Those of who grew up in the 20th century watching films are kind of used to historical epics beginning with some sort of title card:
“It is 1432. Mankind considers that the world is flat. But one lone Spaniard thinks differently. His name is Christopher . . .”
Etc. Then launch into some opening set piece (rolling hills, a battle scene, whatever).
Leo Tolstoy, however, didn’t know about movie conventions. So for those of you not ready for it, it can come as a bit of a shock that the world’s greatest novel begins quite simply at a party – right in the middle of a conversation.
So you’re left to kind of work out the background. Most of it can be picked up in the first few chapters, but I thought it might be helpful to give a little bit of background.
I’m not going to write a title card, but these bullet points will hopefully give you the least information you need to know to get what the book is about:
- The War parts of the book are usually set out in various Russian country towns.
- The Peace parts of of the book by contrast, are usually set in one of the two big Russian cities of the day: Moscow or St Petersburg.
- The book opens in St Petersburg in 1805, at a dinner soiree.
- Most of the book deals with the Russian aristocracy. For some reason that I’ve never understood, it was a lot easier to be a Prince in Russia than in England (where you have to be born to a Queen or King), and so there are a lot of Princes and Princesses in this book.
- At the time the story opens, while there is peace in Russia, in other parts of Europe, Napoleon Bonaparte is starting to make himself known and he is invading and taking over other countries.
- Prussia and Russia (yes, there is a difference) have joined forces to stop Napoleon.
- So while there is peace in Russia, elsewhere, Russian soldiers are assembling for battle against the French.
- Despite all of this, the Russian aristocracy consider French a cultured language, and spend a lot of their time speaking in French. So much so, that 2% of the original Russian version of War and Peace contains French dialogue.
- If you have the latest translation which just came out last year in America, you’ll find all the original French put back in, and you can give yourself a crook neck from jumping between the French and the footnotes.
- The rest of you may be happy to know that most versions available in Australia have the language in English, with only a little bit of French here or there.
Okay, that’s it. That’s all you really need to know. The rest you can enjoy finding out for yourself as the novel progresses.
And we still need one more reader . . .