I am usually interested in how authors begin their works and why they begin as they do. Tolstoy begins War and Peace unusually, especially for a work written in the 1860’s. Instead of setting the scene from which the action will then follow, or describing the characters that will occupy central positions, we, the readers, are more or less plopped down in a scene of little consequence, with a couple of characters of questionable interest, Anna Pavlovna Scherer, Prince Vassily Kuragin, and a few other members and visitors to Russian high society. We know nothing about the characters. Indeed, and almost outrageously, most of the characters turn out to be minor. The conversation, although quite pertinent to broad outlines of the book, is stilted, pretentious, provincial, and conducted in French. The society Tolstoy introduces here is privileged, but is also far from the most elite of the country. These characters are wealthy but culturally alienated from much of their surrounding world. Why begin in this marginal way? What is Tolstoy up to?
War and Peace opens at a critical time in Russian history, the time leading up to Napoleon’s epic invasion and retreat. All the characters know something big is immanent, and that nations are set to collide, but that is not where the action begins. Instead the readers are set into high society, and its somewhat stilted banter. Perhaps the best way for a reader to understand what Tolstoy is doing here is to start by examining our own reactions to the first few pages. Tolstoy is dispensing with an introduction that in the course of things would be gratuitous. More to the point, he is immediately engaging the reader emotionally. A painting is not preceded by an introduction. Similarly, the opening of War and Peace just opens a world for the reader’s imagination to slip into. But this is Tolstoy’s world, and this beginning offers us a few clues about this world’s sensibilities.
Even as characters discuss events and political perspectives from 200 years ago, it is hard to remain strictly neutral in one’s reactions to their dialogue. Most of the societal characters are self-aggrandizing wind bags and posers, at least to some extent. (Unlike those in similar situations today.) It all seems somewhat artificial, even a bit phony. (Again, unlike today.) In short, even though the reader is mildly interested in what is going on, he or she is developing a certain suspicious attitude towards the society of the Russian aristocracy. Few readers are probably neutral towards most of the characters which Tolstoy introduces. And most of these characters are at least slightly absurd. Why would Tolstoy initially foster such an attitude in his readers against the members of his own class? (Perhaps we should return to this particular question later.)
Although the action does not begin with war or the scenes that lead to war, either politically or militarily, these matters are clearly on everyone’s mind, and Tolstoy introduces his great subject this way. Although the political situation in the world is unstable, and change seems inevitable, everyone is at the same time pursuing their own relatively petty interests in society. This is like a little statement of a motif in a symphony that a composer will return to many times as he develops it. And perhaps just as importantly for thematic purposes, Tolstoy introduces war and national conflict first from the perspective of historically insignificant characters instead of through the political and military elite of the states that will collide in conflict. So Tolstoy begins by introducing his readers to his great subject, war, peace, and history, through the real agents of transformation, the individual people, or atoms, of history. With Tolstoy, history moves from the bottom up instead of from the top down. It would therefore be misleading to start with Napoleon, or the Tsar, or some other such character.
So in the first few pages, Tolstoy actually accomplishes much, despite seeming to be preoccupied with trivialities. He introduces his large concerns of war and peace, and implicitly historical development itself; he suggests an attitude towards high society, and those who seek its status; and he introduces us to a number of characters, including a few that will bring us deeper into Tolstoy’s world. At first, it seems like a slow, even cumbersome introduction, but it is amazingly economical, especially for such a long book. And as the reader progresses into the book, setting seamlessly transforms into action.
Tolstoy’s approach to his beginning now seems modern, and is widely accepted. That is, others now do it and it does not seem unusual. Consider, for example Robert Altman’s film Nashville. I loved this film when it first came out. That was several years before I read Tolstoy. I saw it again recently and feel that it holds up. Its technique is pure Tolstoy. Or consider TV’s Seinfeld. As the show itself admitted, even boasted, it is about nothing. But neither Nashville nor Seinfeld is really about nothing. They are both about everything while claiming to be about nothing. That’s how Tolstoy begins War and Peace.
(Incidentally, Anna Karenina begins in an analogous way. This great exploration of family happiness and personal meaning is structured around Anna’s adultery. But the book begins with the somewhat minor affair carried on by her brother and the turmoil it introduces into his household.)