Friday, November 12, 2010

Post: Reading War and Peace

Post by Ingrid

I often don't like to admit it for fear of sounding pretentious, but War and Peace is my number one, absolute, definitive favorite book. It feel as if it is my child, I cherish it so. Sometimes I'm afraid to talk about it because I'm afraid people will bash it and I will be personally hurt. It saddens me when people say that they will never read this book because of its size, or difficulty, or whatever else. Well, today, my friends, to act as a counter to the difficulties this book may present, I offer you 5 simple and helpful suggestions for tackling this masterwork. If you follow my suggestions, you will most certainly have a more pleasant and satisfying experience reading Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace

5 Tips for Reading War and Peace

Pevear and Volokhonsky translation
1. Choose a good translation.
This is extremely important. Two different translations can feel like two entirely different books. I highly recommend the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation. This translation is ideal because it sticks as closely to the text as possible. The other translation I've read by Anthony Briggs has lots of British colloquial terms and idioms which I found distracting. Though, one potential benefit of the Briggs translation is that the French sections are translated the same as the rest of the book, whereas Pevear and Volokhonsky keep the French sections intact, providing a translation in a footnote at the bottom of the page. I actually prefer the French kept intact, as it is fairly significant to the meaning of the work as a whole to recognize who is speaking French where and for what reason.

2. Know the history of the Napoleonic wars.
Napoleon Bonaparte
Napoleon Bonaparte plays an important role in this novel. I highly suggest that you familiarize or refamiliarize yourself with the history surrounding the Napoleonic wars, especially the invasion of Russia in 1812. If you understand what's going on you are far more likely to enjoy the war sections. At the very least, read about the Napoleonic wars on Wikipedia. (See links below.) Otherwise, I highly recommend Vincent Cronin's biography of Napoleon, which is very readable and actual portrays Napoleon in a more positive light ... interesting to compare to his characterization in War and Peace.

3. Familiarize yourself with Tolstoy's writing style by reading some of his short stories
Tolstoy actually has a very beautiful, straightforward writing style. It might be nice to familiarize yourself with his style before begin War and Peace so you can hit the ground running. I highly recommend "How Much Land Does a Man Need?" and "Family Happiness."

4. Make it a goal to finish by a certain date, or within a specific frame of time. 
It is extremely helpful to give yourself a specific window of time to read this book, or to make a goal to finish by a certain date. The first time I read War and Peace was during winter break between my sophomore and junior year in college. I knew I had to finish before school started again, so it gave me motivation to push through sections that weren't so interesting. It can be intimidating and discouraging to hit a less interesting section and realize you still have hundreds of pages left. Don't let this hold you back. The last third of the book is the best part. Keep pushing, don't give up.
Leo Tolstoy

5. Bookmark the character page.
There are hundreds of different characters in this book, and yes, they all have Russian names with their many variations. Most editions of this book (I think) have a page listing who all the characters and the variations of their names.  Keep a bookmark or post-it note in this page and refer back to it if you forget who a certain character is. You're going to have to turn to this page quite a bit in the first few sections, but you will be surprised at how quickly you get to know the characters.

So there you go! Anyone who attempts this tremendous work of fiction, I wish you the best of luck and encouragement!

Relevant Wikipedia articles:
Richard PevearLarissa Volokhonsky
Leo Tolstoy
War and Peace
Napoleonic Wars
Napoleon's invasion of Russia
List of characters in War and Peace
defamiliarization (ostranenie)