The title of War and Peace is entirely accurate. The title of this blog post is not. It’s not really a review. Honestly, it’s the literary equivalent of a teenager’s thoughts on One Direction. I just loved this novel. No, seriously, I did. I’m not being sarcastic or anything. And the next 900-or-so words are an undisguised, unashamed, unabashed (does that mean the same as unashamed? Oh well, it sounds good) attempt to convince you to read it, if you haven’t already.
So, my love for this novel. It didn’t happen all at once. I started off strong, keen, and eager to stay ahead of the BBC miniseries. Then I got a couple of hundred pages in and Life Happened (back to work, horrible cold, general January malaise). My reading was confined to the weekends, and maybe a few minutes snatched at lunchtimes during the week. I was enjoying the book but, well, it was in danger of starting to feel like a bit of a chore.
Then something strange happened. I got to around 4-or-500 pages in, and – my priorities changed. I got really, really into it. I spent a big chunk of the weekend before last reading – probably 10 hours or more. I’ve been reading instead of watching TV in the evenings. One morning last week, sensing the end was in sight, I got the bus into work instead of driving, so I got more reading time. It just got really good. And it stayed good, with minor exceptions, right to the end. (I’m not telling you what the exceptions were, as I’m terrified of accidental spoilers. Read it, and then we’ll talk; or I might post another, spoiler-y review, a little later. But suffice it to say the exceptions are minor, and you should still read it.)
Anyway, enough of me sounding like a 12-year-old fangirl. What did I like about War and Peace, and what can I say to convince those who remain unconvinced by its 1273 short pages? Well here, holiday-ad style, are a few of the delights which await you:
- Delight in the brilliance of the writing! Tolstoy’s writing is basically the love child of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. From Jane Austen, he takes a lot of subject matter of the ‘peace’ – writing about the minor aristocracy, getting into the minds (and dressing rooms) of his characters, and exposing them to us, gently enough, but with warts and all. From Dickens, there is the breadth of scope, the feeling of the grand sweep of history behind the individual stories, although – for the most part – Dickens’s anger at social injustice is missing; this is not, in the end, a novel about serfs. In common with both Austen and Dickens, Tolstoy has humour. No, really. Parts of this book are really, really funny. (Pierre’s accidental engagement, for example. Or this: ‘Bonaparte was born lucky. He has excellent soldiers. And the Germans were the first he attacked. You’d have to be a do-nothing not to beat the Germans. Ever since the world began, everybody’s beaten the Germans. And they’ve beaten nobody. Except each other.’ I happen to like Germany quite a bit – but, as a Brit, that’s pretty funny and always will be.) And I was amazed at how modern the whole thing felt. OK, it’s long, and there are parts which are a bit slow – but those are the exceptions rather than the rule. On the whole, it’s pacy, and engaging as hell.
- Fall in love with the characters! Honestly, this is the best bit of the whole thing. The characterisation is wonderful. It’s not your typical character-driven novel, veering off at times into history, philosophy and more (top tip: when you get to the bit about the masons, just take a deep breath and power through it) – but the really innovative thing, to my mind, was Tolstoy’s use of a narrative style which flits between the minds and points of view of almost all of the major characters, almost dizzyingly fast. That style took me some getting used to, but it encouraged empathy for the characters – all of them – perhaps moreso than any ‘classic’ novel I’ve ever read. (Well. I say all. Funnily enough, thinking about which characters I had no empathy for (I’m looking at you, Karagins), I don’t think we ever get inside their heads. So I’m standing by the point.) The character development is supreme. None of them are perfect, but they are all – to a greater or lesser extent – lovable. (Again – not you, Karagins.) My favourites changed throughout the book, and those who’ve read it more than once say that their favourite changed depending on where they were in their lives. Before reading it, I could never have imagined being one of those people, like Andrew Marr, who reads it every year. Now, I can’t imagine not revisiting Pierre and Natasha and Andrei and the rest of them; I finished the book four days ago, and I’m still/already mourning their loss.
- Learn about the Napoleonic Wars! It’s almost a cliché to comment that War and Peace isn’t really a novel. Tolstoy makes that point himself, in an end note, commenting that ‘It is not a novel, still less an epic poem, still less a historical chronicle. War and Peace is what the author wanted and was able to express, in the form in which it is expressed.’ In other words, ‘Don’t fence me in, haters’. I must confess, ‘epic poem’ hadn’t really occurred to me (maybe it would have done, if I had the ability to read it in Russian), but I might have described it as either of the others. I had a vague awareness of what was going on in Europe in the early 19th century, but really only as it pertained to Britain. I’d have been unlikely to have picked up a non-fiction book about Napoleon, and I probably still wouldn’t, but at least now I know my Austerlitzes from my Borodinos. And all without having to wander half-blindly through a battlefield, without even so much as a uniform. (Sorry, Pierre.)
- Bask in the kudos of the bragging rights! Actually, I’m lying. This one doesn’t really work for that long. If you can get two weeks out of saying ‘I’m reading War and Peace, you know’ before people start rolling their eyes at you, you’re doing well. Trust me on this. But still, it’s worth reading. I promise.