Literary Corner Cafe

Friday, December 17, 2010

Today in Literary History - Leo Tolstoy Publishes War and Peace


On December 17, 1867, the “Moscow News” made the following announcement regarding War and Peace by Count Leo Nickolayevich Tolstoy: “War and Peace. By Count Leo Nikolayevich Tolstoy. Four volumes (80 sheets). Price: 7 rubles. Weight parcel post: 5 pounds. The first three volumes delivered with a coupon for the fourth.”

War and Peace, of course, which, with Anna Karenina, represents the zenith of Tolstoy’s work, was added almost immediately to the list of “great novels,” where it has remained to this day. With Anna Karenina, War and Peace represents the width and breadth of Russian life and the epitome of Realist fiction.

Over the next two years, devoted readers would pay more rubles for more volumes, but none of the critics had even one complaint. And the book caused a sensation among the general population of readers as well. One of Tolstoy’s biographers even said, “Readers swept bare the bookshelves, gave the book to their friends, and wrote letters from one end of Russia to the other defending their opinions of the characters.”

Tolstoy, himself said that the book was “five years of unremitting and singleminded labor,” something “not simply imagined by me but torn out of my cringing entrails.” Tolstoy’s (then) devoted wife, Sonya, felt much the same, at least during the early years of their marriage.

When Tolstoy began War and Peace in 1863, he and Sonya were newlyweds – she was twenty, and he was thirty-four, and she was pregnant with the first of their thirteen children. It was Sonya who oversaw day-to-day life on Tolstoy’s 1,800-acre estate, Yasnaya Polyana, and it was she who kept her too easily distracted husband glued to his manuscript. Every evening, Sonya would transcribe Tolstoy’s almost undecipherable handwriting by candlelight, and she said she was stirred to tears yet determined to “think over, feel, weigh and judge every one of Lyovochka’s ideas.” Tolstoy kept his young wife busy over the next five years. Like Flaubert, Tolstoy was a compulsive rewriter, and Sonya ended up transcribing the entire text of War and Peace no less than seven times.

The later years of the Tolstoy’s marriage did not find Sonya so cooperative. One of her journal entries reads, “He is writing about Countess So-and-So, who has been talking to Princess Whosit. Insignificant.” Tolstoy, himself would become so engrossed in his writing that he could “feel the crime of killing in war,” and would take his frustration out on Sonya, smashing the tea china at her feet or throwing his wall thermometer at her head.

Although the Tolstoys’ marriage was a volatile one, it lasted forty-eight years, until Tolstoy’s death on November 20, 1910.

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