‘War and Peace’ is one of my all time favourite novels. Brilliant characters, sumptuous settings, it is a book to fall in love with.
The best thing about ‘War and Peace’ is that it’s a soap opera masquerading as an intellectual novel. Like ‘Home and Away’, it takes a set of characters (from five main families) and then follows them through several story-lines. Like any good soap it’s engrossing, sprawling and great fun for all the family. Please don’t be put off by its length or highbrow reputation; below are a few tips to see you on your way
1. This is a historical novel. Published in 1869 it is set at the start of the 19th century and follows Napoleon’s Russian campaigns. For Tolstoy’s original readers this was as familiar as World War 1 is to us today, they knew the winners and the losers and names of major battles and characters. Nowadays it’s a two for the price of one lesson in history, but if (like me) you’re more interested in people than battles don’t worry; as it says in the title, the book also follows the characters through their peacetime lives. My edition of W&P has a timeline of Napoleon at the back of it, for easy reference but I must confess I’ve never used it and I don’t think my reading experience has suffered as a result.
2. Names. Russians have three names unlike Western Europe where most people get by with two. The first name is often shortened into a nickname, for example the heroine of the novel is usually called Natasha, which is a variation on the name Natalia. The second name is the patronymic, which comes from the father’s name. Natasha’s patronymic is Ilyinichna (daughter of Ilych), her brothers’ patronymic is Ilyich (son of Ilych). As in the Western tradition, everyone also has a surname. For women this will be feminised, which is why in Tolstoy’s other great novel the heroine is called Anna [Arkadyevna] Karenina, while her husband’s surname is Karenin.
Natasha’s full name is Natalia Ilyinichna Rostova, her eldest brother is Nikolai Ilyich Rostov and the hero of the book is Pyotr “Pierre” Kirillovich Bezukhov. Basically, everyone has loads of names and I really recommend you get hold of a book with a character list at the front for easy access. You will eventually get everyone straight, but it will take a while.
Also: the book is about aristocrats and they all have titles as well. A basic rule is to think of the title ‘prince’ or ‘princess’ to be a catch-all phrase for nobility. It does not mean they’re in line to the throne. There is also a good smattering of counts and countesses. All titles are passed on to children, so the daughter of a prince will be a princess. Again, my advice is to use the name chart in your book to keep track.
2. Languages. Everyone speaks French. This doesn’t matter much if you’re reading in an English translation, but it’s something to be aware of, because it becomes a bit of a embarrassment for everyone as the war with France heats up and the Russians try to become more patriotic. It’s also something you should know to make sense of why characters speak ‘such Russian as a Frenchman would speak after spending about a year in Russia.’ French is the main language for nearly all of the protagonists, to the extent that even the educated Pierre has trouble discussing religion at one point, ‘being unaccustomed to speak of abstract matters in Russian.’ As historical context, it’s really useful to understand the relationship between Russia and France because of point 3 below.
3. Conflict with Western Europe. This is made physical by the actual battles in the novel, but it’s also a central thematic concern. There are three main ‘Peace’ settings of the novel: St Petersburg, Moscow and various country estates. St Petersburg, as the German name suggests, is Russia’s gateway to Europe; built by the modernising Tzar Peter the Great, it was based on European cities. For the purposes of the novel, it is where vacuous, superficial hypocrites live. Moscow is the older Russian capital, it is earthier and more honest, but it’s still tainted by the corruption of city life, Moscow is where the irresponsible but warm-hearted Rostovs feel at home. True peace and dignity are found in the countryside on large estates, far from the Westernising influence of towns (this is where the saintly Princess Bolkonskaya lives) . Tolstoy claimed that ‘War and Peace’ was more of a philosophical tract than a novel. He was wrong, but there’s no harm in using his political theories to help understand the wider structure of the book.
Like any truly great novel, ‘War and Peace’ can be read on so many levels, depending on the individual taste of the reader. You can read it for the war, you can read it for the love stories. It’s a great realist history and a coming of age story for all its central characters. It’s a political thesis and an exploration of national identity. In every case, it’s a great sprawling read.