War and Peace: the 10 things you need to know (if you haven't actually read it)
Who is the hero? Can you skip the boring bits? How long will it take to read? A guide to a book that is not just great, it is the best novel ever written
Friday 22 January 2016 13.00 GMT
1 People change. The characters in War and Peace endure extreme experiences, and emerge at the end as quite different people. The miracle of the book is that the Natasha who falls in love with anyone and everyone in the ballrooms of the opening is recognisably the same woman who withdraws from society at the end.
2 There is no hero and no heroine. This is the story of a group of people living within a society. Andrei Bolkonsky is not Tolstoy’s hero, and Natasha is not a romantic heroine. It forgives ideas of heroism, most beautifully in the last words any character speaks in the book, as Andrei’s son thinks of his father at the end of the First Epilogue. It understands and sympathises with those ideas but it excuses itself from repeating them. The book will try to understand why people behave as they do, and it may make the best case possible for some strange actions, but it won’t make apologies for anyone and won’t pass a final judgment. Don’t expect to be able to predict what happens. Even the characters won’t be able to explain why they do what they do, perhaps until weeks or months later. The subject of the book is the wildness of possibility, and how the world can be changed by one woman saying, for no particular reason that she can explain, “I have had so little happiness in my life.”
3 The novel has a particular technical feature; it passes from mind to mind, showing us the world as a consciousness moves through it. It doesn’t mean that the consciousness of the moment has any particular importance; it is just how these events were seen by one particular observer, and another observer will take up the baton in a page or two. (After 300 pages, you will agree that this is the best way to write a novel.)
4 This is not a historical novel, but a novel that discusses events of the recent past within the memory of many of Tolstoy’s first readers. Its details are not exquisite recreations of lost practice, but ways in which an individual psychology can engage with the real world. It is about history, and both the tsar and Napoleon make awesome appearances. But it is not about “the historical”, and it has no costume department.
5 You will like some characters more than others, and there will be long stretches where a character you used to like irritates or frustrates you. Other characters will engage your sympathy over time; you may be deeply surprised, by the end, by who you want to spend most time with. The book has the rhythm of life, and likability is not a steady, constant factor; sometimes Natasha is entrancing, sometimes a great bore. (If you read it more than once, as almost everyone who reads it at all does, these responses may occur at quite different times.)
6 Love comes into it. It understands, as James Buchan once wrote, that love is the circus hoop through which history is made to leap again and again. But romantic love is only one of the things that may interest the mind, and sometimes it does not interest the mind at all. There are other subjects in the novel, too.
7 Anyone who tells you that you can skip the “War” parts and only read the “Peace” parts is an idiot. The bits that interest you personally and the bits that you find of only abstract curiosity are going to change when you read the book at 20, and again at 50. The book is the product of a very big mind, who lost interest in almost everything War and Peace was about before he died. It is a living organism that is never quite the same as you remembered when you go back to it.
8 It’s quite a long novel, but not absurdly long. Proust is twice the length. Nor is it at all difficult. You think it’s a challenge? Ha, ha – The Man Without Qualities is a challenge, and it took me 17 years to get to the end of Joseph and his Brothers. You’ll read War and Peace in 10 days, maximum. Many people find the first 100 pages dauntingly full of characters, and only then does it seem to smooth out and become lucid. Tolstoy has immense care for his readers, and most of his challenges are challenges of sympathy, not of intricate understanding. (I once read War and Peace on the beach – the elegant clarity of style and the concision of each chapter made it perfect. You could read for five minutes with interest, or for three absorbed hours.) To almost everyone’s amazement, by the time they reach the end of the First Epilogue, with its overwhelming sense of life continuing and proliferating, new possibilities of thought opening up, any reader will probably wish that this marvellous book could go on for ever.
9 You are going to disagree with Tolstoy. No question. Not only that, you will almost certainly start to think that his own book disagrees with him. Can the Second Epilogue, with its vision of historical determinism, not really be said to be comprehensively disproved by the freedom of action that the characters grope their way towards? Doesn’t Maria Bolkonsky glimpse her terrible destiny, and make a conscious decision to reject it with a single sentence? This is a book that will argue with you.
10 The book has the worst opening sentence of any major novel, ever. It also has the very worst closing sentence by a country mile, which you will have to read four times before deciding that its proposition is perfect nonsense. In between, its greatness goes without saying: what sometimes gets forgotten is that it is not just great, but also the best novel ever written – the warmest, the roundest, the best story and the most interesting.