My Reading of War and Peace

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.’

34 thoughts on “My Reading of War and Peace

      1. I didn’t look at the P&V this time, because I didn’t like their translation of Anna Karenina when I sampled it and I had two others that I liked the look of in the house. I’m glad that there’s a choice out there though, and a lot of people do seem to rate them highly.

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  1. Well done – finishing War and Peace is a big accomplishment! I read it a few years ago, also as part of a readalong although, like you, I ended up abandoning the schedule and reading at my own pace. I don’t think I would have been disciplined enough to pull out a quotation for every chapter, but it’s a great idea and I’m glad it worked for you.

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    1. I loved the Maude translation of Anna Karenina, and I liked this one but the use of English versions of character names really bothered me. I understand that the Russian names were reinstated in more recent editions with that translations, and I suspect that if I’d had one of those editions I would have read it to the end.

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  2. Oh good for you, Jane. I read W&P the first time many years ago and enjoyed it well enough but time went by and for some reason I wanted to read it again. I think the first time I’d skimmed a lot and just “got through it.” Then a few summers ago when the Pevear version was released I went ahead and did it again. This time it all made sense – I was right there with Tolstoy in the ball rooms and the battlefields. That book is everything. And there are many people who agree with you about the appendices. (lol)

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  3. Thank you for recommending the translation! I’ve always been daunted by this classic but your post inspires me to read it in the new year. I’ve read and re-read Anna Karenina and I love it and I have a feeling that War and Peace is going to live up to expectations too!

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  4. Awesome Jane! So glad you finished this book and more importantly loved it as well. It is one of my all time favorites and like you while I cannot always, like all he characters, I always find myself involved with them! And then the way Tolstoy made Russia come alive….just way too brilliant! The appendixes …I agree….UGH!

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  5. The choice of translation is so important in reading foreign literature. I destroyed Madame Bovary forever in my eyes by just picking up the first translation that came to hand; it was beyond dreadful and I transferred that opinion to the book itself. I read War and Peace one winter while waiting at bus stops for buses tot work which just never seemed to arrive. I left that job over thirty years ago, so maybe it is time to think about going back and starting again.

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  6. I love that idea of pulling out a quote from each chapter! I’m quaking a bit as January 1 nears because I’m going to attempt Les Mis in 2018! I have a blank little journal and I’m going to what you did here to help me move forward. I’m very ignorant about the Russian classics and would love to read them someday too! Thanks for sharing how you worked your way through and how much you enjoyed it.

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  7. Lovely post Jane! I too am so happy that I read War and Peace this year, and like you I found myself unexpectedly gripped by the war sections. I read the first appendix but ignored the second after what I’d read about it and I’m very glad I did. Nothing can beat a great Russian chunkster in my view! 🙂

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  8. I enjoyed reading about your experience, with the experimenting whether with translations or reading pace; I think we do need to be open to trying new rhythms to catch the beat of a novel for our varying reading styles. We tend to think of books as being matches or not, but I think these details can greatly advance (or hinder) connections. I did read W&P a few years ago and found the same challenge in summarizing my response, but I, too, was glad to have had the experience of reading it. And now you really are a reader of long Russian tales!

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    1. Reading this book has reinforced my view that there is no right or wrong way to read it, and different translations, different approaches work for different people, I won’t consider myself a reader of long Russian tales until I’ve read more authors than Tolstoy, but I definitely have other Russian classics in mind.

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  9. The translation question is so important in relation to one’s reading enjoyment, isn’t it. I have been interested this year to compare the two English translations of Dr Zhivago – Hayward and Harari’s 1958 translation vs that by Pevear and Volokhonsky in 2010. I found the latter to be hugely overwritten and difficult to follow, going instead with the former. As for War and Peace, I am biased – I think I have told you before that we have the honour to know Professor Briggs. Anyway, I have decided to follow in your footsteps for 2018 and read W&P again – not sure if I will be able to stick to the ‘chapter a day’ approach, but we shall see. 🙂

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  10. It’s hard to imagine reading War and Peace over the course of a year. I found myself so quickly immersed in affairs of the five Russian families that I abandoned my own personal life for a 10 days to read it. Reading a literature this way does have its cost, but gives me the chance the understand a life that I could never live (and pity poor Sophia (Tolstoy’s wife) who had to copy it over 7 times as he rewrote it.

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