"What's it about?" my husband asked.
"Well, there's war for awhile, and then there's peace. And then there's war again, and then peace, until the war starts back up."
"Wait," he replied. "So it's about war, and peace?"
"Yup, pretty much."
Because it's such a beast of a novel, a plot summary could take a book in and of itself, so the purpose of this post is to prepare a reader who wants to tackle War and Peace. Reading a book like this occupied my entire summer of 2017, starting it around Memorial Day and finishing around Labor Day.
Even though it was quite an undertaking, it deserves its place among the greatest novels of all time, and was voted to PBS's Great American Read. It gives a fascinating perspective on Russian history and culture, and is important for us to read today because it provides historical context for a country America has always had a tumultuous relationship with. After I went on my Tolstoy kick, I was able to look at the bigger picture of Russia and where the country is today, and think "Oh, that make sense..."
Since this post serves a very specific purpose - preparing someone to read War and Peace - if you don't have any plans to read a 1,200 page novel in the immediate future, this is a post you can safely skip. It's long and gets into details about translations and stuff like that. In fact, I'll even provide a link back to the rest of my blog right here so you can find something more up your alley to read.
However, if you are considering a hop into Russian Lit, welcome friend! After you get through it, I'd love to read your comments!
Set in Russia during the Napoleonic Wars, War and Peace by Russian author Leo Tolstoy is a book that embraces the chaos and confusion of war. Understanding that war, and life, don’t follow the formulas we might to read in stories, Tolstoy’s writing drops itself into wartime Russia and weaves the narrative into the complexities of the time, with no regard for tidying up the messy parts, clearly identifying who's a protagonist and who's an antagonist (and mixing them up at times), or sticking to anything that resembles a typical plot map of a modern novel (or maybe it does, and I missed it. But as I said, if you're looking for a deep analysis of War and Peace, I'm not your gal.)
We enter the story in July of 1805, introducing the Vassily family at a soiree held by Anna Pavlovna Scherer, as the guests discuss Napoleon's recent exploits through Europe. The novel follows four aristocratic families until 1813, after Russia drove out the invading French, leaving tens of thousands dead and Moscow burned. Woven into the narrative are stories of how the families are touched, and wounded, by the years of war as they wait at home for news or enter into the chaotic battles. Besides following these families, Tolstoy took a considerable number of pages to describe the battles and give his own commentary on Russia's role in the war and share his opinions on how history and popular belief have bred misconceptions during his day.
And about that. Here's a quick warning if you're going to take on War and Peace. I considered the reading the book like running a marathon. In fact, I'll even up it to an Ultra-Marathon. I've read marathon-length books before - Thackery's Vanity Fair and Mark Twain's Joan of Arc come to mind - but War and Peace truly is its own race. (I suspect I might feel the same way when I finally tackle Wallace's Infinite Jest). After reading over a thousand pages, I finally got to the "Epilogue" and thought "Oh rejoice! I've nearly completed the race! Hallelujah!" and I began to envision my life after completing this milestone, where my medal will be being able to drop "Oh, War and Peace? Yeah, I read that," into a conversation from that day forth (really, that sounds annoying and pretentious, but dude, I just finished War and Peace and I'm going to brag about it.) But little did I know that getting through not one, but two epilogues, was like being on the home stretch of a 50 mile run, only to find yourself running uphill, into the wind, as miserable sleet falls down, soaking into your shoes and freezing your hair.
You see, the characters and story wrap up about halfway through the first epilogue. Then Tolstoy goes off on something to do with social commentary about war and waxes philosophical and I'll admit I don't remember much about that part, because, mentally, I felt like I was tired and shivering and looking for the finish line, which seemed to elude me around each bend.
But if you keep on running, eventually "The End" hits the back page, which I suppose is my first piece of advice for reading War and Peace: Stick with it.
Unless you are already well versed in Russian Lit (and if you are, then why are you here? You probably already know more about this than I do. Please comment!), it can be helpful to do some prep work before starting the biggest race of them all. I read Tolstoy's Anna Karenina first, which is a beautiful, haunting story that is considerably easier to finish than War and Peace, and about half the length (although, at around 600 pages, it's still in the marathon category). Reading Anna will help you get a feel for Tolstoy's style and has fewer characters to keep track of. Finishing it is what made me consider reading War and Peace in the first place; after being immersed in Anna's world, I wanted to see what else Tolstoy could do, and was willing to give him another 1,200 pages. (Although I respect War and Peace, Anna Karenina made my top 10 favorite novels of all time, easy.)
When I was in this Tolstoy phase, I also happened upon Empire of the Tsars on Netflix, which filled in some of my knowledge gaps on Russian history and provided context for both Anna Karenina and War and Peace.
Originally written in Russian, it's worth learning about the different translations before buying, or acquiring, your copy. My lack of research lead me to read Constance Garnett's Anna Karenina, but I was kicking myself for that after I learned about Volokhonsky and Pevear's translation work, and picked their version for War and Peace. If you are interested in learning about the different translations, I will direct you to this New Yorker article that can give you significant backstory on the history of the different translators.
Not all translations are created equal, and what you pick up for free at the Kindle Store or from the library might not be worth your time. Choose wisely, choose well. If you decide to run that ultra-marathon, you're going to carefully shop for your running shoes. With a War and Peace translation, you're going to have to live with your decision for awhile, and it might be uncomfortable, or even painful, if you don't think it through first.
Also, I will warn you that Amazon has a weird glitch about searching for translations: if you do a search for "War and Peace Pevear Volokhonsky," their translation might or might not be the one that comes up. You're looking for the one that has the blue cover. If you're going for the Kindle Edition, get the preview first to make sure they're sending you the right one before you pay for it. This link should take you directly to their Kindle Edition, and please contact me if doesn't work!
Running the Race
So at this point, you've got some background, you've got your translation of choice (which, if it's not Volokhonsky & Pevear, don't be such a cheapskate and go buy it! You're going to be reading this book for months!), and you're ready to go.
First of all, the Volokhonsky & Pevear version has a list of characters and families in the front, so take note of that. If you are not a fan of spoilers, don't google any characters or family trees until after you've finished the book, because Tolstoy has no qualms about killing off characters, and family trees written to show how people got together by the end of the book give away some big plot twists.
If your copy doesn't have a character list, start making your own family tree as you go. There's a wide web of characters, and sometimes one will disappear for awhile and then suddenly pop back in, and you're fumbling around trying to remember who on earth that guy was and if he was married or not after you don't see him for 400 pages....
That said, have lots of bookmarks or post-its handy. You'll need to mark the appendixes and footnotes, and oh yeah did I mention a good chunk of the dialogue is in French?
YUP! In the time Tolstoy sets the story, aristocratic Russians spoke French to each other, so the translators generally agree that the French should stay French, because the fact that certain characters choose to speak or correspond in French gives insight into their situations. However, they graciously translated the French into footnotes, so yay for that.
Having said all that, if you have any inclination to ever read a book on a Kindle, all the links and electronic bookmarks are helpful considering how much flipping around is required to follow to follow the novel.
If anyone wants to know more about why French is spoken so frequently in Russia, The Empire of the Tsars, mentioned above, explores that in depth.
So there you go, tie your shoes, or charge your Kindle (you'll need a few charges, probably) and run through the hills and valleys of War and Peace. Then enjoy the bragging rights, because really, as cool as it would be to have t-shirts and medals after finishing a book like that, as we all know, reading just as to be its own reward.