Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve always found it rather irritating when a book starts with long descriptions of the landscape, the room, people, etc. etc.  I’m just too impatient for all of that.

So War and Peace – beginning, as it does, in the middle of a conversation at Anna Pavlovna Scherer’s soireé – rather appealed to me as a way of starting off.  Even when the inevitable descriptions begin of the people, what they are talking about, etc. – Tolstoy describes the quirky details, rather than a generic description of their clothes, their body shape, their hair.

So Prince Vassily (or Vasili – all translations are really just attempting to put down phonetically what is in Russian, so the spelling will vary quite widely, depending which version you’re reading) is described as being bald, but only because he bowed in front of Anna Scherer and she noticed it.

And then, without taking too much time, Tolstoy quickly lays out via their conversation the political landscape of the time.  I should apologise – a few days ago in my “Least You Need to Know” post I said that the French had joined forces with Prussia.  At this stage, Russia is trying to persuade Prussia to join with them in the fight. (This is in the section where Anna laments the fact that Prussia is remaining neutral.)

The interesting thing is the almost American attitude of the Russians – the “We’re the ones that are going to save the world”. (Very easy to say when you’re not actually in the middle of a fight.)

Also, we hear the first mention of the Alexander I, the emperor of Russia at the time.  It may not be clear from the chapter, but Alexander’s mother is the dowager empress that Anna Pavlovna Scherer works for. So when Prince Vassily starts dropping hints because he wants to get his son a certain political position, he’s effectively trying to get Anna to put a word in for him in very high places.

What follows is the rather amusing conversation where Anna basically gives him heaps of flack about his kids (and especially his son, Anatole) and then attempts her hands at a bit of matchmaking.

Now, if possible, you want to keep all these different strands – the war, Alexander I, Vassily’s children, the Bolkonsky girl that they want to marry Anatole off with – in the back of your mind, because they will all become important as the novel progresses.

Maybe start drawing a diagram of it all . . .

How did you find your first chapter?


9 thoughts on “One-Year War and Peace 1.1 – A Soireé

  1. The difference would be that in Austen there’s a romance somewhere. In this case, it’s just the ratbag son Anatole, being foisted off onto an unfortunate girl who hasn’t yet been able to land a husband . . .

    . . . why this is the case will be revealed in its own sweet time . . .

  2. My impression – either Anna’s a ditsy blonde, or else it’s a good example of why the bolsheviks did that little “October revolution” number.

    Oh, yeah.. I’ll give it a whirl, see how far I get through. But I’m reading it from project gutenberg at lunchtime, so there’ll be a little bit of reading ahead/catching-up on Fridays and Mondays…

  3. (I thought I’d put this one in, but I don’t see my posting here – well, I’ll just put it in again)

    Well, Matt, here I am on a hot Saturday afternoon, here in Toronto, Canada. I don’t want to go outside to garden till the sun starts moving into the western sky . . . so, I’ll just hang off your blogs here.

    I am following the recent blogs in Book 3, but going back to the start of your blogs is good for me. It’s a kind of ‘update’, ’cause I find as I’m discussing on the threads at Barnes n’ Noble, that I forget some of the stuff.

    Yes, I agree – a lot of description in the beginning of a book is a chore to get through; it’s better if the author chooses to do this in the course of the story really.

    Though, I must tell you, Steinbeck tends to go on description-wise in his book, but I like the way he does it. Anyway, I don’t intend to blather on about other books, so I’ll begin with this first chapter of W & P.


    Matt, about Prussia . . . I’m embarassed to ask this, and was hoping my reading of W & P might explain it before I make an ass of myself and show my ignorance.

    What is the difference between ‘Russia’ and ‘Prussia’? Is Prussia a section of Russia? Now, I guess I shouldn’t be so lazy . . . I’ll ‘google’ and see what I find on that . . .

    Ohhhhh! OK . . . I see – I’m stupider than I thought – it’s actually (or was . . . I dunno’) a part of Germany.

    Now, I can go on with something intelligent . . . maybe.


    Vasili and Anna’s observance that he is balding . . . I agree; that’s a good way to tell the reader that. It’s artful to use your characters to tell about each other.


    That’s a great explanation you have about the varied spellings of the Russian names; short and simple . . . doesn’t give me a headache trying to take it all in.


    Alexander I … Russia’s emperor – his mother is the Empress that Anna works for and so idolizes. That’s an understatement . . . idolizes . . . she’s almost ‘in-love’ with this empress. But I’m finding these Russians, at this time in history, tend to be ‘in-love’ with the royalty and leadership.

    I wonder if Anna is just plain brainwashed by the royalty.

    There’s little of that in today’s world; some leaders are admired, but not so much idolized.


    This first chapter is done so well (natch – it’s Tolstoy), the reader looks forward to the next.


    Responding to Dave . . .

    Just in case anybody else is as clueless as I, here’s a description of the Bolsheviks – I got it at Wikipedia.
    The Bolsheviks seized power in Russia during the October Revolution phase of the Russian Revolution of 1917, and founded the Soviet Union.
    Yeah . . . but I really never did understand that term – but it’s that simple, I see – they seized power and that’s how the Russians became Communists.

    (No, I’m not blonde . . .)

  4. You’re not gonna’ believe this, Matt!

    I’m starting over . . . no, I haven’t read to the end of the book. I’ve listened to the first seven chapters.

    As Libra Vox isn’t finished with Book 8, I’ve decided to take the opportunity of going back over what I’ve taken in so far.

    This time, I’m going to follow your ‘Mind Map’ and really give myself a darn good idea of who’s who.

    So . . . picture me now – it’s Friday night, a cool early autumn breeze billowing the drapes at the window.

    Here I am, with the text version up on the screen, and Book 1, Chapter 1, gently murmuring to me through the earphones.

  5. So how many characters have been introduced in Book 1, Chapter 1?

    (I’m sitting here on the verandah of Victorian Inn in Midland, Ontario! A holiday weekend . . . it’s a damp, dull day with rain on and off, but it’s beautiful – just the kinda’ place to be, to fall into ‘the-zone’ for writing and taking on auspicious projects like re-reading the first seven books of W & P.

    There’s gonna’ be a picture of me, doing so . . . Jeff’s taking pictures right now, of me, with Ms. Dell having been taken traveling for the first time. I’ll link to the picture later.)

    Anyway . . . the characters, so far . . .

    Anna Pavlovna Scherer
    Empress Marya Fedorovna
    Prince Vasili Kuragin
    le Vicomte de Mortemart
    Montmorency (s)
    Rohan (s)
    Abbe Morio
    Baron Funke
    Princess Mary Bolkonskaya
    Prince Bolkonski – nicknamed the King of Prussia
    King of Prussia
    Lise Meinen

  6. I got a count of 22 so far . . .

    If you are new to this book and really want to be studious, I’d suggest that you don’t go by my list or anyone else’s – all these are useful – there’s Matt’s ‘Mind Map’ that you’ll be coming across soon.

    Use those lists and that map, of course, but with each chapter, see how many new characters you can pick up yourself. You might be successful in getting a whole count by the end of the book – then again, as I most likely will, you might give up the count all told.

  7. Well, here I am again – obsessively pouring over the first chapters of Book I, pouring over the comments here on this first segment of the blog.

    On December 1st, I began another book discussion thread at Reading Group Guides . . . madness! But I love it!

    If any of you blog readers are just starting War & Peace and would like to join us, by all means, you’d be most welcome.

    As I’m referring to ‘Matt’s Blog’ throughout the posts I’m putting up there, you might see some of my wee group heading up ‘the rear guard’, so to speak. In other words? You might see them responding to some of these earlier posts in the blog.

    Then again, you might not – there’s plenty of discussion going on at the RGG thread.

    And, of course, if you RGG folks are here, feel free to leave a comment . . .

    Your faithful trooper . . .


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