Reading War and Peace: Book One

A few months ago, the Literary Blog Hop asked us about our literary “bucket list”  — what books do you feel you ought to read before you die?  One of my answers to that question was War and Peace by Tolstoy.  And it turned out that was the answer for a lot of other bloggers as well.

Why War and Peace?

It’s intimidating, for one thing.  “War and Peace” is almost shorthand for that book that’s way too literary for anyone to actually read.  As in, “Game of Thrones is no War and Peace but it’s a great book.” It’s intimidating even though I knew nothing about it other than 1) it’s Russian; and 2) it’s about war.

That isn’t much, but those two characteristics ARE intimidating to me.  I haven’t done well with the Russian writers.  In high school I had to read two books by Dostoevsky – Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov — and I could barely get through them.  I’ll admit I completed my paper on The Brothers Karamazov solely through the use of Cliff’s Notes.  Dostoevsky just didn’t work for me, or at least in high school he didn’t.  So I came to assume that would be true of all Russian literature.

On top of being Russian, it’s a book about war.  Obviously.  And unlike my husband with his passion for military history, a lot of war-related fiction falls into the wah-wah-wah-wah category for me (said in voice of Charlie Brown’s teacher).

But while War and Peace is a must-read-someday for a lot of people, I also heard from a lot of bloggers who had tackled and really enjoyed War and Peace.  So maybe it isn’t just the book you slog through because you ought to.  One blogger said she was surprised how “accessible” it was, a comment that stuck in my head.

To my surprise, this book is both highly readable and not so much about war.  At least not yet. The war sets the stage for the story.  I like to read about how wars influence family, society, culture, etc.  I just don’t necessarily want to be on the battlefield the whole time.

War and Peace begins in 1805, with Napoleon threatening to attack Russia.  It’s divided into four “Books” and an apparently lengthy epilogue.  Book One seems primarily about introducing the characters, of which there are many.  It describes five families from the Russian aristocracy.  These families (I printed out a family tree to help) are the Bezukhovs, the Bolkonskys, the Rostovs, the Kuragins and the Drubetskoys.

Much of the book so far takes place in parlors and dining halls, as the characters discuss Napoleon and their sons going off to war.  Andrei, Boris, and Nicolai are heading off to war; Andrei leaves behind a pregnant wife and Boris and Nicolai are still just flirting with young girls (Natasha and Sonya).  War is a topic of conversation but not the only one; most of the talk is about family, marriage, money, society, etc.  In other words, the usual conversations among aristocrats.  Much of Book One focuses on Pierre, the illegitimate son of Count Bezukhov, who is struggling to make something of himself but keeps falling under the influence of ne’er-do-wells instead.  Count Bezukhov is on his deathbed with a fortune to dispose of, and the question is whether Pierre will inherit.

The characters are interesting and the dialogue surprisingly easy to read.  I’m curious about how my translation compares to others, so I’m hoping to pick up a used copy or two of other translations.

One thing that struck me is that the characters interact with people of many nationalities — French, Italian, German — and everyone seems to switch fluently among European languages.  Tolstoy seems to draw a lot of attention to what language people are speaking.  In fact the characters frequently speak French and my translation assumes I can follow it – good practice for my rusty French.

A blogger reading W&P also suggested reading it in chunks over a long period of time, rather than trying to read it all at once.  On the one hand, I worry if I do that I won’t be able to keep the characters straight.  On the other hand, it might be nice to read some “fun” books to break up the heaviness that is W&P.  Although so far, I’m not finding it excessively heavy.  That may change as I get farther into the story.

Maybe the main thing is that having spent my life “intimidated” by W&P, I should give it the time and attention it deserves rather than rushing through (and if that means a little George RR Martin on the side, I can live with that).

I won’t write about every “Book”, but it will certainly help me keep up if I write as I go.  I also hope to find a blog or book group that’s reading it.  If I read alone I know I won’t get as much out of it.

And if it’s on your “Bucket List” too, feel free to join me.

  7 comments for “Reading War and Peace: Book One

  1. June 15, 2011 at 10:39 pm

    I read this when I was 11, just from sheer stubborness. The librarian wouldn’t lend it out to me, so I made my dad take it out and I worked on it during summer break. I can’t remember if I particularly liked it or not, I do remember lugging that heavy book around everywhere though (together with my thesaurus) 😉

  2. June 16, 2011 at 12:46 pm

    I’ve felt pretty much exactly the same as you – the sheer weight of W&P does intimidate me but I also think there’s an element of the subject matter freaking me out too because 1,000 fantasy novels never have the same effect! I’m looking forward to your thoughts!

  3. June 16, 2011 at 6:39 pm

    OK, maybe I need to try it again. I hold many of the same Russian lit prejudices you did. I have it on my Nook, so it’s always accessible.

  4. June 17, 2011 at 4:27 am

    I read War and Peace at the ripe old age of almost-15 and found that it was just as brilliant as everyone had always said. Once you ignore the preconceptions of density and boring and get used to the older style, it’s actually a pretty incredible book. Each section – whether war, whether peace, or even just Tolstoy’s philosophical ramblings – is well-defined and bursting with life. Heavy? You know, I’d say A Song of Ice and Fire isn’t all that different… it’s just written in the modern style.

  5. June 22, 2011 at 5:19 pm

    This is one that I’ve always wanted to read but haven’t. Your post inspires me to finally pick it up!
    2 Kids and Tired Books

  6. June 26, 2011 at 10:03 am

    I’m doing a year-long read-along for this one. A chapter a day. At least I’ll be able to say that I read it, although I’m still having a hard time keeping some characters straight! 🙂

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