Reading War & Peace: Some tips!

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Since a couple of people have asked for tips on reading this book I thought it’d be good to get them up here now, while it’s all still fresh in my memory. I don’t claim to be any sort of expert on this but here’s the advice I wish someone had given me before I started. I hope it comes in useful to someone!

1, Know your characters.

According to the introduction to my copy, there are references to more than 600 characters within the pages of War and Peace. To make matters extra confusing there isn’t one hero or central character; instead it follows several interconnected families over a number of years. It means viewpoints are constantly shifting and minor characters appear and disappear over time.

If you’re not careful, all these names and relationships can become quite overwhelming so to avoid unnecessary confusion I’d recommend having a character list or some family trees to hand. You could plot your own or just download one from the internet (Wikipedia has some good ones here and I also really like the ones on the BBC Radio 4 page). If you’re anything like me you’ll soon find that the more you read the less you’ll need these but they’re an enormous help in the beginning.

2, Get to grips with the names.

If you’ve read other Russian novels you might already know that character names can also be a cause of confusion. You’ll find that one character can be referred to by several similar first names (e.g. Sonya, Sofya, Sonyushka), that there’ll be multiple characters with the same first name (e.g. Anna Pavlovna, Anna Dmitrievna, Anna Mikhailovna) and that some members of the same family will have slightly differing forms of the same surnames (e.g. Rostov and Rostova). If you are finding it confusing it might be helpful to find a good guide to Russian names and patronymics. There are several on the web but this one is nice and comprehensive.

3, Do a bit of background reading.

I really don’t believe that you need to know much about Russian history or the Napoleonic wars before you read War and Peace. Definitely not. However, anything you do know will help give you some context and the rest you can figure out as you go along.

In preparation I watched this very fast video run through of how the wars developed and I read a couple of Wikipedia articles on Borodino, Austerlitz and the burning of Moscow since these all seemed pretty pivotal to the plot. I probably went a bit overboard but with hindsight I’m glad I did it.

If you do nothing else just make sure that if you come across a reference you don’t understand, try to look it up right then. My friend told me the book would have made so much more sense to her if she’d bothered to look up what a serf was the first time she saw it, instead of waiting to the end!

4, Don’t be afraid to take shortcuts if you need to.

It’s a bit of an understatement but you should be aware that Tolstoy occasionally strays off topic. Just as you’re dying to know what’s happened to Andrei Bolkonsky he starts going on at length about the emancipation of the serfs, the nature of absolute power or Napoleon’s lunch or whatever and it can be kind of infuriating. I don’t suggest jumping over these sections entirely and I definitely don’t recommend skipping the war chapters (as a surprising number of people seem to do). However, if you’re struggling to persevere through a long description of the Battle of Borodino, for example, then I don’t think there’s any harm in trying to make life a bit easier for yourself. Have a break, switch to the audio book, skim read even; it doesn’t matter. It might be controversial but you won’t spoil the novel, you probably won’t miss out on anything hugely important and the literature police aren’t going to hunt you down.

5, Share the experience.

One of the loveliest things about reading this book has been that I’ve never felt alone while doing it. Readers and non-readers alike have been keen to share their experiences and I’ve had plenty of opportunities to share my own. I’ve discussed it on this blog, read online reviews, compared notes with friends, watched the TV series, even had a lengthy conversation about Pierre Bezukov with a stranger on a train. Hearing that other people have struggled through the same chapters and still think it was worth the effort was so wonderful to hear when I was having a horrible time in Borodino. I’d absolutely recommend taking any opportunity to share your own thoughts and to reach out to others who have been in the same place.

That’s it! My final W&P post. I’m done 🙂

War and Peace (1869) by Leo Tolstoy

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After two months of steady reading I finally (reluctantly) finished War and Peace last night. I know of several people who claim to have read this book in just a couple of weeks but I’m glad I took my time to enjoy this one at a slower pace. I’m genuinely sad now it’s over but I always feel a bit like this when I finish a particularly long book. They bring on the worst book hangovers.

I’ve been updating here fairly regularly with my progress so there isn’t a great deal to add to all my previous posts. Book 4 contained a death I hadn’t seen coming (having deliberately not listened to the last episode of the radio play), the pursuit of the retreating French army, a rescue, some friendships and a final reunion. It ends on the promise of both good and bad things looming in the future and I can almost understand why some readers believe that Tolstoy should have just left it there. Following this is the epilogue, which is a both an update on where the main characters are several years down the line and an essay on why ‘History’ will never be fully able to grasp why and how these events all came to pass. It’s a weird way to end such an epic piece of fiction – not with a bang but with a whimper, you might say – but it seems quite fitting to me. Tolstoy strove to provide a true glimpse into life in all its glorious and petty detail, to show that there’s a thin line between war and peace and that there’s never really an end to this cycle; I think I’d have found a neater ending disappointing.

And I think it is all the detail that makes this book so completely engrossing. Nothing is too small or insignificant for Tolstoy to describe. The discussions of the war council, the preparations for Natasha’s first ball, Anatole’s coachman, and the troublesome peasants on the Bolkonsky estate: Tolstoy casts the same searching eye over them all. You might think that this could get boring quite fast but I found that the opposite was true. All of Tolstoy’s descriptions feel really vivid and some images stayed with me long after I’d moved on to the next page:

 “Some of the dust was kneaded by the feet and the wheels while the rest rose and hung like a cloud over the troops, settling in eyes, ears, hair and nostrils and, worse of all, in the lungs of the men and beasts as they moved along that road. The higher the sun rose, the higher rose that cloud of dust and through the screen of its hot, fine particles one could look with naked eye at the sun which showed like a huge crimson ball in the unclouded sky. There was no wind and the men choked in that motionless atmosphere.”

Another side effect of all this attention to detail is that you feel like you have a much deeper relationship with the characters, even the ones you instinctively disliked at the beginning (*ahem* Natasha Rostova). I can’t think of many other books that so meticulously describe the emotional workings of each character or create such believable inner worlds for them, complete with all their contradictions, whims and caprices. I think it’s his sympathy for his own characters that I like best. He shows that people, like wars, are indescribable. There’s a horrible scene describing the execution of Russian prisoners by French soldiers where he even warns the readers not to condemn too harshly but to try to understand how a myriad of random circumstances and choices brought the world to this point. It’s kind of hard not to admire the way he does this.

There were a couple of occasions, particularly towards the end, when I felt like I was struggling through very thick mud with this book. The fact that I came out of it and still think it’s one of the most impressive things I’ve ever read is probably testament to how readable and enjoyable this is. I can understand why it’s rated so highly and loved by so many people. On the flip side, I can also completely understand why one of my colleagues hates it with a passion. Each to his own, I guess.

While I was reading I often had the curious feeling that this was life and that everything else was just revolving around the book. Does anyone else ever get that feeling? It’s been a long time since any book has made me feel so completely and utterly absorbed in another world like that. I have another brief post on this book to write (just tips for any future readers) and then it’ll go back on the shelf. It’s probably about time I moved on with my life!

 

War And Peace (Book 3)

You might remember that I finished Book 2 of War and Peace full of enthusiasm. I loved all the scandal and drama of those Moscow chapters and, although I knew the focus would now shift back to the war, I was feeling pretty optimistic. I mean, I got through Schongrabern and Austerlitz quickly and without struggling, why should this be any different?

It was no time at all before I was forced to eat. my. words.

Much of Book 3 is devoted to the Battle of Borodino, Russia’s last stand before Moscow is sacrificed to Napoleon and the invading French army. The battle itself feels almost apocalyptic and it’s an easy enough read. There are some great scenes where the blundering Pierre gets inadvertently caught up in the bloodshed and another with Prince Andrei in a field hospital, both of which I thought were really movingly described. The trouble is, however, that Tolstoy takes his own sweet time getting to a stage where he can tell us how the main characters are experiencing the battle. In the meantime there are pages of analysis: what French historians think of Borodino, what Tolstoy thinks, Napoleon’s motivation, French military tactics, Russian military tactics, where the French went wrong, why none of it was enough to save Moscow, and what this all tells us about the very nature of history and life itself….

I know that Borodino is pivotal to the plot but, oh my God, the introduction to it drags on for far, far too long. And, to make matters worse, I’m a stickler for detail: I’m completely unable to skim read so I have to read EVERY LAST WORD, multiple times if necessary, to make sure I’ve fully grasped what’s being said. And if I still don’t get it I’ll turn to Wikipedia or I’ll plot the route of Napoleon’s army on Google Maps (no, seriously, I actually did this) until I’m up to speed. I’d have gotten through Borodino so much quicker and more enjoyably if I could just relax instead of getting all finicky about it.

The upshot of all this is that I felt like I was bogged down in Borodino for ages when in actual fact it was just a week and a half. It really wasn’t half as bad as I remember but in the end I was starting to question whether I really was enjoying War and Peace as much as I’d previously thought. It was a huge relief when the action switched away from the battlefield. I never imagined I’d be so glad to see that conniving Helene Bezukov again.

After Borodino, Book 3 improved immensely. I loved the chaos of the abandonment of Moscow, the Rostov escape, Pierre’s mad ramblings through the burning city and the (probably temporary) reappearance of a Bolkonsky. I’m pleased to say that I’ve returned to my normal happy reading frame of mind and all is right with the world again. Phew!

 

War And Peace (Book 2, Parts 3-5)

Somewhere in the middle of Book 2 I realised that I’m really enjoying this book; like, really enjoying it. I might even, shock horror, prefer it to Anna Karenina which, by the way, I loved.

I’m not sure what brought about this realisation but it probably has something to do with my new copy of the book and the fact that I crammed so much reading in over Christmas. I’m now well and truly absorbed in the Rostov/Bolkonsky/Kuragin drama and enjoying it hugely, so much so that I’ve stopped minding the long paragraphs devoted to military strategies, political manoeuvrings or, God help me, the Freemasons. Right now I’m struggling to think of anything I really don’t like about War and Peace.

It helps, of course, that Parts 3-5 have been pretty busy. Andrew Bolkonsky has had a series of rapid changes of heart, fallen in love, become a big mover in the political sphere and gained a reputation as an influential liberal. Pierre Bezukov has reconciled with his wife and promptly separated from her again. And the Rostovs? They’re just a big old mess. It’s brilliant. I’m warming to Natasha Rostov so much more now. The turmoil of her engagement and seduction is beautifully played out.

“She looked straight into his eyes and his nearness, self-assurance and the good natured tenderness of his smile vanquished her. She smiled just as he was doing, gazing straight into his eyes. And again she felt with horror that no barrier lay between him and her.” 

These chapters are set during another of those lulls in the storm, when Europe is experiencing a short-lived peace. They’re a glittering whirl of balls and gossip and nights at the opera, all while the storm gathers on the horizon. I love it.

 

War and Peace: a new beginning…

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In my hunt for a replacement copy of War and Peace I exhausted every Waterstones, W H Smith and charity shop in my home city and in the town where I work. Nothing.

If I’d been enjoying this book less I’d probably have continued reading my old Penguin version, grumbling away about the pages always falling out as I did so. The thing is, though, that I think I might be a bit in love with this book. I want a nice copy. One that’ll withstand multiple readings.

In the end I drove twenty miles down the road and found two copies for sale in Walker’s Books, Stamford. I came away with the Oxford World’s Classics edition, and very pretty it is too.

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Much better I’m sure you’ll agree. There’s a lot to be said for reading a book that has all the pages still attached to the binding.

The translator of my old Penguin Classics version isn’t identified anywhere in the book but I know that my new copy is based on the Louise and Aylmer Maude translation. When I got home and compared the two more thoroughly I realised that they were more or less the same, with only a few small changes to some of the French passages in the first chapter. I know that the Maude translation is a well respected one and I’m actually quite relieved that I won’t be changing versions half way through the book. The other copy on the shelf in Walkers was the recent Anthony Briggs translation. It was slightly cheaper but I decided against it because I’d read mixed opinions of this one.

My new copy doesn’t have any extra footnotes but it does have a decent introduction, more detailed character lists, a timeline and some maps. Hopefully this will see me through the next half of the book, with a bit of help from the internet of course.

Since buying my new copy I’ve made it to roughly half way through the rest of Book 2. More on this later….

War and Peace (Book 2, Parts 1 and 2)

My copy of War and Peace fell to pieces on the train. I noticed that it was starting to look a little battered but I hadn’t expected it to disintegrate quite so spectacularly and at the worst possible moment like that. It’s now held together with elastic bands but after the holidays, when the shops aren’t so busy, I might finally go out and buy myself a new copy as I’ve been threatening to do for weeks. It’s probably about time.

Until then I’d been speeding quite rapidly through Book 2, which might explain why it felt like the most readable so far. It helps, of course, that there’s no military action to speak of in this one. It’s now the spring of 1806, there’s a lull in the war and the soldiers are all returning to their homes for a few short months of leave. There’s a lovely Rostov homecoming at the beginning followed quickly by a duel, a birth, a death, a proposal, a ball, a debt…. all unfolding in rapid succession. Since this one doesn’t switch suddenly to the Prussian front half way through, like in previous sections, it flows from one chapter to the next quite neatly and without interruption.

Because there were no big camp or battle scenes in Part 1 I half expected that the next one would switch back to the frontline but, no… Instead, Tolstoy jumps right on in with Pierre Bezukov’s musings on the meaning of life and then some (quite frankly, weird) chapters where he’s initiated into the Freemasons. It was at about this point that the Book fell to pieces, providing a welcome diversion when the book had taken quite an odd turn. Thankfully the Freemason chapters are quite short and I was relieved when the action eventually shifted back to the Bolksonskys, whom I always enjoy reading about. I don’t know why I love the Bolkonskys so much.

At the end of Part 2 I finally feel like I’m getting a clearer picture of Nicolai Rostov; which is a relief. Now that conditions at camp are deteriorating, and his friend Denisov is in real trouble, we’re seeing a better side to him I think. He still feels like the only character I’ve not really got to grips with yet… but there’s hope.

After today I’ll be off work until the new year so I’m hoping to make good headway with this book over the holidays (particularly after I’ve gone and purchased a new copy). In the meantime I’ll spend a few days stuffing my face with mince pies, wearing daft paper hats and watching Dad’s Army repeats on the telly…. so this will probably be my last post for a couple of days.

Have a merry Christmas everyone x

War and Peace (Book 1, Part 3)

I’m engrossed enough in War and Peace now to start considering whether it might be worth upgrading to a better copy. I’m reading a very cheap and cheerful Penguin Popular Classics version, the sort you used to be able to buy for £1 in The Works. It does the job but I think I’d have a better grasp of some of the finer plot strands with a clearer translation that held my hand through some of the tougher parts. Looking back I’m not sure I’d have persevered through Daniel Deronda without some footnotes to guide me and with W&P I occasionally feel I need something similar to help me out. I noticed this most recently with some passing references to a character called Tit *snort*, a cook who’s mocked mercilessly by the orderlies. Is he being ridiculed because of his name? Was he called Tit in the original or has this been translated to an English equivalent? Or am I just completely missing the point? I need a bit of help and I’m not getting it with my copy. If anyone can recommend a particular translation or version then it’d be very much appreciated.

In any case, I’m making quite slow but satisfying progress through the book so far. I finished the third part on the train to work this morning and was surprised to realise how far I’d come. This part of the book is divided down the middle so we read both the war and the peace sides of the story back to back and without interruption. The first half follows Pierre Bezukov in Moscow and Marya Bolkonsky at Bald Hills as they both find themselves being pushed (one more tentatively than the other) towards marriages. I love Marya. She’s thoughtful and kind and not easily pushed into doing anything she doesn’t feel is completely right, even if she gets hurt in the process. Her considered approach to Anatole’s proposal makes a stark contrast to Pierre’s bizarre engagement to Helene. That man needs a good shake.

After this the action shifts quite quickly to the Prussian front where Nicolai, Andrew, Berg, Boris, Denisov, Dolokhov, Kutuzov and all the rest are preparing for the next big battle. By the end of this part of the novel the Russians have been defeated at Austerlitz and Nicolai and Andrew, both desperate to prove themselves, have been left feeling horribly disillusioned and disappointed by their idols. Andrew is lying wounded on the battlefield and Nicolai is kicking himself for bottling it when he had a chance to impress the Emperor he loves so dearly. Tolstoy draws a really clear line between the grand ideals of these naive young men – all that glorious dying for your country and your Tsar malarkey – and their real experiences. It’s neatly done.

War And Peace (Book 1, Part 2): A first taste of war…

“Bolkonsky closed his eyes and immediately a sound of cannonading, of musketry, and the rattling of carriage wheels seemed to fill his ears, and now again drawn out in a thin line the musketeers were descending the hill, the French were firing, and he felt his heart palpitating as he rode forward beside Schmidt with the bullets merrily whistling all around, and he experienced tenfold the joy of living, as he had not done since childhood.”

It would’ve been nice to have made it a little further into War and Peace by now but I got held up for a week by germs. Nasty things.  Normally the opportunity to spend all that time at home with nothing to do would seem like absolute bliss – think of all that reading I could do – but I was too disgustingly sick to do anything but watch multiple episodes of Homes Under The Hammer and Storage Wars. It feels like such a wasted opportunity now!

As soon as I recovered I picked it up again and whizzed through the final chapters in Part 2 fairly quickly. It’s the first of the books devoted to the war and some of our old friends from Book 1 are now getting their first taste of camp life. Tolstoy really takes his time with both Nicolas Rostov and Andrew Bolkonsky, recounting their very different experiences in the camp and in battle at Schongrabern and showing how they both end up feeling very differently about their destinies. They both seem to end up feeling curiously validated, although confused, by their experiences. We’ve now been introduced to the famous General Kutuzov as well as god-knows-how-many other characters who appear for a few pages at a time and then disappear again. Coming back to the book after my week off I was worried I’d lose the thread and sure enough I soon got horribly confused between Dolokhov and Denisov and spent ages trying to remember where we’d encountered the shy little captain with no boots before. I’m not sure it’s the sort of book you can afford to leave untouched for too long.

I was dreading all the military stuff but so far it’s not been as incomprehensible as I imagined. So far so good. I am, however, very much looking forward to Part 3, where we return to civilian life in Moscow. Hurrah.

War And Peace (Book 1, Part 1): And so it begins…

“If no one fought except on his own conviction, there would be no wars.”

WarAndPeaceI think War and Peace is probably a victim of its own reputation. You see it featured so often on Bucket lists and Best Book polls, not to mention those passive aggressive 100-Things-You-MUST-Do-Before-You-DIE lists (eurgh, I hate those). After seeing it listed alongside cave jumping and swimming with sharks it’s easy to see how it’s come to take on an almost mythical status as something that’s both rewarding and terrifying. I wonder how many people are put off by all that noisy, conflicting hype?

I recently began reading it for a second time, having given up after fewer than 150 pages on my first attempt ten years ago. I’ve always regretted it, mainly because I hate it when I know I didn’t try hard enough. I think if I’d been reading it for genuine pleasure – and not because it was on a Best Book list – I might have been more willing to persevere through the trickier bits but instead I gave up as soon as I realised that this book might require a little more effort than I was willing to put into it. What an idiot.

Since then I’ve done my research. I listened to the radio play earlier this year and enjoyed it immensely so this time I’m reading it because I actually want to. It’s made all the difference.  I’ve just passed the end of Book One, roughly 114 pages in my Penguin Popular Classics edition. There have been no major mishaps, no signs of wavering enthusiasm. In fact, I’ve surprised myself with how much I’m enjoying it. Unlike last time I feel like I have a really tight grip on all those characters and plot strands. I won’t let go.

For a nineteenth century Russian classic War and Peace is wonderfully readable, which makes its reputation as a ‘difficult’ book seem even more unfair. I don’t know whether I should thank the translator of my copy (whoever that may be, no mention of it at all that I can find) of if Tolstoy was just a master storyteller. Probably the latter. He doesn’t faff about setting the scene with long descriptions, he just chucks you straight into Anna Scherer’s soiree on page one and lets you watch all the characters interact and set the scene for you. This first part of the book is set in the summer of 1805, in a dizzying whirl of parties and social gatherings. We glimpse the three families at the heart of the novel – the Rostovs, Bolkonskys and Bezukovs (or Pierre Bezukov at least) – at peace, in the lull before the storm, just as war is about to be declared. The coming conflict looms on the horizon.

The sheer number of characters in this first part of the book is immense. It’s also one of the reasons I think I felt so overwhelmed on my last attempt. This time I think I’m getting better at working out which characters I should pay most attention to, and which ones serve only the briefest of purposes. I found Natasha Rostov a little hard to take at first but she is still a child at the moment so I hope she will improve. I’m probably determined to hate her because I get the distinct feeling that Tolstoy wants us to like her most. I’m such a rebel. I like Pierre though – how can you not like poor Pierre? – and I’m intrigued to see what will happen with Andrei. I’ve not yet worked out how we’re supposed to feel about him. Does Tolstoy want to repel us with his cynicism? Or should we identify with his frustration? I don’t know but I’m drawn to him most of all so far.

  “Drawing rooms, gossip, balls, vanity and triviality – these are the enchanted circle I cannot escape from. I am now going to the war, the greatest war there ever was, and I know nothing and am fit for nothing.”

It’s likely that I’m only feeling so optimistic right now because I’ve just finished what will  inevitably turn out to be the easiest and most light hearted part of the book. I expect the coming war will make all the difference.

Top Ten Tuesday: Books to read this autumn

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Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by the folks at the Broke and Bookish. This week the theme is all about the top books we’d like to read this coming autumn.

Before writing this post I looked back at my TBR list from the start of the summer and realised, with dismay, that I have only read three of the books that I listed. Three! Well, three plus one short story. Good grief.

I said at the time that I don’t really plan my reading ahead because I’m too fickle, too easily distracted. I believe I have just proved my point. So here’s the latest attempt but with the usual disclaimer: this list will have very little bearing on what I will actually end up reading in the coming months.

1). The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith. I’m looking forward to reading something a little more grown up from Rowling. I know absolutely nothing about it – I didn’t even read the blurb before buying it – so whatever happens hopefully it’ll be a nice surprise!

2). The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy. This was on the TBR list I made in June and I’m still desperate to read it. I think I have to be in the right mood for Hardy and lately I just haven’t been.  Sometimes I just want to read a book where I know all the main characters will survive to the end, is that too much to ask?

3). The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley. I loved this book when I read it back in 2005 but until last week I hadn’t even thought about it in ages. It wasn’t until I saw the advert for the latest BBC adaptation that it all came flooding back to me. I’ve recorded the show but I think this needs a reread first.

4). The Warden by Anthony Trollope. After months of searching I finally found a second hand copy of this amongst some new donations at the charity shop. About bloody time. Who knew that the residents of this little town were so keen to hold onto their Trollopes?

5). The Picture Of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. I’m so ashamed of not having read this yet. It’s been sitting unread on my shelf for at least ten years. Possibly more.

6). War and peace by Leo Tolstoy. Another example of the BBC shaping my reading habits. I was only saying a few weeks ago that I want to have another go at this and then I heard that there’s a big adaptation planned for next year…. but maybe I’ll leave it a little longer. I’ve had enough big books recently.

7). The Sot Weed Factor by John Barth. P’s dad lent me this nearly a year ago and has been far too polite to ask for it back. I need to get on this soon.

8). Classic Victorian and Edwardian Ghost Stories by Rex Collings (ed). I don’t plan on reading these all in one go but I think I might try to do one a month or so. Now the nights are closing in they’re pretty perfect for some ghost stories by the fire I think.

9). Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon. This has been lurking at the top of my TBR pile for ages and there have been several times when I’ve reached for it…. and then changed my mind. Soon, Lady Audley, soon.

10). Something, anything at all, written by Sophie Hannah. I’m going to an author talk in October and it occurs to me that besides some poetry and The Monogram Murders, I haven’t actually read much by Sophie Hannah. I know I’ll get more from the talk if I’m reasonably well prepared before hand.

Voila! Do other people stick to their TBR lists? Or is it just that I’m a bit of a flake?