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Give War and Peace a Chance

If you’re looking for some good summer reading, a professor at the University of Virginia has the answer.  He’s read War and Peace 15 times, and he wants you to enjoy it at least once.  To help you tackle that 1,500 page tome, he’s written a book called Give War and Peace a Chance.


It’s easy to see why people would be scared away from Tolstoy’s classic story.  It has 361 chapters, nearly 600 characters, and in its time UVA Lecturer Andrew Kaufman says, it broke all the rules.

“You know, all the characters, the intersecting plot lines, later on in the book Tolstoy would add essays on history and free will and fate, and he would just insert these right in the middle of the storyline.  He threw in everything, including the French-made kitchen sink.  2.5% of the novel is in French”

But as a college sophomore, his intimidation turned to fascination when he began reading War and Peace.

Andrew Kaufman

“It was like eating candy in a way.  These characters were so real, even though it was 150 years ago in a different culture, they were utterly identifiable – particularly a character by the name of Pierre Buzukov, who was 20 years old at the beginning of War and Peace, and he’s trying to figure out what he wants to do with his life, and he’s thrown into society that is rapidly changing, because it’s the era of the Napoleonic Wars and there’s a lot of transformation taking place, and I resonated with this guy who was essentially my age, grappling with the same big questions.”

Tolstoy was able to create such compelling characters, Kaufman says, because he was – himself – a troubled guy.

“He had a voracious sexual appetite.  He fathered an illegitimate child with a local peasant girl.  He had a gambling addiction.  He lost the house of his own birth on his estate in a night at the card table, started to have serious marital problems.  He ran away from home at the age of 82.  He left his wife a note saying ‘Thank you for 48 years of marriage, but I cannot stay.  Our differences are irreconcilable,’  and it was very tragic. He died in a train station, but he brought all of this to his characters.”

But most people would never meet them, and Kaufman thought that was a shame.

“Mark Twain once said that the definition of a classic is a book everyone wants to have read but nobody wants to read, and I have talked to so many people who have said they cannot get through War and Peace – all those characters, all those Russian names, all the other oddities that I talked about, and so I thought this was a shame, because this book is so rich and so full of relevant wisdom that people have to read it.”

So he wrote Give War and Peace a Chance: Tolstoyan Wisdom for Troubled Times – a book you can read before or at the same time that you tackle the big book.  It contains a guide to the characters and how to pronounce their names, a timeline for the author’s life and photos from his 1,000-acre estate, where Kaufman wrote one chapter of the book.

By the time you’ve finished his guide to War and Peace, Andrew Kaufman hopes to have the next book ready – a work based on the course he and his college students teach to young Virginia prisoners.

"My undergraduate students go into a juvenile correctional center and lead book discussions with incarcerated youth about Russian literature, and my next book is about that.”

The working title – “Crime and Enlightenment: Reading the Great Russians Behind Bars.” 

Hear the complete interview with Andrew Kaufman.

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief