A few weeks ago, I, like a huge swathe of the UK, started watching the BBC’s adaptation of War and Peace (or Phwoar and Peace, as it’s been dubbed by the Daily Mail et al). It was utterly brilliant – entertaining; accessible; vast in scope; and incredibly romantic. So, at the end of the now-famous ballroom scene, I decided to abandon the adaptation temporarily and finally read the novel.
I don’t need to tell you that it’s a book with a special aura of inaccessibility – not only because it is such a giant tome, but also because it’s about the Napoleonic Wars and, I’d assumed, a very Russian kind of misery. I read Anna Karenina five or six years ago and, after a rocky start, fell for its portrait of a histrionic, urban love affair set against Levin’s pure devotion to his country and his wife. It certainly wasn’t always an easy read, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. Still, I eyed War and Peace askance – I thought it would be a Middlemarch or a Vanity Fair, giant classics which, so far, I’ve never really got on with. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
I’m sure a significant portion of my enjoyment can be attributed to the sparkling translation of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky – the idea of reviewing a translation is always a strange one for that reason – but it’s blindingly obvious from the very beginning why this is so often cited as being the greatest novel ever written. The world Tolstoy conjures is all-consuming; the distance of two hundred years feels like nothing at all; and everything he writes is fizzing with humanity.
The idea that War and Peace might be a novel at all never sat comfortably with Tolstoy – he considered it to be more than that, given that it is also in part such a detailed account of the war fought between the Russians and the French, interlaced with philosophising about what it means to be alive, morally sound, and happy. Perhaps after two hundred years of experimentation its easier for us to accept it being a novel, but that’s also aided by the curiosity, accessibility and lightness of touch with which Tolstoy analyses his existential questions and theory of history.
A bee sitting on a flower stung a child. And the child is afraid of bees and says that a bee’s purpose consists in stinging people. A poet admires a bee sucking up the fragrance of flowers. A beekeeper, nothing how a bee gathers flower pollen and brings it to the hive, says that a bee’s purpose consists in gathering honey….All that is accessible to man is the observation of the correspondence between the life of a bee and other phenomena in life. It is the same for the purposes of historical figures and peoples.
If anything there’s something Homeric in the imagery and the deliberate, rhythmic repetitions in his language, and of course the juxtaposition of war and love: if it’s not a novel, then perhaps War and Peace has the soul of an epic poem. Just like the Aeneid, or the Iliad, it is incredibly easy to be swept up by Tolstoy’s story – but the language doesn’t sacrifice any detail to the extraordinary scale: Natasha realised that Sonya was in the corridor on the chest. The chest in the corridor was the place of sorrows for the young female generation of the Rostov house. Indeed, Sonya, in her airy pink dress, crushing it, was lying face down on nanny’s dirty striped feather-bed, on the chest, and, covering her face with her fingers, was sobbing, her bare little shoulders twitching.
(Given that there’s something of the Bennett sisters in Natasha and her friend, it’s worth mentioning that reams has surely been written about the similarities between Tolstoy and Austen – not only because of the context (War and Peace is set at the time Austen was writing) but also because both authors have that ability to see a world in a grain of sand – to turn a ballroom scene into an opportunity to take a scalpel to human nature.)
I never quite forgave Tolstoy for denying me the specific love story I wanted from two of the characters – when it became clear that my pair were heading for an exquisite tragedy rather than the happy ending I so wanted for them, I thought I might abandon ship in a fit of pique. By then it was completely under my skin, though, and I couldn’t resist. I found tears streaming down my face for huge tranches of the story – but it also made me grin in recognition and pleasure, living every vivid scene. This is not the dour tragedy I thought it might be. It’s a novel completely in love with life. Reading it is, in the truest sense of the word, a profoundly cathartic experience. All of human experience is contained within these pages – love, grief, confusion, humour, guilt, cruelty, redemption – at times I felt almost sick when the characters suffered. After one particularly gut-wrenching passage – Tess of the D’Urbevilles sprung to mind – I really did have to step away from the story for a couple of days, because I was so frustrated and disappointed. Ultimately, though, this is such a life-affirming piece of work. Flicking back to Hardy, brilliant though he is my problem with his novels has always been the relentlessness with which he brings his characters low – Tolstoy doesn’t share that nihilism. Everything here is balanced and true. Sorrow and joy in equal measure – war and peace.