Thursday, July 15, 2010

Classics Circuit- War and Peace

When I signed up for the latest Classics Circuit Tour, I knew I was being ambitious. The tour theme is White Nights on the Neva: Imperial Russian Literature, and I had nominated that I was going to read War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy.  I was however realistic enough to realise that it was highly unlikely that I was going to be able to read the whole book, but rather that my post would be a progress report.

First though, I thought I would talk a little bit about Imperial Russian Literature. I have vague recollections of reading The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoyevsky, or at least starting to read it, during high school, but really that was about all for my exposure until much later in life.

Ever since it started, there have been criticisms of Oprah and her book club, but for me, it was really her revamped classics book club that gave me my next intro into the world of Russian literature. Without the selection of Anna Karenina as one of the reads, I am not sure I would ever have picked Tolstoy up. Part of the reason for that is that I feel some what intimidated at the idea of reading the classics, and yet when I make the decision to actually read one, I invariably enjoy it. That was definitely true of Anna Karenina, especially as my reading of it was enhanced by the discussions that I had with the group I was involved with on the boards. I am still friends with some of those same people that I met in those discussions, and the depth and fun that we had in those discussions remains with me even now.

Every now and again I think I should reread Anna Karenina, but it hasn't happened yet. I guess I could have chosen to read that book for this tour, but I thought I would take the opportunity to try something new. I knew that I could enjoy reading Tolstoy. The question was really would I enjoy War and Peace as much as I enjoyed reading AK.

The first big question is which translation to read. Given that I had enjoyed the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation of AK, my first thought was to continue with them, but it is fare to say that when you ask that question, people are passionate about which translation you should choose!

In the end I went with the tried and tested, for me at least, and chose the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation.I originally borrowed it from the library, but I quickly realised that possibly wasn't the smartest thing as there was no way I would be able to get the book read in the four weeks allotted so then I ended up buying a copy.

My reading started off quite well really, but the sad truth is that I have stalled a bit in my reading of War and Peace. I was making good progress with it for the first 10 days or so, but since then other books have gotten in the way. At this point I am on page 228 of 1215 pages of story and so have read through the first Part of the novel, plus a bit more. There are lots more pages of notes and appendices which I haven't included there, but I will work through them.

So after all that intro, what are my thoughts on the book itself? As I was I am surprised how much I am enjoying it. Yes, it is a challenge, but there are reasons why certain books stand the test of time, and that is because for the most part they are good reads.

So far it seems to me that there are two voices in this novel. The first is of the ladies and gents of the upper society, as they come to the realisation that there is definitely going to be war. There is the political discussion, the manipulating to try and get sons into influential positions where they may well be safer as well. There is the gossip about the manipulations and manipulators, about the ill mannered, about love affairs and those young men who are either not going to war or who are partying extremely hard on the eve of going to war. All of these happen in the shadow of the impending death of Count Bezukhov, the father of one of the main characters, Pierre, who is the count's illegitimate son.

The other strand is with the soldiers, particularly with Prince Andrei Nikolayevich Bolkonsky who has signed up to be an aide-de-camp to an important general. The narrative here is gritty and realistic.

The thing that constantly surprises me as I read though, is that the text can move from an in depth discussion about the tactics of war, to a very funny scene like the one where the soldiers have marched for miles, are told to get dressed in full dress uniform for parade, only to then be told that their leaders wanted them to look bedraggled, and vice versa, to then moving to the socialite world where people are trying to protect their cut of the inheritance and back again.

In a recent Teaser Tuesday post, I shared a brief passage on how Tolstoy described this novel:

It is not a novel, still less an epic poem, still less a historical chronicle. War and Peace is what the author wanted and was able to express, in the form in which it is expressed.

For this reader, despite what it is not, according to the author at least, it is an adventure. I don't really know what to expect next. It could be details of a big battle, it may be more social shenanigans, it may be funny anecdotes, or it could be none of those things.

 It may be slow going for me to continue on my adventure, but continue I will, and I really hope to be able to make some significant progress on it soon.


  1. I hope that you continue to enjoy the novel. I read it many years ago, when in grade 8 I believe, but skimmed some of parts where it moves from the story to the more theoretical discussion of history and our actions and what not. I really did enjoy it though, but I need to re-read it and include those parts!

    Good luck and happy reading!

  2. I know what you mean about reading the classics. I often feel intimidated by them, and sometimes even indifferent to reading them. When I do finally get around to them, I am always so astounded how wonderful they are! I guess that's why they are considered classics! That being said, I recently bought a copy of War and Peace for my Kindle, and now it's just a matter of making the time to read it!!

  3. Good luck. I've yet to take on War and Peace but I admire you for it. :-)

  4. I wish I could be as brave as you are but I have yet to even crack open War & Peace (or Anna Karenina for that matter!).

  5. You have no reason to feel at all intimidated by reading the classics! My readers as well are fearless, for which I admire them greatly.

  6. books like this seem to say 'winter reading' to me. :) i can't see myself toting some giant doorstop of a book to the beach but admire your fortitude.

  7. Nat, lucky it is winter here then! ;-)

    Shelley, I am sure there is no real reason, but doesn't mean to say that there isn't!

    reviewsbylola and Amy, maybe one day!

    Zibilee, there has to be something that stands the test of time doesn't there!

  8. I hope you persevere. I admit to being quite behind on reading some classics, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky have remained on my TBR list and shelf for a while now, and do so love to read other's thoughts on them.

  9. I'm reading this for my book club in a few months-- we gave ourselves TWO months to read it. I'm hoping that's enough time!

    I've been pretty impressed with Oprah's book club selections. They're all pretty depressing, though. She needs something a little happier....

  10. What a great challenge. I watched The Last Station last week and it made me want to read some Tolstoy! I will one day, but you know me and chunksters... ;)

  11. I'm hope your reading continues to go well. I want to read some big Russian novel sometime, but haven't made the time yet. Good luck!

  12. You're doing great. Keep going. It took me about 5 months and it is totally worth it. Such a great piece of literature.



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