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Tuesday, January 21, 2014

"Give War and Peace a Chance" (Andrew D. Kaufman)

TITLE: Give War and Peace a Chance: Tolstoyan Wisdom for Troubled Times
AUTHOR: Andrew D. Kaufman
PUBLISHER: New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 2014, (288 pages).

Love it or hate it? That is what classic novels are all about. It is one thing to hear people calling it a classic. Yet, the true impact of a classic is how it impacts culture over time, across cultural boundaries, and the lessons it still has for us today.  This book is another testimony of the powerful Tolstoyan novel that gives us not simply a story to remember but lots of wisdom to cherish. A recognized scholar of Russian studies, and a Tolstoy expert in Oprah's Book Club, author Andrew Kaufman had written many books on Tolstoy, including the popular "Russian for Dummies." For more than 25 years, the author has had a love-hate relationship with the classic Tolstoy novel, "War and Peace." His motivation for writing this book is essentially personal. He shares about how in getting himself soaked and lost in the book's stories, he found himself lessons for life. That life, like what Tolstoy had said is a battle in itself. At the same time, life is interestingly "balanced," with the author walking this tightrope through reflections on life being "both messy and meaningful, prosaic and poetic, sensuous and ... sensible." The novel is a piece of art that is able to reflect the whole of life, and that is the purpose of this book, about how the author sees the relevance of Tolstoy, and how it still speaks today for us.

For fans of Tolstoy, the mere reading of the title is already highly tempting. Twelve themes fill this volume with "Tolstoyan wisdom," to see life through the lenses of Tolstoy, in particular "War and Peace." Kaufman calls the time in which Tolstoy had lived in the 1800s as a "mirror of our times." How is it then a mirror? In a nutshell, it reflects a world of chaos, war, and turmoil. At the same time, there are reasons why one ought to hang on to hope and peace. Calling the novel a "war story, a family saga, and a love story," Kaufman weaves in matters that affects society at large, our family relationships, as well as our most intimate and personal ones.  Kaufman is not alone. Many in the West have credited and thanked Tolstoy for many relevant lessons that Americans can learn from the Russian experience. Most crucially, our human pattern of learning is often based on seeing another person's "own life of extremes and contradictions."

The twelve themes listed by Kaufman are:
  1. Plans: Tolstoy is a planner by nature, and himself developed rules for his own life. Yet, Tolstoy is acutely aware that plans by do trip over themselves. Not all things beautifully planned out and executed guarantee success. Life is more complicated than that. In 19th Century Russian, planning is the rage and way of life. In Tolstoy, we see that even the best plans have their realistic limits. So while plans may eventually be useless from a result standpoint, the art of planning is still essential for life. 
  2. Imagination: Kaufman notes how Tolstoy brilliantly captures the essence of reality in the characters and plots of the novel. Despite many critics by historians about Tolstoy's historically mistaken interpretations, we learn that imagination is sometimes needed to reflect reality more accurately. Like worrying less about the dead facts and be more appreciative of the living truth. 
  3. Rupture: Life certainly has its share of downfalls. That one reason why people often call the world a fallen world. War and Peace depicts this frequently such as Nikolai's gambling losses and other misfortunes, which in a way mirrors Tolstoy's own plunge into a period of depression. Kaufman is able to reflect on the recent financial crisis in America, which forces serious questions about honour, integrity, greed, honesty, and other moral behaviour. Losing something may be largely negative. Learning from it is certainly positive.  
  4. Success: There is some irony in one's understanding of success. Tolstoy is able to paint the elusiveness of the worldly definition of success. Like Napoleon's apparent success of conquering Moscow but at the expense of losing thousands of his troops, from 420,000 to 10,000 in the end. Tolstoy himself grapples with the meaning of purpose and success, learning that the highlights of one's life is not in the public headlines but in the most private and intimate moments of inspiration.
  5. Idealism: Even though Tolstoy has a measured perception of what success actually means, there is also a keen sense of hope and idealism that one day, all evil eventually will be eradicated. One of the major ills of society is essentially the loss of ideals. He is a believer of failures as a step toward success. What makes Tolstoy's novel so unique is the way optimism is grounded in reality. 
  6. Happiness: The topic of happiness is enough to fill bookshelves. The array of materials surrounding this popular quest is dizzying and somewhat unable to truly quench our thirst. Kaufman sees Tolstoy's rendition as a more accurate rendition of happiness. Recognizing happiness as mostly a form of good-mood catching, which are mostly temporal, why not learn to immerse ourselves completely into life rather than just picking the good and avoiding the bad? For true happiness is about learning to embrace all of life freely, not as a destination point to arrive at, but learning and accepting the experiences as lessons to be learnt through life. Otherwise, we risk trying too hard at an elusive target or look too blindly in the wrong places. It is not so much us finding happiness per se, but to live in such a way to let happiness find us.
  7. Love: Despite Tolstoy's personal setbacks in his own relationships, Kaufman asserts that Tolstoy has more insights due to having personally experienced it. Having tasted what emotional heartaches, he is able to put into his characters authenticity to make the characters and the relationships realistic. There are constant emotional battles about "duty" vs "obligation," "love" vs "pity," as well as love that stretches from family to romance. Remarkably, Tolstoy's characters affirm both love as strength as well as weakness.  Eventually, love exists even in the depths of pain and loss.
  8. Family: There are stark similarities between 19th Century Russia and modern America. Both societies are struggling to find satisfaction and relational resolutions within the home. Tolstoy writes with a hope that broken families are prime candidates for reparation. For home is a place where members will have to take one another in regardless. Thus, Tolstoy affirms the family as the primary social unit of every society. Deep fulfillment in life is only possible if one is able to open themselves up to "joys, pain, vulnerabilities, and yes, responsibilities." Such openness and acceptance are available in home for a true family is one that accepts one another, bar none. 
  9. Courage: Amid the ravages and damages of war, there are people with the courage to do what is right, to be peacemakers. Tolstoy's characters manifest this quality. Like an unnamed Russian soldier protecting a shop-owner that he does not know. Or random acts of goodness and kindness that happens in the midst of evil and war. This particular theme is most explicitly brought to life in the title of the book. Courage is about doing all the good one can despite all the wrongs surfacing around.
  10. Death: Tolstoy is vividly aware of the theme of death, himself personally witnessing the death of loved ones due to old age, disease, accidents, or war. Death defies any definition and meaning. Yet, Tolstoy wisely shows us that it too like life, needs to be embraced and accepted when the time comes. As I thought of this, death indeed has no meaning. Fighting it has no meaning too. A person at peace will not hesitate to live or to die, having gained an insight into learning not to fight but to learn to accept. I sense too that Tolstoy having engaged frequently the theme of death, is showing us that there is no need to fear death.  
  11. Perseverance: This theme is essential in learning about acceptance and embracing life. Without perseverance, one may not even want to hang on or hope. It is perseverance that enables one to navigate the highs and lows of life. 
  12. Truth: Life is ultimately about living the truth, and the different characters display the many manifestations of how this truth is lived out. 

Reading through the book gives me a new found respect for the "War and Peace" novel as a book and Tolstoy as a person. Put together, I am touched by the depth of understanding one of humanity, life, faith, love and many aspects of life. Kaufman has put together a very eloquent and commendable description of the twelve core themes that Tolstoy had written on. It can only be put together by someone with a keen knowledge of both Tolstoy as well as Tolstoy's works. Such a person is found in Andrew Kaufman, whose love for all things Russian can be felt through the pages. At the same time, the reverent nature in which Kaufman treats the novel, War and Peace, can rub off on readers. I am one such reader, and I too have been encouraged, even emboldened to learn to accept and embrace life, its warts and all.

I like to close with Tolstoy's words, which I deem among the most powerful ever to come from Tolstoy.

"The goal of the artist is not to solve a question irrefutably, but to force people to love life in all its countless, inexhaustible manifestations. If I were told I could write a novel in which I would set forth the seemingly correct attitudes towards all social questions, I would not devote even two hours of work to such a novel, but if I were told that what I write will be read in twenty years by the children of today and that they will weep and smile over it and will fall in love with life, I would devote all my life and all my strength to it." (14)

In order to appreciate the title of the book even more, what is important is not to read "War and Peace" from a Western but as "War and the World" from a Russian perspective. This way, we know that the novel is not about the Western perspective of fighting or winning battles to arrive at the state of peace. The novel is actually about living a life that is filled with highs and lows, with joys and sorrows, and all manner of life. By learning to accept that battles and wars are part and parcel of life, perhaps, we would have learned not to see peace as a state, but peace as an attitude to embrace regardless of circumstances.

This book may very well be Andrew Kaufman's best book.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Simon and Schuster and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    1. Hi Andy,

      I've posted the review on Amazon. You can check it out here.