Russian literature from the second half of the nineteenth century aims to describe and analyse life in all its aspects. This literary movement is called realism. And realism fits Tolstoy like a glove!
The set-up of Tolstoy’s novels and stories is usually simple: there are good and bad people and after the necessary struggles the good win and the hero and heroine end up together. The, often internal, struggle between good and bad is the main subject, but other themes like war, love, discrimination, adultery and happiness feature regularly too.
Tolstoy’s writing is uncomplicated. Dutch slavist Karel van het Reve even went so far as to say there there is not a single sentence in War and Peace that a twelve-year-old wouldn’t be able to understand. He doesn’t use difficult words either, keeping his writing as clean as possible. He does, however, frequently use French, as that was the spoken language of the gentry at the time, but in English translations the French is often translated into English as well. Another difficulty is the vast amount of characters (with long Russian names) that Tolstoy introduces. He often uses the omniscient narrator technique: the narrator knows what goes on in Napoleon’s mind on the eve of the battle and what Natásha talks about with her mother before she goes to sleep.
Tolstoy took his writing extremely seriously. He rewrote War and Peace seven (!) times before he was completely happy with it. His research was so extensive that he went to Borodino (W&P) to see where the sun came up on the morning of the battle of Borodino. To make his characters as real as possible, he often sought inspiration within his own family. The Bolkonski family (W&P) was based on his mother’s family, the Volkonskis, and the Rostovs are based on the Tolstoys. For realistic female characterisation Tolstoy consulted his wife.
Tolstoy knows how to bring a scene to life. In Hadji Murad there is a scene in which four soldiers are keeping watch at night. An ordinary writer would have stated the fact and that would have been that. Not Tolstoy. He describes all their little habits, their conversation and the silences in between, giving the reader that fly-on-the-wall experience. These soldiers are not relevant in the story, but their story helps to make the story, it gives it the necessary couleur locale.
As he got older Tolstoy’s work became more and more moralistic. In War and Peace (1869) his reflections are still of a philosophical nature, but by the time he writes Hadji Murad (1904) he is explicitly against the war and interference in the Caucasus. Towards the end of his life he wrote less and less literature and more moralistic and religious essays.
You can recognise Tolstoy by his (numerous!) extraordinarily lifelike and recognisable characters, his great psychological insight, his superior descriptions, his clear writing and unpretentious vocabulary and his warning finger. Books such as Anna Karenina and War and Peace are unrivalled classics that will, once read, remain with you throughout your life.