consider that it was written by British punk rockers Tom Fletcher and Dougie Poynter from the band McFly.

Buy it: Amazon

12. This Is a Taco! // Andrew Cangelose ($16)

this is a taco
Lion Forge/Amazon

A high-spirited, unique squirrel named Taco provides color commentary on regular squirrel facts in This Is a Taco!, a book that is much more than a factual guide to squirrels. In it, Taco embellishes, acts out, and sometimes completely changes the facts to be truer to his personal experience as a squirrel, which involves being opinionated and eating lots of tacos.

Buy it: Amazon

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