To study the laws of history, we must change completely the object of observation, leave kings, ministers, and generals alone, and study the uniform, infinitesimal elements that govern the masses.
I wasn’t expecting to start writing this post until the end of December! At the beginning of the year I signed up for a year-long readalong of War and Peace hosted by Iris and Amy, attracted by their reading schedule which looked very realistic and manageable. I did stick with the schedule for the first few months and was enjoying being part of the group read (thank you, Amy and Iris!) but somewhere in the middle of the book I discovered that the pace wasn’t really working for me anymore. I found that I was finishing the month’s reading then forgetting about the book for a few weeks, which made it difficult to get back into the story again when I eventually picked it up to read the next month’s section. Once I abandoned the schedule and found a pace I was happy with, I flew through the rest of the book and really enjoyed it.
I didn’t think War and Peace was a particularly difficult book to read (I’m actually finding writing about it much more difficult!) and while it was certainly long, I have read other books of similar length. And yet it’s still a book that has always sounded very intimidating to me, so I felt a real sense of achievement when I reached the final page – especially after persevering through that Second Epilogue (if you’ve read it I’m sure you’ll know what I mean). If you’re wondering what War and Peace is actually about, I’m afraid I’m not going to tell you much about the plot because I don’t even know where to begin! It’s about war, of course – specifically the French invasion of Russia during the Napoleonic Wars – and the way it affects the members of several families of Russian aristocrats, not just in the army but also at home, in their domestic lives and in their interactions with each other.
I loved the ‘peace’ parts of War and Peace and getting to know Natasha, Marya and Sonya, Pierre, Nikolai and Andrei. The ‘war’ sections, however, were much more challenging for me as I often tend to struggle with battle scenes and find discussions of military tactics difficult to follow. This wasn’t helped by the fact that I had absolutely no previous knowledge of the Russian involvement in the Napoleonic Wars and to make things worse, from my point of view, there are lots of long philosophical passages in which Tolstoy spends a lot of time musing on war and its causes; for me to feel involved in what’s happening, I need to be actually ‘on the battlefield’ seeing things through the eyes of our protagonists, otherwise I just feel like a passive observer. Still, some of the book’s most moving and powerful moments occur during the war chapters. I included the following quote in one of my monthly readalong posts, but I’m copying it again here as I thought it really captured the shift from Nikolai’s view of war as something abstract and romantic to something real and harsh:
“Who are they? Why are they running? Can it be they’re running to me? Can it be? And why? To kill me? Me, whom everybody loves so?” He remembered his mother’s love for him, his family’s, his friends’, and the enemy’s intention to kill him seemed impossible.
Now, a note on the format and translation that I read. After reading mixed opinions on the various translations of War and Peace, I decided on the Kindle version of the Vintage Classics edition translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky (I wanted to avoid the Maude translation as I didn’t get on with their translation of Anna Karenina at all – though I know other readers recommend that one, so it’s just a matter of personal taste, I suppose). This P&V translation was very readable and I didn’t have any big problems with it, apart from, as I mentioned in another of my readalong update posts, not liking the way they chose to present the speech impediment of one character, Denisov. It distracted me so much I found it impossible to concentrate on what Denisov was actually saying! Also, I should point out that there’s a lot of French in War and Peace and in this edition, it is left untranslated in the dialogue with translations given at the end of each chapter. This was good as it gave an accurate understanding of how widely French was spoken by the Russian aristocracy and how its use gradually decreased as the war with France progressed, but it did mean a lot of turning back and forth was needed – and this was much more inconvenient with the Kindle than it would have been with a physical book.
Finally, some advice based on my experience with War and Peace: Reading with a friend or with other bloggers can be helpful and is a good way to stay motivated, but it’s important to find a pace you feel comfortable with. Read regularly and don’t leave the book unread for too long. If, like me, you know nothing about this period of Russian history, you might want to think about doing some background reading first to help put things into context – I didn’t and wished I had! And keep a list of the characters beside you as you read…as you would expect from a book of this length, there are a huge number of characters and it can be hard to remember who they all are. Be aware though that searching for character lists online can lead you to see spoilers you might prefer not to know about!
If you’ve read War and Peace too I would love to know what you thought of it – and if you have any more tips for future War and Peace readers please share them with us!