War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy.

War and Peace (Война и миръ) was written by Leo Tolstoy and published in 1869. It's one of those books that are high on people's list of intimidating books for it's sheer length, but, as it happens, it's not even in the top 20 of the longest novels ever written (it's 21st, I think), about on a par with Les Misérables by Victor Hugo, Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace (both of which are slightly shorter), Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth (slightly longer). It is no Clarissa (Samuel Richardson), and it's certainly no In Search of Lost Time (Proust)

The only danger, as with all books, is that it might be boring. A month ago, having read the Rosemary Edmonds translation (Penguin Classics) twice, I would have agreed. Reading it took a great deal of effort and self-discipline, and ultimately it was a disappointing and a very pointless exercise. Frustration was my only memory of these two reads. When my friend suggested another translator I half-heartedly agreed; it's certainly worth a try, but to go through it all again a third time didn't fill me with excitement. Nevertheless I bought a copy of the Louise and Aylmer Maude translation (Oxford University Press), and I duly ignored it for ten months.

I decided to read it in October because, having just finished one chunkster (The Last Chronicle of Barset by Anthony Trollope) I was in the mood for another, but perhaps not quite of Clarissa proportions. So there it was: the third chance. The first few pages didn't go well, I have to admit, and it looked as though it was another mission doomed to failure. But something, what I don't know, just clicked, and became one of those books I couldn't put down. I ended up reading it in about a week and a half - one of those glorious books that constantly call - I didn't watch television, I was hardly on the internet, all I wanted to do was read this book. The Maude translation was exciting and engaging, it gave so much warmth and vitality to Tolstoy (which, sadly, I can't read in the original language). 


Writing about the plot, however, is still a little daunting! I remember someone telling me the easiest way to describe it is as so: "War and Peace is about Russia". And, indeed, it is, partly at least. It's about five aristocratic families during the French's Napoleonic Era; the novel begins in 1805 and climaxes in 1812 when the French invaded Russia. This is, of course, a rather complex period and I've read that it's necessary to have a basic understanding of this period in order to appreciate War and Peace: well, I didn't have a basic understanding and I enjoyed it, so I dare say I wouldn't worry too much about background reading: Tolstoy explains what is happening, and for me this was enough - in fact, I learned quite a lot, and not just about the Napoleonic era, but also a little about Catherinian Era preceding it. 

It is, as I say, focused on the aristocracy (as opposed to, for example, Dostoyevsky's focus on the lower classes). The families are the Bezúkhovs, the Rostóvs, the Bolkónskys, the Kurágins, and the Drubetskás (one observation - what makes War and Peace tricky is that when one is unfamiliar with the pronunciation of a name it becomes hard to remember, so I'd suggest either finding out how the names are pronounced, or at least saying them out loud a few times as you would imagine they were pronounced. This helps enormously) and their experiences during 1805-12. However unfamiliar this era is, the geography of Russia and Europe, and the difficult-to-pronounce names, the themes and experiences of the characters are anything but alien. These are as familiar as Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope, George Eliot, or so many other great Victorian writers. 

Pierre Bezúkhov played by Anthony Hopkins (1972).
Pierre Bezúkhov is my favourite character: he is the illegitimate son of Count Kiril Vladímirovich Bezúkhov who becomes their heir to his father's estate. He himself becomes Count Bezúkhov, and a part of upper class society. He is an intelligent, warm, and kind man, but socially very awkward and misplaced, at times even scandalous. He struggles throughout the novel to find happiness and peace, and he becomes Tolstoy's own mouthpiece. He is a philosophical chap, very earnest, and to read his progression is deeply satisfying. Natasha Rostóv is another favourite: she is passionate and so full of life, impetuous too, which leads to a catastrophic decision. As with Pierre and other characters, we read of her progress, her suffering, and her joy, all these events and emotions that shape and change her character. 

This great cast of characters is life-like: Tolstoy is a realist, and if I was to list the characters it would be difficult and very off-putting to potential readers, but like life the characters are joined: like Eliot's Middlemarch Tolstoy has spun a fine web and attempting to break it down would be a disservice to him - quite simply, it is like life. The characters are so well-drawn and distinctive, it's not so hard to keep track of them all. Life is full of people and relationships of all kinds, and Tolstoy wrote life.

It is, in short, a tremendous book about people and their lives, their desires, and how their 'self' as it were shifts and is shaped by their relationships and experiences. It's not a book to be feared but to be anticipated and enjoyed. It's a book I'll re-read again, and I'll look forward to doing so. It's not a thick, dense tome with too much going on. Virginia Woolf said of Tolstoy that he was the greatest of all novelists, "Nothing seems to escape him. Nothing glances off him unrecorded" ('The Russian Point of View' from The Common Reader First Series, 1925) - this is it. War and Peace must be read, and it's a pleasure and a privilege to do so, with the right translator of course.

Finally, some illustrations from various (unnamed) artists from The complete works of Count Tolstoy (Translated from the original Russian and edited by Leo Wiener), published 1904 by D. Estes & company (Boston). 



*********

Comments

  1. Bravo! Well said.

    I was thinking, Bezuhov is like Tolstoy. When he makes his philosophical discourses, it is usually through Bezuhov. I love those parts.

    And (being half way through) I am in the middle of the drama with Natasha.

    I agree, W&P is not a difficult read, especially given the translator. Mine is Garnett, though some may say that she is not as true to the original. But it works for me.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I've read Garnett's translation of The Brothers Karamazov, and I loved that, so I'd be happy to read W&P translated by her. And maybe one day I will - I already have that translation as well (it was £1 in a charity shop, it seemed daft not to buy it!).

      Delete
  2. I have the Penguin edition of War and Peace sitting on my shelf waiting to be read... I'm very disappointed I didn't go for the Oxford edition now, but I may try and hunt it down, if the translation is better. I've always found the thought of reading this novel very daunting, so I'm glad to hear that it is much easier (and more enjoyable) to read than people make it out to be. :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It definitely is a *lot* easier than people think. It's a straight forward read. I mean, if you're planning on *studying* it then sure, it will take preparation etc, but simply just to read and enjoy - no need for drama :)

      As for Oxford University Press - I only read in English and I'm not qualified to say this, but I do believe that they are the best for translators. I've replaced all my Penguin Zolas with OUP so I shall report back more definitively after I've read some more of them, but so far I do think OUP has the edge. That said, people say great things of Hesperus - I don't want to diss other publishing houses when I'm not qualified to do so, but OUP, as my general rule of thumb, is my preference. I've never been disappointed with one.

      That said, I adore my Penguin Les Misérables! :)

      Delete
  3. Great review!

    I really didn't realize that Bezukhov was played by Anthony Hopkins! My favorite is Andrew Bolkonski. I had trouble only with Tolstoy long essay on war (he dedicated 2 last chapters on this, if I remember well). I think he has discussed the war philosophy throughout the book, and we have got the message from there. The essay was then rather useless. But apart from that, I loved War & Peace!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ah yes, the epilogue - I wasn't wildly enthused by that either, actually! :)

      I wouldn't mind seeing the Anthony Hopkins W&P - I didn't know either until I looked up Pierre Bezúkhov hoping to find a nice illustration!

      Delete
  4. I admit I've been terribly intimidated by this book, but your review and a few others I've read are shoring up my courage. And I love, love, love that you've included these old illustrations and links for further reading. Well done!!!

    ReplyDelete
  5. I will also throw in that this is not a scary book to read. It's a commitment in time & memory trying to remember all the names, but I do have some knowledge of Russian history which probably helped.

    I checked out the translation comparison page for this one too. My version was translated by Princess Alexandra Kropotkin in 1949 and 'partially abridged'. As soon as I saw that, I realised I was going to have reread this at some stage. Your Maude version reads in a similar fashion to the Princess' version, so it will probably be a good place to start.

    I also prefer the OUP books - the editing and production is usually superior to the Penguin's. (The Random Vintage range has some great covers, but most of their books seem to be English speaking authors.)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. OUP really is excellent. I do love Penguins, and I have such affection for them, but my OUP collection is growing quite rapidly. They've been so good for Zola books, too.

      I hate it when books are partly abridged! It's even worse discovering this *after* I've read a book :)

      Delete
  6. Translations can make all the difference and especially in Russian. The Pevear-Volokhonsky translations bore me to tears, but Aylmer-Maude translations are pretty solid.

    This book is so intimidating to review, but I think you summed it up perfectly when you say that it's about life. The change and fluctuation of circumstance in each of the characters' lives and their different reactions to it, is so masterfully done by Tolstoy.

    I'm really enjoying the illustrations that you're including with your posts. Without them I would have never known they existed, and they certainly add to the read.

    And thanks so much for linking my post on W&P. It was probably, of all my posts, the one I laboured most over. An epic book, so complex and so simple at the same time ....

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It is scary to review! But so was Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice. EVERYONE has an opinion on them :)

      I'm glad you like the illustrations. They were quite hard to get and I spent way too long trying to find out who they were by. To no avail, though...

      Delete
  7. What a great post. For a few months now I have been slowly gravitating towards reading War and Peace (I've now signed up to a read along for next spring). I think I'm getting to the point in my life where I either read it now or don't at all. Thanks for the tip on translations - I think I'll go for the OUP.

    ReplyDelete
  8. War and Peace: I agree with Ellie, now or never . I loved this review and keep reading reviews by fellow bloggers about this book.
    I think I am more intimidated about writing a review than reading the book.
    Perhaps I'll just read it and post with the words: C'est fini!
    Congratulaions for completing this reading achievement! (book and review)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you :) And "C'est fini" would suffice, I'm sure! It was so hard to figure out where to start writing this :)

      Delete
  9. Well written your articles have inspires me a lot of - really gives me an insight on this topic.Here you can find more great information if you have time please visit my astrological chart.

    ReplyDelete
  10. I've been reading a lot of Tolstoy - especially his later fiction like The Forged Coupon, Father Sergius, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, The Kreutzer Sonata, and Hadji Murat. He has a way with words, with people, with humanity, with language.

    And I'm in progress with War and Peace. In Pevear/Volokhonsky's translation. It's very lucid, Homeric in scope, compelling, warm, lively. I'm glad to have embarked on the greatest of novels (which is more than a novel)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It is truly amazing, and I loved this particular translation (I did hate the Penguin edition but always knew I was missing out, which is why I tried this other translation). I love Tolstoy, thinking of reading The Sebastopol Sketches in the next few weeks. Didn't much care for Resurrection, if memory serves...

      Delete

Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Getting up on Cold Mornings by James Henry Leigh Hunt.

The Prevention of Literature by George Orwell.

Moments of Being: Slater's Pins Have No Points by Virginia Woolf.