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?