Let’s Read This Thing : War and Peace is my attempt to jot down notes and reactions to this monstrous novel that I’m reading for the first time. Spoilers may happen, but what’s the statute of limitations on spoilers anyway? It was published in 1869…
Volume I, Part 1 may be giving me a false sense of security.
The introduction, penned by translator Richard Pevear, alludes to the difficulty of the work- the jarring contrasts between scenes of battle and domesticity, the philosophical rants, the questions of ethics and morality. To be honest, that introduction terrified me. I read Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov last fall, which is a literary slab stuffed with page after page of musings on the nature of right and wrong. Can I handle another book like that?
So far? Sure. Because I haven’t really encountered anything Karamazovian yet. Volume I, Part 1, while not free of challenges, was a relatively fast 120 page read. Sure, we have plenty of comparisons between war strategy and social situations, and we have many overarching themes relating to class, wealth, and nationality. But the story itself (as long as you use the footnotes and endnotes) isn’t tough to follow.
My greatest challenge is one that I wholly expected: names. Now, I have a background in Russian. I made it about half way through an undergraduate major in it (long story). I get patronymics, and diminutives. No sweat there. What I didn’t get was just the sheer number of names whose forms you will need to remember. The story doesn’t start with a protagonist or two. Instead, you immediately are introduced to thirty-some people, half of whom also go by a Prince or Princess title, and several who are often referred to as the son or daughter of someone else. I flagged the character list that the translators so helpfully included, and made use of it often. It’s a great deal to sort out an remember. Thankfully I think I’ve gotten a good grasp on those family trees at this point.
Another challenge? The footnotes. I’m glad they are there… because otherwise I’d be attempting to translate French, and I’m pretty rusty with that tongue. The Russian aristocracy is a contradiction- they deride Napoleon and the French-instigated wars…. while speaking in French. French is the preferred language of the upper class, and many snippets of conversations, as well as most letters, are penned in it. Jumping back and forth between the translated footnote and the rest of the text takes some getting used to, but I eventually hit a rhythm. And I think my French is getting better? Which is good timing cause I leave for Quebec in a few weeks.
One thing I’m quite thankful for is the chapter length. Despite the massive overall page count, Tolstoy keeps all of his actually chapters nice and short. I think the longest I’ve encountered so far is about 9 pages. It’s nice to be able to jump into a scene for a few minutes worth of reading, and not commit to a 30 page monologue.
Again though, I feel like I have a very false sense of security at this point. Maybe all the things I’m liking go away? Maybe I end up reading a 100 pages worth of social philosophy with no paragraph breaks? I don’t know!
But so far? I can do this.