Boot Camp for Big Books #2
War and Peace: shorthand for long and difficult and a by-word for extreme drama; not only in the literary world but in general, too. Such is the reputation of this Russian classic, but how many people know the book behind the reputation? Most cannot get beyond its imposing size on the shelf to even open it for a browse.
Okay, so if you wanted to try it, how would you approach it? What would you need to do to ensure you got the most from your investment? In this series of articles on Boot Camp for Big Books I list my top strategies for some of literatures Biggest Books. The difficulties of War and Peace lie primarily in its length, use of patronymics, number of characters, history and translation. Here are my suggestions for increasing your chances of success.
1. Pre-reading: work up to the peak attempt with some lower altitude books.
Try Anna Karenina and Vanity Fair. While these titles are really Big Books in their own right, they are lighter reading and simply absorbing stories. Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is a double romance with four key characters. With less people to keep track of, you will find yourself getting the hang of the patronymic naming conventions whereby a character may be referred to by their family name, their first name or a pet name. You will also get a sense of Tolstoy’s writing style.
Vanity Fair, on the other hand, is a Dickensian jaunt with Becky Sharp, the best female character in Victorian literature bar none. But what’s it got to do with War and Peace? You may be surprised to learn that this novel by William Makepeace Thackeray was much admired by Tolstoy and it was said, heavily influenced his own novel. Thackeray’s novel is also set around the time of the Battle of Waterloo and also has a large cast of characters, but one of the big differences between the novels, and the men themselves, is that Thackeray never saw live action as a soldier like Tolstoy. This is reflected in the books where Vanity Fair covers the human drama with war happening off stage while War and Peace’s famous battle scenes lead you right into the action to smell the gunpowder and hear the screaming.
Also, given that Tolstoy has included in his novel many real life characters such as Kutuzov, Tsar Alexander and Napoleon, it is well worth your time to do some pre-Googling to get the hang of the history that the book dramatises.
2. Translation: shop around for the best fit.
Comparing translations can sometimes be like reading a completely different book. Particularly if the translations come from very different periods of time.
For my own research I looked up all the articles I could find (there are loads) and when I still wasn’t sure, I went to a good bookshop and laid the different versions out to compare different pages for ease of reading, flow and understandability.
While there are many to choose from it would be fair to say there are some front runners to start your research with:
— Constance Garnett, considered easy reading, but Nabokov turned me off saying he thought it Bowdlerised…
— Husband and wife team, Aylmer and Louise Maude (they actually knew Tolstoy) and are credited with the most ‘faithful’ translation
— American Husband and wife team, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, this version is very contemporary in style
— Anthony Briggs, and earlier, Rosemary Edmonds
On another readability note, you will probably be living with this work for some time, so do yourself a favour and get an edition with a decent sized font!
3. Number of characters: get help in keeping track
See if you can get an edition with a character list upfront. Failing that, you can Google and print one to use as a bookmark. My recommendation would be to get a version that lists the characters in their family groups in summary. Sources like SparkNotes will provide more background detail, but what you really need is a summary reference you can flick to for a quick reminder. If the different versions of their names are noted, all the better. I found I referred to my list at almost every reading.
4. A little help from your friends: writers on writers; media
Apart from the strongly opinionated Russian writer and critic Vladimir Nabokov, you have a broad field of writers who want to tell you all about War and Peace and what they think you will get out of it or what you should look for when reading it to get the most out of it. Articles and books on this classic are only limited by your time, patience and interest.
When I promised myself to read this book I set a goal of 5 pages a night. That turned out to be realistic and the book took 9 months to complete (that was okay as I always have several on the go), but what really gave me a spurt on was the BBC series staring Lily James, Paul Dano and James Norton. Once I started watching this, it became real. I was unimpressed with the stretched interpretation of two characters’ relations as being incestuous, but other than that, the journey of Pierre Bezukhov is enthralling and you just want to see him reach his just desserts at the end. It also helped me read faster as I didn’t want the visuals on screen to overtake those being created in my head.
But for all the help and tips, eventually you just need to dive into the pool and swim yourself. Finishing it is a quantitative achievement, there is no doubt, but having worked through its richness, I can honestly say I thought it well worth my time and I’m now glad to be part of the conversation. Good luck!