In Tolstoy’s own words on what War and Peace actually is, he offered an astonishingly unenlightening statement.
“It is not a novel, even less a poem, and still less an historical chronicle.”
Defining what War and Peace is not turned out to be far less of a challenge for the author, and the same was true for me.
War and Peace was certainly not short. Sitting at over a million words, the Wordsworth Classics translation that I read had been compressed into a single volume of slightly under one thousand pages, though the original Russian text published in the 1860s was made up of four books and an epilogue. The miniscule writing that this compression necessarily entailed made page-turning a much slower business than usual, and each sitting achieved only a minimal progression. Think of those clichéd dreams in which one runs and runs but never seems to get anywhere – this is Tolstoy, in a mild and hyperbolically understated version. In all, it took a month of despair and agony to finish.
War and Peace was also far from an easy read. As the title immodestly suggests, the story is about war and peace; specifically, Russia’s experience of the Napoleonic War between 1805-1813 through the eyes of its central protagonists. And their dependents. And their relatives. And their friends. All of these more than five hundred characters with long, complicated Russian names and titles, which were difficult to reassign to characters that one had been long renounced to the twisted, frozen landscape of Tolstoy’s Russia two hundred pages previous. Added to which much of the dialogue is in French, for which the invaluable translations in footnotes at the bottom of each page were praised unequivocally.
Furthermore, War and Peace was not straightforward. The action shifted erratically from gory battle scenes, to gossiping women in Moscow, to the author’s own voice declaring his philosophy that history is an ultimately inexorable process.
But it was gripping. The characters were flesh and blood, the landscapes fresh as a Russian winter morning in the mind’s eye, and the narrative enthralling. Besides which, the bragging rights for having completed War and Peace are unparalleled. Reading the story may have been a dream, but it held me for the figurative night of the summer holidays, and on waking to university once more I found myself only the richer for it.
Previously published in Togatus, the University of Tasmania magazine, 2010, Issue 2.http://issuu.com/togatus/docs/togatus_issue_2_2010_web