Finishing War and Peace feels like finishing the London Marathon, with fewer toenails lost along the way. When I told a friend I was reading the notoriously long and dreary book, his response was simply: “Why on earth would you do that?” It’s a question I hadn’t asked myself until I got a few hundred pages in and found myself slobbering half-asleep on the Tube rather than flying through the chapters.
I’m a completist. I never cast novels aside if they begin badly, or skip pages, or read the synopsis online. If I’m moaning about a poor film in the first 10 minutes, you can bank on me complaining about it when the credits roll. So ever since the book was bought from Eastbourne’s finest shop, Camilla’s, it has been sitting on the shelf waiting for me to complete it. Plus, I’ve read and re-read Anna Karenina – how could the same guy who wrote such a lyrical story really be dull and repetitive?
Since beginning the book (or books – I have a more manageable edition split into three) it has been noteworthy how often it is used as a comparison in daily life. On consecutive days a travel itinerary was described as “looking like War and Peace”, then a friend complained their coursework was “longer than War and Peace”. Even the story of The Ashes was “positively Tolstoyian” said the paper. It’s been weighing on my mind, and my bag, for weeks now.
As you canter through the first 50 pages, you can accept the preliminary scene setting, the dusting off of themes and the introduction of a grand cast of characters. After you trudge to the 400 page mark and no progress has been made, it is a little harder to take. Tolstoy paces his writing with his plot, dallying as the counts and princes count their principals in St Petersburg and Moscow, squelching through the quagmire of endless strategic outposts on the battlefield and dithering over endless domestic disputes. It’s enough to make you give up, wondering whether the war part or the peace part is the most soul-sapping.
Soon though (well, not soon, after many bloody hours), you come to realise the characters are wondering the same thing. They are as lost in the book as you are, and keep you intrigued over whether or not any of you will make it to the end. It’s a cast of millions and you’re soon one of them. Political intrigues jostle with love matches, cads with gentlemen and foreign foes with local villains.
The book it most invites comparison to is Moby Dick. Both can accurately be described as epic in both length and scale, while they focus upon the minutiae of individual lives and subjects seemingly narrow in scope. However, they both contemplate religion, class, poverty, love, life and death with boundless ingenuity and vitality.
What sets Tolstoy’s Napoleonic tale apart though is its scale. I knew very little about these wars and less about the times before reading. I discovered the Russian aristocracy spoke French, more about the Freemasons than I’d garnered from that Simpsons episode and why the author thought Napoleon more of an inconsequence in the wars his name bears than a conquerer.
The vivid descriptions of military manoeuvres and domestic dalliances are brought to life slowly – more Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy than Game of Thrones in the immediacy of action. Each time you feel the narrative is flowing rapidly, new distractions, introductions and sidesteps are taken. But he gains your ear and your trust. There’s a lot of preaching in the book, against the inaccuracy of history and the folly of man, but you feel Tolstoy deserves his say by this point. By the time you reach the grand epilogues, you care as much for the myriad of characters whose loose ends are so neatly tied up as the writer’s thoughts on the nature of war and the power of history.
The book probably says it all, but you are too numb to take most of it in. It probably needs another read, but I’ll give it another 50 years or so.