War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
Introduced by Barry Pilton
When I ran away from home in the sixties I took the book that I had failed to read – failed even to open – in all my years at school. 1,636 pages long (plus encyclopaedic footnotes), and translated by Louise and Aylmer Maude, it only fitted in my rucksack because Oxford University Press had brought out a travel-friendly pocket edition. And that is how I and the three volumes of War and Peace hitch-hiked through sixteen countries and three continents.
But, after a year of mountains and deserts and islands, and numerous climates well-disposed to reading, Tolstoy still remained untouched, except by mildew.
Until, jobless in the coldest winter in living memory, I tried to reach the ski-resorts of the French Alps. Thus causing the last of my savings to (finally) run dry in the granite city of Grenoble. For the first time in my life I had to sleep in a doss-house…and be disinfected by the state. In those pre-digital times it took ten days for a life-saving loan to arrive, and I had just fifty francs to survive on.
By good fortune I found a cafe in the grandeur of place Grenette, a square with four cold cherubs (c.1824) playing in a fountain. And each morning, and each afternoon, I sat in the same window seat, looked out upon the ice and the flurries of snow, then opened my book and ordered un petit chocolat. Which I tried to make last longer than the Battle of Borodino.
Every day the white-aproned waiter treated me with the utmost courtesy, as is due a reader of the classics. And every night I would hunker down in a bleak dorm, next to a down-and-out ballet-dancer (whose own nemesis was a rogue Achilles’ heel).
With art cocooning me from reality, I escaped for eight hours a day into the world of 19th century tsarist Russia, into the silver samovars and gold-leaf salons of the Moscow aristocracy. Meanwhile, in the square beyond the plate-glass windows, the trees filled up with snow and giant icicles grew on the cherubs. But I ploughed on into the linguistic minefield of patronymics and family names and first names and diminutives. I joined Napoleon on his rape and pillage tour of Russia. I absorbed the horrors of the battle for the capital. I suffered with the characters as they lost their husbands and their wives and their limbs. And their minds. I bonded with Pierre in his epic search for the meaning of life. And I did my very damnedest to fully grasp the subtleties – and indeed the basics – of Tolstoy’s philosophising on the nature of war and peace.
And when, after ten days, I read the last of the epilogues, closed volume 3, and looked again upon the outside world, the fountains had frozen and the cherubs were encased in tombs of ice.