One of the criticisms often levelled at Tolstoy’s War and Peace – and is also used just as frequently as an excuse not to read it – is that it is very hard to keep abreast of all the characters. This is not without some justification – there are a lot of princes, counts, generals and assorted others, most of whom have two names mentioned at any given time – but there are fewer characters than in most Dickens novels. Having read an awful lot of Dickens over the years, I think I may have worked out a useful solution. Well, it works for me.
The trick that I’ve adopted in my re-read of Tolstoy’s first great novel is to list on a series of Post-It notes the members of the three main families – the Bolkonskys, the Rostovs and the Kuragins – and on two more, the key characters of military life, such as Denisov, Dolohov and Drubetskoy, and of civilian life, the main one of which is Pierre Bezuhov. Then as I go through the book, I can move the Post-It notes around so that I always know who is featuring in the chapter that I’m reading. Out side of these notes, everyone else is an incidental, if recurring, character and I don’t really try to follow their progress at all. After all, if I really wanted to know what happened to Napoleon, I wouldn’t choose to read about it in Tolstoy.
Given that I’m currently a third of the way through the book, which in my edition amounts to almost 1500 pages – I’ve found this method quite useful in keeping tabs on who the various characters are and the changing alliances that they make as the novel progresses. Although I will always have very fond memories of the huge mind map I created when I wanted to keep track of the characters in Little Dorrit, read for my English Literature A level back in the 1980s.
The book itself is very reminiscent of Proust in the sense that there is no real discernable plot; unlike Proust, however, a great deal goes on and some of the battle scenes are suitably chaotic, giving them a realism that may otherwise have been missing. If anything really jars with the book, it is Tolstoy’s frequent referencing of himself during the Battle of Austerlitz. Fortunately, he’s not a major character so I didn’t bother making a Post-It for him, especially as the representatives of the three main families were at that time trying desperately not to get themselves killed while Bezuhov was busy becoming a Freemason.
I have to say, breaking it down like that does make it very easy to keep up. Remind me how useful I said it was when I lose track around page 1000.