Please don’t say no to this proposal until you’ve heard me out. I’m reading War and Peace and I’m inviting you to read along with me.
Why War and Peace? I’ll explain. I read the book in college and I loved it. Decades have passed, though, and I find myself yearning to experience it again. If you’ve never read it, you may wonder what it’s about. Well, war and peace, yes, but also love and hate, wisdom and stupidity, gluttony, naiveté, resentment and guilt, animosity, courage, selfishness and selflessness, youthful adoration and greed. There are princes with swords, princesses in frilly dresses, a lot of blushing, dancing, epaulettes, dirty boots, horses, hay, a bear, samovars, those long white Russian summer nights and the winter that follows, Moscow and St. Petersburg, the country and the city, Napoleon and the French, masters and servants, births and deaths, drinking and feasting, youth and old age. In short, the narrative centers on the lives of five aristocratic Russian families set against the backdrop of a wrenching military conflict in the early years of the 19th Century. How could you not want to read that?
This book is big, yes. My copy clocks in at 1215 pages. It’s also heavier than a quart of milk and, sadly for me, impossible to read in the bathtub. If you haven’t finished a novel since your book club disbanded in 2008, then you may well skip War and Peace, but if you love a sweeping story, total immersion in another world, rooting for the guys you love, cursing the ones you hate, and, sometimes, weeping, then I urge you to consider it.
I know what you’re thinking: It’s too long. But let’s put it in context. Twilight is much longer, if you make it through all four parts. Did you read what’s been published (so far) of Game of Thrones? That series (3264 pages, so far) makes War and Peace look like The Old Man and the Sea. Reading 200 pages a month, you can finish War and Peace in half a year, which, as a challenge, is hardly overwhelming. And, anyway, how many hours did you spend watching Breaking Bad?
Besides the novel’s length, the other thing that scares people off is the number of characters and their very Russian names. Count Nikolai Ilyich Rostov, for example, also goes by Nikolushka, Nikolenka, Nikolashka, Kolya, Nicolas, and Coco. Prince Vassily Sergeevich Kuragin doesn’t have nicknames, but just to refer to the guy demands a mouthful of unfamiliar sound combinations. Combine that difficulty with the sheer number of characters (Um, five or six hundred) and you might prefer to read the latest James Patterson instead. But wait. You don’t have to remember all six hundred characters. Maybe you need to remember fifty. Plus, you are being led through this story by Leo Tolstoy, who is not only one of the great writers in literary history but also conscious of your plight. Each character in War and Peace is so unique, so clearly and particularly human, that if you pay attention to their special characteristics—the lady with the slight moustache, the general who is wider from back to front than from side to side, the stout young man with the glasses—the markers become guideposts through the book. If you still find yourself drowning, here’s a life jacket: the translation I’ve chosen has a handy key of principal characters at the beginning of the book.
Which brings me to the subject of translations. There are not merely many translations of War and Peace. There are also many articles explaining the strengths and weaknesses of each translation, and endless discussions on the internet, too. Should we read the popular but fussy 1922 version by Aylmer and Louise Shanks Maude? Or the 1904 translation by Constance Garnett, which is lovely to read but strays from the original? Then there’s a 1968 version by Ann Dunnigan that a reader on Amazon calls “‘War and Peace’ for busy people.” In an article on the translation of Russian literature in The New Yorker, David Remnick quotes Miguel Cervantes as saying that translation is “like looking at the Flanders tapestries from behind: you can see the basic shapes but they are so filled with threads that you cannot fathom their original luster.” Cervantes may be right, but I’d rather have a translation than have no access to the work at all.
In the end, I chose the translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. I have a few reasons, though none settles the issue definitively. For one thing, P/V, as they seem to be known in the trade, have earned great reviews for their work. I also like the name key and annotations. But pick whichever translation you like. The most important thing is to read the book. As someone pointed out on one of the online discussions, with War and Peace you really can’t go wrong.
Here’s the plan for how this will work as a “book club.” It’s pretty loose. Every month, I’ll check in with a blog post that focuses on aspects of the novel that strike me as particularly beautiful, or confounding, or illuminating in some way. As a writer, I’m generally more likely to discuss issues of craft than I am to talk about theme or historical context, so you’ll see more from me about character or style or structure than you will about military strategy and 19th Century Russian History. If that’s what interests you, though, feel free to bring up such topics in the comments section. I hope to have a free-ranging discussion on anything that readers find intriguing about the book. When we finish, in July, we’ll also have an hour-long live conversation about it on the LitChat Twitter site. Basically, we’ll see where the novel takes us. I hope you’ll join me on the journey.
Here’s the reading schedule:
February: read to Volume I, Part Three, Chapter 1
March: read to Volume II, Part Two, Chapter 17
April: read to Volume III, Part Three, Chapter 1
May: read to Volume IV, Part Two, Chapter 1
June: read through the end of the book, including the Epilogue
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