“If no one fought except on his own conviction, there would be no wars.”
I think War and Peace is probably a victim of its own reputation. You see it featured so often on Bucket lists and Best Book polls, not to mention those passive aggressive 100-Things-You-MUST-Do-Before-You-DIE lists (eurgh, I hate those). After seeing it listed alongside cave jumping and swimming with sharks it’s easy to see how it’s come to take on an almost mythical status as something that’s both rewarding and terrifying. I wonder how many people are put off by all that noisy, conflicting hype?
I recently began reading it for a second time, having given up after fewer than 150 pages on my first attempt ten years ago. I’ve always regretted it, mainly because I hate it when I know I didn’t try hard enough. I think if I’d been reading it for genuine pleasure – and not because it was on a Best Book list – I might have been more willing to persevere through the trickier bits but instead I gave up as soon as I realised that this book might require a little more effort than I was willing to put into it. What an idiot.
Since then I’ve done my research. I listened to the radio play earlier this year and enjoyed it immensely so this time I’m reading it because I actually want to. It’s made all the difference. I’ve just passed the end of Book One, roughly 114 pages in my Penguin Popular Classics edition. There have been no major mishaps, no signs of wavering enthusiasm. In fact, I’ve surprised myself with how much I’m enjoying it. Unlike last time I feel like I have a really tight grip on all those characters and plot strands. I won’t let go.
For a nineteenth century Russian classic War and Peace is wonderfully readable, which makes its reputation as a ‘difficult’ book seem even more unfair. I don’t know whether I should thank the translator of my copy (whoever that may be, no mention of it at all that I can find) of if Tolstoy was just a master storyteller. Probably the latter. He doesn’t faff about setting the scene with long descriptions, he just chucks you straight into Anna Scherer’s soiree on page one and lets you watch all the characters interact and set the scene for you. This first part of the book is set in the summer of 1805, in a dizzying whirl of parties and social gatherings. We glimpse the three families at the heart of the novel – the Rostovs, Bolkonskys and Bezukovs (or Pierre Bezukov at least) – at peace, in the lull before the storm, just as war is about to be declared. The coming conflict looms on the horizon.
The sheer number of characters in this first part of the book is immense. It’s also one of the reasons I think I felt so overwhelmed on my last attempt. This time I think I’m getting better at working out which characters I should pay most attention to, and which ones serve only the briefest of purposes. I found Natasha Rostov a little hard to take at first but she is still a child at the moment so I hope she will improve. I’m probably determined to hate her because I get the distinct feeling that Tolstoy wants us to like her most. I’m such a rebel. I like Pierre though – how can you not like poor Pierre? – and I’m intrigued to see what will happen with Andrei. I’ve not yet worked out how we’re supposed to feel about him. Does Tolstoy want to repel us with his cynicism? Or should we identify with his frustration? I don’t know but I’m drawn to him most of all so far.
“Drawing rooms, gossip, balls, vanity and triviality – these are the enchanted circle I cannot escape from. I am now going to the war, the greatest war there ever was, and I know nothing and am fit for nothing.”
It’s likely that I’m only feeling so optimistic right now because I’ve just finished what will inevitably turn out to be the easiest and most light hearted part of the book. I expect the coming war will make all the difference.