William L. Shirer wrote an interesting book about Tolstoy and his wife Sofya in which Shirer describes the composition of Tolstoy's most famous work, War and Peace. Tolstoy was an extremely fastidious writer. He wrote at least seven drafts of his long novel before submitting it for publication, and he was still making changes when the publisher started sending him proof sheets for approval. Tolstoy of course had to write everything with pen and ink. His handwriting was hard to read, as might be expected in such a temperamental and impetuous man. The only person who could read it was his wife. Without her assistance, the novel might have taken several times as long to complete. The published book is enormous, running in most editions to over 1500 pages. It was of course much larger in manuscript form. Tolstoy wrote the first draft and gave it to Sofya, who made a clean copy in her own neat and attractive handwriting. As she finished each day's copying she would give her pages to her husband, who would begin making corrections, revisions, and additions, creating a total mess of Sofya's work. When she had finished making a complete copy of the first draft, Tolstoy gave her back her bundle of papers with all his changes, and she began making a second complete fair copy in her own handwriting. Here is part of Shirer's description of their collaboration:
Just making clean copies of Tolstoy’s manuscript was a considerable job in itself. Apparently no one else in the house could make out his almost illegible handwriting. And making one clean copy was never enough, for Tolstoy would rewrite it and hand it back to her for copying again. Sonya once said she had copied the novel seven times. Since it runs to 1,453 printed pages in my edition, that means that her fair copy came to at least 3,000 manuscript pages. So she must have written down in her own careful handwriting 21,000 pages. And this does not include countless pages that Tolstoy, as his daughter Tanya noted, threw away. William L. Shirer, Love and Hatred, p. 69
Few contemporary writers would show such dedication as Tolstoy, and few assistants would display such patience and loyalty as his wife Sofya.
War and Peace looks intimidating because of its length and also because of all the characters with long Russian names. But it is actually not hard to read. It is broken up into short chapters and the chapters are divided into sections. The novel was written by a great genius, so it becomes engrossing and a memorable reading experience. It deals basically with Napoleon's invasion of Russia with 680,000 soldiers in the year 1812. The book has a majestic panoramic sweep, like a giant wave washing across the land and then withdrawing. Napoleon made it all the way to Moscow and then had to turn around and retreat through the snow and ice because of the terrible Russian winter and the fact that much of Moscow was being destroyed by fires. It seems like a foreshadowing of what was to happen to Hitler's mechanized armies in the early 1940s.
In 1853, at the age of 35, Tolstoy began writing War and Peace. The first installments were published in 1865.