Tolstoy grew up in a privileged old Russian noble family, and though his parents died when he was a child, he was brought up by relatives. He received a university education but left in the middle of it, with instructors saying he was unable or unwilling to learn. He was given to heavy gambling and living a wild life full of drinking and women. He joined the army and served as a second lieutenant in the Crimean War. His experience became the basis of parts of War and Peace.
Tolstoy traveled in Europe and met Victor Hugo, who had just finished Les Miserables. He also met French anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. Both were to have a great influence on Tolstoy's outlook and his writing. In fact, Tolstoy took the title for War and Peace from a work by Proudhon.
War and Peace is a sweeping saga that is set after the French invasion of Russia in 1812. Tolstoy began writing it after he settled down on his country estate with his wife. He interviewed numerous veterans of that war and read journals, letters, autobiographical and biographical works about Napoleon in an effort to depict the era accurately. The book contains historical figures as well as fictional characters, some 580 in all. It describes the Napoleon's invasion of Russia and the effect on Russian aristocratic families. It is divided into four volumes and is one of the longest books ever written.
Tolstoy's character Anna Karenina was a Russian aristocrat married to a man 20 years older. She carries on an affair with a young affluent nobleman. The story is set against the tapestry of Russian society in the late 19th century. The story was first published in serialized form beginning in 1873 but Tolstoy clashed with his editor over political positions Tolstoy took near the end of the serialization so the complete novel only appeared in book form.
Both books have been adapted for film. The most well known version of War and Peace was released in 1956 and starred Audrey Hepburn, Henry Fonda and Mel Ferrer, though a four-part, seven-hour, 1965 Russian version won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. There have been numerous versions of Anna Karenina. Greta Garbo made the film twice, in 1927 and in 1935. The most recent version will be released in November starring Keira Knightley and Jude Law.