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How to read "War and Peace" correctly: advice from the writer Dmitry Bykov
How to read "War and Peace" correctly: advice from the writer Dmitry Bykov

Writer and literary critic Dmitry Bykov explains what Tolstoy's novel is really about and how to read it to make it interesting.

How to read "War and Peace" correctly: advice from the writer Dmitry Bykov
How to read "War and Peace" correctly: advice from the writer Dmitry Bykov

Leo Tolstoy's novel War and Peace ranks among most of the world's best books: Newsweek ranked it first, the BBC ranked it 20th, and the Norwegian Book Club included the novel as one of the most significant works of all time.

In Russia, a third of the population considers War and Peace to be a work that forms a “worldview that holds the nation together”. At the same time, the president of the Russian Academy of Education, Lyudmila Verbitskaya, said that 70% of school teachers had not read War and Peace. There are no statistics for the rest of the Russians, but, most likely, it is even more deplorable.

Bykov claims that even teachers do not understand everything that is written in the book, not to mention schoolchildren. “I think that Leo Tolstoy himself did not understand everything, did not realize what a gigantic force was driving his hand,” he added.

Why read War and Peace

According to Bykov, each nation should have its own Iliad and Odyssey. Odyssey is a novel about wanderings. He tells how the country works. In Russia, these are "Dead Souls" by Nikolai Gogol.

War and Peace is the Russian Iliad. It tells how to behave in the country in order to survive.

You need to read Tolstoy's work in order to understand how to win in Russian.

Dmitry Bykov

What is "War and Peace"

As the main theme, Tolstoy takes the most irrational period in Russian history - the Patriotic War of 1812. Bykov notes that Napoleon Bonaparte realized all his tasks: he entered Moscow, did not lose the general battle, but the Russians won.

Russia is a country where success is not the same as victory, where they win irrationally. This is exactly what the novel is about.

Dmitry Bykov

The key episode of the book, according to Bykov, is not the Battle of Borodino, but a duel between Pierre Bezukhov and Fyodor Dolokhov. Dolokhov has all the advantages on his side: society supports him, he is a good shooter. Pierre holds the pistol for the second time in his life, but it is his bullet that hits his opponent. This is an irrational victory. And Kutuzov wins in the same way.

Dolokhov is definitely a negative character, but not everyone understands why. Despite his merits, he is an evil that is conscious of himself, admiring himself, "a narcissistic reptile." So did Napoleon.

Tolstoy shows the mechanism of Russian victory: the winner is the one who gives more, who is more ready for sacrifice, who trusted in fate. To survive, you need:

  • not to be afraid of anything;
  • do not calculate anything;
  • do not admire yourself.

How to read War and Peace

According to Bykov, this irrational novel was written by a rationalist, so it has a rigid structure. Getting to know her makes reading fun.

The action of "War and Peace" takes place in four planes simultaneously. Each plane has a character who fulfills a certain role, is endowed with special qualities and has a corresponding destiny.

war and peace: four plans
war and peace: four plans

* The life of the Russian nobility is a household plan with dramas, relationships, suffering.

** Macrohistorical plan - events of "big history", state level.

*** The people are the key scenes for understanding the novel (according to Bykov).

**** The metaphysical plane is an expression of what is happening through nature: the sky of Austerlitz, the oak.

Moving along the lines of the table, you can see which characters correspond to the same plan. The columns will show stunt doubles at different levels. For example, the Rostovs are the line of a kind, fertile Russian family. Their strength lies in irrationality. They are the soul of the novel.

On the popular plane, they are matched by the same ingenuous captain Tushin, on the metaphysical plane - the element of the earth, solid and fertile. At the state level, there is neither soul nor kindness, therefore there is no correspondence.

The Bolkonskys and everyone who finds themselves in the same column with them is intelligence. Pierre Bezukhov personifies that very irrational and ready for sacrifice winner, and Fyodor Dolokhov is a “narcissistic reptile”: he is the character who has no forgiveness, as he puts himself above the rest, fancies himself a superman.

Armed with Bykov's table, you can not only better understand the idea of the novel, but also make it easier to read, turning it into an exciting game of finding matches.