I didn’t think of myself as someone who read long Russian novels, but over time I began to wonder if I might read at least one. That one was ‘Anna Karenina’, because so many people seemed to have read it and loved it; and when I read it I loved it too. That made me start thinking about ‘War and Peace.’ It’s a ridiculously long book, I wasn’t entirely sure that I wanted to read at length about the war side of things, but, because I had loved my first encounter with Tolstoy, because it’s such an iconic book, the idea began to take hold.
I knew that ‘War and Peace’ would need the right approach.
Twelve months ago I thought that ‘A Year of War and Peace’ – a chapter a day for the whole year – was a lovely proposition. It was for many people, and the records that it has left behind would be a wonderful resource for anyone starting reading, but the place was too slow for me and I drifted away.
Early last summer I found another read-along, at a different pace, I knew that it was time to start again. That was when I read the book from start to finish. I didn’t stick to the schedule, but it gave me enough of a start to find my own way through the book, and it was lovely to be able to watch others who were making their own journey through the same huge book.
I had two translations, and I was torn over which to read, because they both read well.
On one hand I had the Louise and Aylmer Maude translation in a lovely old Macmillan edition, with maps for endpapers and headings at the top of each page; and on the other hand I had the Anthony Briggs translation in a more recent and more practical Penguin edition.
In the end I started with the Maudes; because when I auditioned translations of ‘Anna Karenina’ theirs was my favourite by far, and because I love that they knew Tolstoy. I found though that this translation didn’t flow as well as the one I had read before, and the English translation of many Russian names quickly became irksome. I switched to the Briggs translation and I found that it worked beautifully; it felt crisp, it felt colloquial, it felt utterly real, and it pulled me right in to a wonderful human drama.
I had found my pace, I had found my translation, and I had one more thing to find to help me on my journey.
I needed markers, and I found that pulling out a quotation from each chapter held me close to the story and made me focus on so many small details of character, or action, of description, of emotion, that this book is built upon. I also found that by doing that I had created my own book of memories of the book, and when I look at it the book comes to life again.
It comes to life because Tolstoy created a whole world, mixing fictional characters with real historical figures, and setting their lives against major events in their nation’s history. He did that so very well, showing the effects of great events that influence countless of lives; on the masses and on the particular families and characters whose stories he chose to tell.
I came to know those families and those characters so well that I can’t draw a line between the historical and the fictional, and now that I look back at people and places and events, both big and small, I don’t doubt the reality of any of it.
The character development was wonderful, and I loved the way that it balanced the spiritual the political and the emotional.
Tolstoy clearly knew his characters and their families so well, and he spun their stories together very cleverly.
It’s impossible to summarise, and this book has had so much written about it that I am sure I have nothing new to say. That’s why I have explained how I found my way through this book at some length and why I am simply going on to simply record a few of my impressions.
I had expected to be less engaged with the war than the peace, but as I read I found that wasn’t the case at all. As long as there was a character I knew I wanted to follow them, to know what would happen, to understand their feelings and their actions.
I didn’t always like them, I didn’t always agree with them, but I believed in them and I wanted to understand them.
The war scenes – and the scenes that showed the consequences of war – showed the things that Tolstoy did best in this book. He showed that many things, some of them random, change the course of history, and he showed how very small individual lives are when they are set against that history.
He expounded on those themes in the text, and I had expected to find those parts of the book dull, but I didn’t. I liked his voice and by and large I agreed with him.
I just wish he hadn’t written those two appendixes. The first took the story forward when I would have rather considered my own ideas about what might have happened; and the second set out his ideas at length when everything that needed to be said had been said in the text, and in the thoughts, words and actions of his cast of characters.
I can forgive him though, because he told me a wonderful story, he spoke to me of many things, and he made me think, he made me care, he feel so many different emotions.
I was glad to reach the end, but it took me a long time to get used to not having more to read, and even now, three months, I am still thinking about ‘War and Peace.’