WAR AND PEACE: Tips for reading

One of my reading goals for 2016 is to read more classics – mostly English, but others as well – and, since I know many find them hard to tackle, it occurred to me it might be of some use to discuss them when I read them. I don’t have a strict plan like reading one a month or anything like that, because I’m completely a slave of my own fancy as well as due dates at the library, but I will post about them whenever I read them! I have a list of ten, but if you have requests or suggestions or would like a post about something I’ve perhaps read earlier, leave a comment!

As the new BBC adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s masterpiece War and Peace started in the States last week, on the 18th, I thought I would start with this mammoth of a novel. (You can watch the trailer for the miniseries here – so far I find it delightful and so beautiful!)

The book: War and Peace (orig. Война и мир, Voina i mir) by Leo Tolstoy, published 1864–1869

My relationship with the book:

War and Peace is one of my dad’s favourite books, and it’s been in my line of sight all my life – the delightful four-volume set has patiently sat in the bookshelf and has now been appropriated to me own bookshelf. I used to think it’s something you read when you’re old and wise; but after reading Anna Karenina I decided Tolstoy was awesome and I really should read his most famous work. I first read War and Peace in the summer of 2013, when I was very into the Napoleonic Wars, and absolutely loved it. The translation I read back then was the Finnish one, Sota ja rauha by Esa Adrian from 1975. I reread it in December 2015, this time in the 2007 English translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.

Why it can be scary:

It’s huge. No joking. The Finnish translation is some 2,000 pages, and the English one around 1,200 – in a much smaller font. It’s quite a commitment, and I also know some are put off by the Russian name system, which requires you to have a fairly good grasp on how naming works and what the standard nicknames are. There are a lot of characters, but they’ll narrow down to a very manageable number of principal ones.

My five tips to reading it:

  1. Don’t be scared of it. It’s huge, but Tolstoy’s writing isn’t too heavy. You’ll fly through it, especially when you get into it and grow familiar with the characters. My approach has been to read a hundred pages a day, but I’ve habitually read more: set a pace that’s good for you, and don’t force yourself. Keep it enjoyable. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, and you’ll want to be comfortable.
  2. It takes a while to get started: don’t be daunted by this. Once you get past the first 100 or so pages, it’ll pick up. This might also be a matter of translation – the Pevear & Volokhonsky has left all the French in, which means you have to keep referring to footnotes to know what’s going on, but the Adrian translation just translated everything. It’s well worth it, and the beginning sets the scene very well, even if it may appear a little pointless at first.
  3. Keep a list of names, and you may want to have little notes of relationships between characters, as well as nicknames if you’re finding the name system hard to keep track of. And write down the full names – first name, patronym, family name. The families you need to know are the Kuragins, the Rostovs, and the Bolkonskys. You will also want to pay attention to Pierre and Boris, as the former is a main character and the latter a permanent fixture. Dolokhov is also a name to keep an eye on. There are obviously character lists online, but at least the Wikipedia one gives you spoilers as to the fate of them, so I don’t recommend using it. I was spoiled rather badly the first time I checked for a name…
  4. You don’t have to read every word. I did the first time, but the second time it just wasn’t necessary. Tolstoy writes a lot about the disposition of troops and hypothetical conversations between generals and about the philosophy of war in general. Most of the time these bits don’t really move the plot or even include any of the main characters, so you can pick up what has happened when the characters are returned to. Of course, you might be very into this kind of thing, in which case you should of course read the descriptions. But if you, like me, are not particularly keen, my advice would be to scan the chapters that seem to be about tactics or some such for main character names, and if none appear, it’s probably safe to skip it. (Mind you, I do feel a bit guilty for skipping, so I scan these chapters in general just to make sure I don’t miss anything.)
  5. I’m a bit of a hypocrite for suggesting this, but keep notes. I haven’t, although my English copy is full of flags. There’s just so much to this book, and so much happens, often off page, that has an effect on how things work. I’d completely forgotten a lot of what goes on in about the last quarter of the book, and so I flagged all the important turns for the characters. It’ll help you keep things in order and remember where people are and who is dead and who is married and who went where and what is going on. Notes will help you refer back – at least at the pace I was reading I kept forgetting what had happened to some characters, and I imagine that reading it over a longer period of time would have a similar effect.

The last thing I will say about this book is that it’s one of those that you can return to over and over and over again. There were about two years between my readings, and it was a completely different book; I imagine next time it will be another book again. The characters I liked initially turn out to be ones I dislike; characters I didn’t care about the first time were my favourites this second time; War and Peace is such a well-rounded novel that it simply keeps on giving. I doubt it’s even possible to grasp all of it at once, for the sheer volume of subjects and stories it covers. It’s well worth reading, and nothing to be apprehensive of, and just such a delight. Read it.

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