Tuesday, September 6, 2011

On Starting War and Peace (War, What Is It Good For?)

I know it's a tad cliché, but I can't think of War and Peace without thinking of that one Seinfeld episode. Elaine makes a misguided attempt to ingratiate herself with a famous Russian writer (hilariously named Testikov) by telling him what Jerry had jokingly told her earlier: that the original title of War and Peace was War, What Is It Good For? Things don't turn out well for her after that.

After deciding 2011 would be the year I'd finally read War and Peace, it took me eight months to gear myself up to start, but here we are. I finally started it last night. When I wrote about War and Peace as my "bucket list" novel back in March, the advice about how to read the novel poured in fast and furious. Last night, I reviewed all those comments, as well as Ingrid's (of the Blue Bookcase) post offering five tips on how to read the "greatest novel of all time." I took her advice and reviewed the Wikipedia pages on the Napoleonic Wars, specifically on the French invasion of Russia. I read Anna Karenina earlier this year to familiarize myself with Tolstoy's style. I've bookmarked the Wikipedia character page, as well as the one provided in my edition. And I've set a goal to finish the novel by the end of the year, which seems entirely realistic.

My edition is the Anthony Briggs translation, which has been on my shelf for years, and has morphed into a sort of symbol of not-yet-achieved intellectual nirvana. Several folks have warned me off of that particular translation, but I have to use this one. I just have to. It's been with me on four different moves and three different cities. I can't imagine completing this mission without this particular book. Is it strange that an unread novel could have emotional significance?

Anyway, 20 pages in, I'm having no quarrels with the style at all. It seems to read easily enough, and it includes common phrases like "the straw that broke the camel's back." So, it's very early, but so far so good. The Briggs edition also includes endnotes, maps and an essay by some British wanker named Orlando Figes. It's actually the one you can see me pretending to read in the "About Me" page.  (Have you stopped over there to check out my favorite joke, by the way?)

So, all this is a long-winded way of getting to the point. Here at the start, I need your help. If you've read the novel, what tips, tricks or (to use a tired business-speak) best practices have you used to get through the 1,400+ pages? Did you honestly like the novel (or do you just tell people that you did so they'll think you're smart)? Will I be a changed literary man four months from now? I'm looking forward to your input!


  1. I've read it and loved it. LOVED it. I don't really have any tips for getting through it...it's just a book, and it's far from boring. I found that after three weeks, I had just sped through it without ever stopping to notice the length. So I guess my tip would be- don't treat it any differently than any other Big Book you've read. It's not difficult stylistically. You're going to love it (I hope I hope I hope).

  2. I'm halfway through this book, and I definitely like it -- but I take it in small doses. I'm reading it over 2011. Something that really helps me is to look up some of the battles and names (on Wikipedia, in my case) to help me with the historical context. But that's not really necessary. Much of W&P is about the characters, not the war. And it really is very good. :-) (Also, I love looking at clips of the recent movie to "see" the scenes, once I've read them.)

    I'm way behind on my group, due to college, so will have to play catch-up in big chunks of reading soon. I'm curious if I'll prefer W&P in big doses rather than daily bites.

  3. After reading Anna Karenina I promised myself that I would read War and Peace but I think I still need a few more months of gearing up!

    Hope you enjoy it, and take something away from the experience.

  4. I'm about 3/4 done now on the "chapter a day" model and still loving it. I guess the advice I'd give is when you hit a spot that's slow for you (for me, some of the war scenes are dull--I much prefer the "peace" chapters), just remember the chapters are all really, really short, and hang in there.

  5. I read it back in January/February of this year. I really enjoyed the process, but I found myself looking things up online to get a little more background so I could fully understand just what was going on. I also printed the character list from wikipedia and used it as a bookmark.

    I found that if I stepped away from it, it was harder to get back into. So, I read in big long spurts where I could fully absorb myself in the story. When I finished, I really did love it....with one exception-the second epilogue. It is just MIND-NUMBING. You'll see when you get there (it is basically Tolstoy spouting out his philosophies on war...

  6. Good luck, Greg! I don't have any advice since I haven't read this one, and don't plan to anytime soon, but I'm sure you'll do well.

  7. I read it maybe ten years ago, and my strategy was to read as much as I wanted, then set it aside. A week, maybe two, to get ready for it again. It took my maybe six months of off and on reading to get through the whole thing, but it was definitely worth it. My only regret is that I have such poor memory for books I only remember about seven or eight characters/scenes now, so it's time for a re-read.

  8. I haven't read it, so I am just here as an encourager. The only tip I have is just to visually imagine how much admiration I will have for you when you finish (which of course I am sure is a big concern for you!). Way to go on being a short-lister. I found you last year by being a judge of Best Written, and I've been a New Dork supporter since.

  9. I haven't read this yet (it's on my TBR pile), but I just have to say...

    HAHAHA! I love Seinfeld. Thank you for that.

  10. I read War & Peace at the beginning of the year, and I can't say that I loved it (love might require a second reading, which I'm not prepared to do for a while) but I did enjoy it. Unlike other huge books I've read in the last few years (Ulysses and Remembrance of Things Past)W&P had a plot, so I could at least follow the story.
    My tip -- bookmark the list of characters; and if your edition doesn't have one, find one (I'll send you the list from my edition if it comes to that). It seems each character is referred to by at least three different names, so you'll need the scorecard to keep track.

    Good luck and I hope you enjoy it.

  11. War & Peace is on my 100 book challenge list along with Anna Karenina so I think I'll read that one first at your suggestion. And thanks for the link through to the Blue Bookcase, another great looking blog I'll be following :)

  12. Glad to hear you're enjoying it, I'm looking to read this one as well. I found that in translated books sometimes the footnotes by the translator make all the difference.


  13. Oh! Best of luck. This was on my list at the beginning of the year... and it's still very much on my list, and staring at me from my shelf, sadly waiting to be read. I'm mostly here to read through your links and the other comments, though, so I have an arsenal of tips whenever I do finally start it.

  14. Haven't read War and Peace yet however was actually worn down for the first time by a translation in Crime and Punishment. The absolute bloody cheerio old mates British translation got in the way. Eventually found the updated Pevear & Volokhonsky translation which made all the difference.

  15. Yeah, yeah, yeah Pevear and Volkhonsky. Seriously, dude, it's the only way to do Russian Lit. Also, I love W&P, Pierre is my favorite little dumf*** in Western Literature!

  16. Aha, so this is where all those page views were coming from today! Nice. I'm excited for you, can't wait to hear more of your thoughts on it!

  17. This is one of my favorites. I read it last year - after putting it off for a long time. I was intimidated by the whole "Russian literature" thing (which is silly, because every Russian novel I've read has been brilliant) and, of course, by the sheer size. All I can say is - it's SO worth it.

    I said everything I needed in my review, I think. Feel free to read it, if you haven't already:


  18. @Amanda - I'm discovering it really is far from boring. I think that was my No. 1 misconception about it - that it would be a chore. Really am enjoying it 50 pages in.

    @Jillian - My plan also is to take it in relatively small doses - and read other, lighter stuff simultaneously. The Wikipedia-provided historical context is, indeed, helpful. I'll be interested to hear, too, if it's better a-lot-at-a-time or a-little-at-a-time.

    @Sam - Did you like Anna Karenina? I was surprised that I actually did. And you're right, reading W&P really is an "experience!"

    @Amy - Yeah, I like the short chapters - makes it more manageable, for sure. Also, only reading a chapter or two - even it it's only 10 pages - you still feel like you made good progress.

    @Allie - The character list on Wikipedia is immensely helpful, but I've also found it contains some spoilers - so I'm avoiding it from now on. So far, it hasn't been too tough to keep track, but I'm sure as I go on, that'll change. Thanks for the warning about the second epilogue - I'll have to gear myself up when I get there...in like three months.

    @Brenna - Thanks for the encouragement!

  19. @Mike - That seems like a reasonable strategy. Strangely, given it's length, it seems that many people who have read it have also read it more than once. I guess that's testament to how much people loved it - which is encouraging.

    @Sandy - Ha, that's big encouragement - thanks! Thanks for the congrats, too.

    @Heather - I need to find a way to incorporate more Seinfeld quotes into the book blog. Shouldn't be too hard, I'd imagine - that show covers just about everything!

    @Suzanne - Hey, I'll take "enjoyment" over "loving it," too. As long as I feel like the next four months are totally wasted time, I'm happy, I think. You're a braver person than I taking on Ulysses, too - that's one I'll probably never get to. And thanks for the tips and the luck.

    @Rachel - Anna Karenina seemed less of a challenge, that's why I read it first. Yes, The Blue Bookcase is awesome.

    @Man - The endnotes on this translation seem to be pretty good - they point out historical references (like Russian opera stars or obscure Russian writers) you'd probably have to look up on your own

  20. @Kerry - Ha - I know you feel. I'd been doing the same thing all year, storing up links and resources and advice. I told myself I'd finally start after Labor Day (since W&P is far from a summer read), and that seemed to work to get myself motivated. And away we go...

    @Scott - The British translation - still only 50 pages in - hasn't bothered me, but I'm getting a sense from a lot of commenters (like the one directly below yours) that the P&V translation is the way to go. Still, I can't change editions, for the OCD reason I mentioned in the post.

    @booksaremyBFs - Is it just because it's more "Americanized" English, or are there other reasons P&V are your homeys?

    @IngridLola - I've probably read your post about a dozen times over the course of this year to gear myself up for starting. So far, so good.

    @Adam - Yeah, I remember following your progress and reading your post when you finished. It was encouraging to hear how much you were enjoying it. Enjoyed re-reading your review just now, too.

  21. No, a few of my Russia friends say P&V actually get the spirit of the books they translate more accurately. It's more "fire and music"-ized, I would say.

  22. Also in a P & V interview floating around out there somewhere, I believe they stated that they only selected English words that were in common usage in the date the book was written. Stellar idea.

  23. I read War and Peace just before turning fifteen, as a kind of challenge to myself and to the world. And I inadvertently read the old Constance Garnett one, which most would agree doesn't quite hold up in comparison to modern translations (but I got a lovely used hardcover from the 20s, so I think I still got the good end of the deal!). Ultimately, I loved the book - the characterizations were brilliant, the scope incredible, and the story wonderful - but it wasn't easy to finish. I spent a month and a half reading it at every possible opportunity, reminding myself that after every boring philosophical ramble (Tolstoy includes one at the start of every part), the fascinating story returns. So my recommendation is perseverance - War and Peace really is a wonderful book.

  24. Read it a chapter at a time. Each one is like a wonderfully concise vignette. Some of the the book's most memorable moments revolve around its most incidental of characters.

    Tolstoy's philosophy of history is idiosyncratic to say the least, and often heavy-handed. But it will get you thinking about how history really develops.

    And then there are the unforgettable main characters (Pierre Bezuhov being a favorite) who soar to the most dizzying of heights only to plummet to great depths over and over again. A major theme seems to be that one person's happiness is forever balanced by another's misery.