“You know what’s really annoying?” I said, gesturing with a glass of wine in the Lamb Inn, Norwich. “How everybody always bangs on about ‘War and Peace’. ‘Oh, it’s so long. Oh, it’s so brilliant’. It’s getting old.”
My friend pointed at me with one eye closed. “You know what we should do?” she said, putting down her glass. “We should read it out of spite.”
Reader, I have finished ‘War and Peace’. My God, it was good. Halfway through, I wrote a message to my friend: Honestly, Mae, it’s so bloody brilliant. Everyone would love it if only they could be bothered.
The challenge with ‘War and Peace’ is the first 100 pages. There’s a myriad of characters and all of them are important. To make matters worse, this is a Russian novel, and that means some characters will have up to seven name variations. Count Nikolai Ilya, for instance, is also known as Nikolushka, Nikolenka, Nickolashka, Kolya, Nocilas and Coco. Stick with me because once you get past those first 100 pages, you are flying.
The narrative works by moving seamlessly between the minds of multiple individuals in Russia. We’re told their hopes, their fears, their reputations and their secrets. This means that when these characters meet, all scenes are charged with the electricity of the unsaid: you know the full extent of what it means when Natasha goes to the ball and is finally asked to dance, and when Prince Andrei lies on the battlefield and senses the smallness of Napoleon. We don’t always like these characters, but we are always made to feel close to them, watching the world through their misshapen eyes and darting between their muddled consciousnesses. Critics often praise Tolstoy for instilling his characters with real flesh and blood: to read Tolstoy is to experience Russia through the lining of a stranger’s skin.
There’s a scene I often think of – so striking and intimate. In it, two sets of husbands and wives are talking lovingly, teasingly, privately amongst themselves. They reflect on the day and feel both the comfort and danger of knowing each other’s minds so completely. When this occurs, Tolstoy takes us unexpectedly to another room in the house, that of an orphan boy who dreams of his dead father and makes himself a promise: “Everybody will know me, love me, admire me,” he says, and he bursts into tears. That his loneliness occurs alongside two couples’ closeness tells the reader everything they need to know about what Tolstoy is doing. ‘War and Peace’ is hard work because there are so many key characters, but this, in many ways, is the whole point of his work. The masses matter because they are made up of individuals – individuals with little cosmic control, but whose personal lives should and do matter immensely.
The thing about Tolstoy is, he’s not going to hide from you the fact that life is full of suffering and hardship. What he will do, however, is his utmost to convince you life is great, that it is beautiful, and it is more than worth living. This book was sublime and deserves to not only be read, but re-read over and over until one day, perhaps, its magnitude can finally be fully understood.