So I just bought this book, after seeing it at the top of many people’s list of their favorite books. It will be quite the undertaking for me, needless to say a long term commitment, and because of this I was wondering if there was any thing I should read or study beforehand to prepare myself?
I’ve heard from friends that it’s a great read if I know some of the history already. Also, some French helps, as I have seen by just reading a couple pages.
I enjoyed War and Peace thoroughly. In fact, I was surprised how much I enjoyed it. It read like a modern novel. Tolstoy would have been proud of me, too, because I read most of it while trucking around town on a Bangkok bus. But it’s no longer than some of the Stephen King stuff. It really does not take that long to read. It’s not like, say, Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past or In Search of Lost Time, depending on the translation. That one did take me a year to get through.
However, I had taken a bit of history in college and was already somewhat familiar with that time and place. I would recommend at the very least an overview of the Napoleanic Wars if you’re not.
Also, so many characters are introduced at the begining, I would suggest committing yourself to reading at least the first 50 pages in your first sitting. I think it will help you keep them straight.
I’ve read it twice and it was two totally different experiences for me. The first time I just devoured the book. It STILL took me a couple of months to read it all, but I just couldn’t put the thing down. I stayed up late every night to see what would happen next.
The next time I read it was probably 8 years later, and it was a different translation. I knew right from the first page that it wouldn’t be as good a read, and sure enough, it wasn’t. I have no idea what translation I so enjoyed the first time, and I can’t pin it to anything, writing-wise, I mean it was good old American English both times, but the writing was so much more fluid and smooth, more natural.
Having said that, you should enjoy the heck out of it, whatever version you’re reading. It is a huge, sprawling story, but there weren’t too many characters to keep track of, and it all tied itself together in many ways throughout the story. I wish I could go back and read that first book again (I’d gotten it in the library of the city I used to live in at the time).
Enjoy, and please give a report when you’ve gotten into it. Oh, and don’t be scared off if it takes you a little while to get into it. Once you’re sucked in, you’ll enjoy it.
I love the book. Let it wash over you, don’t worry about understanding every nuance of the battles, or do any research (unless something piques your interest), just jump in and enjoy. It really is a well written and compelling novel that can be taken on many levels.
I never got around to it, but one thing I’ll note about Russian literature is that Russians all have like three names they’re referred to by, and their names are foreign enough from English that it can be terribly hard to tell who is who and who is talking about who. Even the narrator will probably call the same character by all of their different call-names.
I’ve recently started the new Pevear and Volokhonsky translation and am finding it very readable. The footnotes are invaluable. I usually try to read it with my laptop nearby so I can Wiki up some background on historical events as they are mentioned.
Well this is all good news! I’m actually still a few chapters away from finishing my current book, but the I shall get right into War and Peace. I have the B&N published book, translated by Constance Garnett.
From having read other translated books (albeit from German mostly), I knew the translator would make a big impact, I hope Constance can keep me entertained.
If your copy has an index in the front or back listing all the characters names, nicknames, family names, and secret spy names, tear that page out and use it as a bookmark. Saves a lot of flipping back and forth.
I read it in college and the only things I remember are that Pierre irritated me (though I can’t remember why), I liked the Elmer Fudd guy who went on about those “wascally Wostovs!” (he may or may not have actually used the word “wascally”), and one of the maids could knit two socks at once on double-pointed needles, a feat I aspire to. I should probably read it again to see if I like it any better now; the first time I read it I was taking four literature courses in one semester and that really isn’t conducive to relaxed, reflective reading.
Yeah, it can pretty much be read through. You do know they aren’t currently speaking French in Moscow, right? Probably enough history right there.
I recently read the Anthony Briggs translation, and was not impressed. Don’t be surprised if you care much more for some characters and plot lines than others. You may have to slog through a number of chapters on one before getting back to the other. And Leo seems to have pretty much phoned it in for the last couple of hundred pages. Not exactly the best thing after making it through a thousand pages.
Thick 19th century Russian novels, like Shakespeare, are among the times that I recommend using Spark Notes (full text SNotes for W&P) before reading the book (not as a substitute for the novel but as the companion which they’re allegedly intended to be). Knowing the basic plot helps you cut through some of the "what is this thing called an ‘editor’ you speak of, time traveler?’ 19th century prose (which even in translation can make your eyes turn glassy at the endless description and confusing [to western ears] place & character names) and it should give some overview of the history as well.
You may also want to consider the Sergei Bondarchuk film, which
TRIVIA: The 5 hour Russian film of WAR & PEACE is the most expensive epic film in history- adjusted for inflation it would cost almost (if not over) $1 billion to produce. It features 120,000 extras, most of them soldiers from the Soviet armed forces in period uniform! My understanding is that (while condensed for necessity) it’s religiously faithful to the book, though as it was filmed over a decade there are continuity errors galore. I’ve only seen scenes from it, but if you’re interested it is available from Netflix with English subtitles.
Speaking of names, are you familiar with general Russian naming customs? The reason I ask is not to be patronyzing but because I remember reading Nicholas & Alexandra when I was a kid and it drove me nuts before I figured out some fairly simple things that are alien to an American, such as:
—A woman’s surname will always end in the letter A
—All Russians have a patronymic (their father’s name) as their middle name with a gender appropriate suffix-
Nicholas & Alexandra’s son Alexei was Alexei Nicholayevich (Al, son of Nick) and their daughter Olga was Olga Nicholoevna (Olga daughter of Nick); Alexei’s surname was Romanov, his sisters/female relatives were Romanova. It was very common evidently to be referred to by both given and patronym. For that matter, non Russians will be known by a patronymic if possible- in the U.S. my given names are Jonathan Carroll, in Russia I’d be [whatever the translation is of] Jonathan Stephenson [Ivan Steponovich?]).
While I know next to nothing about Russian culture/history that hasn’t been a bestselling work by R. K. Massie, there are lots of people on the board who do. For that matter there’s a number of military history buffs and other things that may be relevant, so if you have any questions about any aspect of it this is an excellent place to ask. If it’s for a factual question rather than literary I’d open a General Questions thread rather than bump this one. It’s often amazing how fast you’ll get an answer.
Just my opinion. I like some history, I’ve read a little Russian history and I managed to read it of War and Peace, if not enjoy it all. The story is fine, the history is OK but Tolstoy’s long discourses on destiny and predestination are all that stand out for me now. Cripes, if he wanted to write a philosophy book that’s fine but he shouldn’t have tried to mix it in with a novel.
I loved it – Tolstoy is a Geek – he looks at history as a case of “integrating the differentials” (ie – people) to create the whole. One point he tries to make in the book is that history really is unpredictable, and leaders have essemntially no effect on the oucome of situations – even people like Napoleon. Toward this end, whenever he reports Napoleon doing something he is careful to get his historical facts correct, but to impute to them motives completely different from the usual interpretations.
I think it’s an extreme position, myself, and incorrect, but you should keep it in mind as you read.
The book is full of portraits of the people of the time, their views, and their foibles (numerology!) Most translations ranslate both Russian an French into English, so I don’t think you meed to know French.
Also, get an unabridged translation – until recently, most translations were abridged. I read the Penguin edition myself.
And, if you camn, watch the Russian seven hour adaptation. It cuts out less than other, much shorter film adaptations do, and it has breathtaking aerial shots of the Battle of Borodino. In that pre-CGI era, they dressed up much of the Russian Army in period costumes and must’ve flown a glider over them.
I thinkI’d recommend reading Anna Karenina first if you haven’t already. It’s a little less intimidating and intricate, so you can get accustomed to the place, naming constructs, moral imperatives, etc. before delving into the greater complications.
Definitely agree with the advice to learn how the names work and keep a note page as your bookmark. Always leave a few lines in between, because nicknames will show up later. The names people use for each other give an incredible richness to your understanding of the relationships, without too much time wasted on explaining them. I guess old Leo had to save space somewhere!
Like shiftless said, every few chapters, Tolstoy will stop telling the story of the characters, and start preaching a sermon on the Meaning of Life. The sermons are a good cure for insomnia. But, if you can force yourself through those, the story is wonderful.
A Russian Lit professor once said, “War and Peace is not about war, and it’s not about peace. It’s about falling in love with Natasha.” If you are a male, with any heterosexual inclination at all, then by the time you finish the book, you will be in love with Natasha. You do not have a choice in the matter. Tolstoy pushes all of your buttons.