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 🙂