I’ve Slam Dunked Tolstoy’s War and Peace

July 20, 2008

…And now the bragging rights are mine.

Even so, just how much do I want to linger over this dead corpse: Tolstoy’s challenge to all those who, rather than climb mountains, would subject themselves to the masochistic come-on presented by the daunting, daring, formidable, teasing charms of an overwritten, repetitive 1,350 to 1600-plus-page fictionalized historical opus?

Not much really.

But, some thoughts do bear being made – after some background.

Just a hair over three weeks ago I decided to read the Louise and Aylmer Maude translation, which appears to be the most common English translation in circulation. There is good reason for this. In doing a side-by-side comparison of translations at the library, I noticed the Maude translation was pretty easy to read—no small consideration in trying to avoid fatigue over such a long haul.

I actually checked out two different editions of the same translation, with the idea that I would lug the smaller-dimensioned edition in my backpack for bus reading and leave the larger sized edition (with larger print) at home for evening reading in a comfy chair or at table or desk.

For home reading, I checked out the 1942 Simon and Schuster Inner Sanctum Edition, which has a nice key to the characters in the back and good footnotes and maps. It was one hefty 1350-page tome.

For bus reading I checked out the two volumes of the 1938 Heritage Press edition (the exact same Maude translation), which constituted two smaller-sized books, each 850 pages. The page count was actually higher when these two plump volumes were added up (more than 1600 pages, due to smaller page sizes). But each of these two volumes weighed half as much and took up less space in my ever-cramped backback.

This system worked pretty well, except that I ended up preferring to read the 1600-plus page smaller books whether on the bus or at home because the font seemed friendlier (despite the smaller font size) and the page-turning time was a lot faster. On some days I found it easy to notch a hundred pages with these nifty little volumes. So did I read 1350 pages or 1675 pages? Both. The word count was the same regardless of edition.

But apart from this anal-retentive digressive minutiae, is what’s inside the book worth reading?

Yes, with caveats.

In general, I felt that Tolstoy was a much better writer about peace than he was about war. I’ve never read a better account of the domestic manners and frivolities of pampered Euro elites of the 18th and 19th centuries. One is really drawn into that world. It is in these accounts where Leo Tolstoy shines.

I took me about a week to get just to the first quarter mark of the book, mainly due to trying to keep the myriad characters and their relationships straight. This does get easier as the time and pages fly by, but an initial study of the cast of characters and the basic plotline over at Wikipedia would be advisable to anyone considering setting out on this journey.

By the one-quarter mark, we encounter the battle of Austerlitz, a fiasco for Russia and its allies, and it there that two major characters have had their first trials by fire. It is there, too, where one encounters what, to me, are weaknesses in Tolstoy’s storytelling.

Tolstoy’s way with conveying the action of war is very confusing, though part of this may be intentional and in tune with the author’s philosophy about how historical events occur. The historical motives that drive wars and other mass human movements can’t be known or easily explained in ways that historians try to explain them, something that Tolstoy tells us over and over again—and tiresomely so, I must add.

War is confusing to those on the ground, and it is from these perspectives that Tolstoy conveys it. And that is cool enough, if the author had just left it at that. But no, he finds it necessary to expound through repeated analogy and slight rewordings of the same arguments, over and over, that history is not driven by wills or plans but by chaos of innumerable factors. In one analogy he equates human activity to a bee hive, but does so in two long pages in which he restates the same arguments.

This tendency is most egregious in the last of the two epilogues—an incredibly anticlimatic lecture in which Tolstoy expounds dryly and academically on issues such as free will and the nature of power, etc. After indulging this long-winded epic for 1300 pages, is it really reasonable to expect a reader to endure these dullish ramblings – especially as most of these issues were already addressed in the main text of the story?

So, War and Peace is a dead book that is full of life. 1200 pages of turbulence and unsettled lives, or settled lives being unsettled and of stultifying ritual and denied desires and delayed gratification. Until, finally, around page 1200, the characters who have managed to survive do end up living happily ever after. Whew, that was a relief!

And what about the characters? it seemed to me that most of the older characters are better defined than the younger ones. Maybe that is because the older ones have accepted their station in society and are more easily defined by those expectations. They are easier to define because they are willing to be typecast by social expectation. Many of the younger characters, Natasha, Pierre, Nicholas and Andrew I found to be shallow, even though these are supposed to be the “seekers” of the story. Maybe their shallowness is a function of their personal incompleteness; their own unsettled sense of personal identity. Or maybe Tolstoy is not as great as filling out character personalities as we modern readers would like or expect. Tolstoy is great at telling us what his characters look like, how they act, how they appear to other characters and even what they are thinking. And yet, often, I feel like I really never get to know them. So what is missing?

And how well does this story sustain itself over its enormous canvas? Variably I’d say. There are times when the story seems to be headed toward inertia, though there’s always something that picks things up. Still, honestly, this story could have been told in far fewer pages—in half, and dare I say it, maybe even three-quarters less the space. But that would of course rob us of the subtleties of Tolstoy’s phrasings and descriptions (sometimes a good, and sometimes a not so good thing).

I have mixed feelings about the book. It is not a personal favorite, and were I asked if someone should read any six Modern Library top 100 picks of 200 pages each or this book, I would say go for the other six books.

But I did learn a lot, about European aristocracy, about lifestyles of the past, about philosophical and theological concerns which are still pondered today, about the historical forces and alliances in play during the Napoleonic wars, etc. And now I’m not afraid to take on Sergei Bondarchuk’s 7-hour Soviet film epic version from 1968. That should be a breeze by comparison (it’s on request at the public library; more to come on that…)

And, to my relief, the book moved along well enough. I found myself blazing through most of the pages. What more can one ask?


War and Peace Progress Report: Page 1,000 surpassed

July 17, 2008

Reached page 1,000 of the Maude translation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace last night, Wed. July 16 and reached the three-quarter mark of the book, at page 1012 this morning and got in some further reading beyond that during lunch break. I’m on track to complete the novel this weekend, as planned. -EG

War and Peace; Halfway Surpassed

July 14, 2008

The 1968 Soviet film version of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, directed by Sergei Bondarchuk, has always scared me off, even though I’ve made a point to try and watch every major film ever made. So far, I’ve pretty much succeeded in that, except for this particular, seemingly daunting 7-plus-hour film. Well, being on track to complete the reading of the book within the next two weeks, possibly even by next weekend, the movie should be a breeze—now that I have an intimate familiarity with the myriad characters and plots and historical background. I reached page 664 on Saturday night, July 12, at the point where Pierre feels reinvigorated by his feelings toward Natasha and his sighting of the 1812 comet. It was a beautiful, poetic ending to the half; somewhat revitalizing given that the book seemed headed for inertia. But the second half, devoted entirely, it seems, to the cataclysmic events of 1812 has been fairly exciting by contrast. By my Monday morning bus ride to work I had reached page 814 and am barreling toward the 3/4 mark of the book. That means I could conceivably finish it by next weekend. Anyway, I probably won’t spend a lot of time in reflection because too many other books are calling. I can’t wait to read Raymond Queneau’s Zazie in the Metro, Graham Greene’s The Comedians, Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts and a whole bunch of others. I’m also within a day of finishing Neil Gabler’s excellent biography of Walter Winchell (Winchell), which, oddly, has taken me a lot longer to read than War and Peace, and it is only 530 or so pages long. Till the next… -EG

The War and Peace Progress Report

July 7, 2008

I’m in the vicinity of the one-quarter mark of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. I’m committed to it now; barring unforeseen tragedy I should be able to finish this in two or three weeks. I’ve been reading it for a week now, mostly on the bus and sometimes in the evening and on weekend afternoons. I have to admit, I made the right choice in selecting the Maude translation; it reads very smoothly. So how is it? Pretty great; I actually care about what’s going to happen to these three families of pampered Tsarist elites. The Battle of Austerlitz has just left the Russians and their allies in disarray. Two major characters, Nikolai and Andrei have had their trials by fire and their worlds rocked by the experience. Nikolai is on leave in Moscow and he now questions his “preordained” betrothal to his cousin Sonya. Along with Princess Mary Bolkonsky’s prior refusal to marry young Prince Vassili, these developments seem to be the first indication that characters in this grand soap opera can exert some free will their lives. I’d read about Tolstoy’s view in the book of events overwhelming characters and sweeping them along helplessly. Pierre certainly seems to let the Fates tell him what to do, at least so far, and the battles—which Tolstoy conveys in all their disorder and confusion—lend credence to this theme of “puppets on a string.” Prince Andrei has been injured and now questions his former admiration of Napoleon, now that he has stared Death in the face. So, I’ve already read more than 300 pages, which is a good-sized novel in itself, but there remains another 1,000 to go. It took awhile to ingrain the massive number of characters and their various relations to one another, but I think I’ve got it down now. I’m in for the haul, folks. My previous gargantuan read, Les Miserables, was a bore, but I cannot say the same for War and Peace. I’m juggling this with another 550-page book on Walter Winchell, the radio-age gossip reporter. I’m reading that one in the evenings and have surpassed page 300. Happy reading.


War and Peace, I Will Read You Yet

June 27, 2008

There are literary mountains few dare to climb: Gibbon’s complete 7-volume Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, each volume the length of a hefty novel, and Proust’s massive seven-volume Remembrance of Things Past.

By comparison to those many-thousands -of-pages magnum opuses, Leo Tolstoy’s 1200- to- 1,400-page (depending on edition) War and Peace seems relatively less daunting. Still, it looks pretty friggin’ daunting.

A couple of weeks ago National Public Radio did a cute story in which people on the street were asked the question: Have you ever read War and Peace [and actually finished it]?

Not surprisingly, few had, but more intriguingly the few who had had interesting things to say about it. The gist was that the effort in doing so was amply rewarding.

I then did my own little survey and the first person I asked, my boss, answered that, yes, she has read War and Peace.

Well, that’s like throwing down the gauntlet. I, God help me, have resolved to wade into Tolstoy’s sweeping epic of the aristocracy, romance, war and double-cross; the great soaper of Napoleonic times.

To prep for this operation—like the armies in the book, it is a logistical, tactical enterprise to achieve strategic victory—I printed out the Wikipedia entry on War and Peace and studied carefully the names of the primary characters and their relations to one another, as well as reading the complete plot summary. Books with giant casts can be discouraging, causing one to flip back and forth trying to remember who is who, so I wanted to reduce the strain of this straight away.

So now, I already have a good grasp on the characters and can remember most of them and their relations before I’ve even read the first chapter. Task one complete.

Task two was deciding which English translation of the book to read. Believe it or not, this issue of the “right” or “best” translation appears to inspire fierce debate among the cognoscenti.

After a flurry of translations many decades ago, there didn’t seem to be any new ones until the past three years. Now, all of a sudden, three new translations have appeared.

A little research at the library was in order to help me make the decision on which edition to commit to.

There, I did side-by-side readability comparisons of selected passages between the older translations of Garnett, Edmonds, and Maude and the newest, highly acclaimed and hyped one by Pevear & Volokhonsky.

After comparing word choice and structure I decided to go with the Maude, though I did find things I liked about all the others. The key factor is: How well will the style stand up over a protracted period of reading? And for this the Maude’s clear and straightforward approach seems best. Garnett’s had style, but that can be fatiguing if one wants to roll forward and the P&V just seemed herky-jerky, way too busy. Unfortunately, the recent Briggs translation, which looks to be desirably dumbed down, is not available at any libraries in Louisville for comparison. Bromfield’s recent translation of the so-called “original” early version of the book was also at hand, and I really liked the clarity of it (and the 400 pages of trims), but since it’s not the canonical version of the book I had to rule it out.

Can I get this done this year? Would being done by summer’s end be an unreasonable goal? Will some other author, Hunter S. Thompson or Nathaneal West or Paul Bowles—with their far shorter and more rip-roaring tales seduce me away from the harder path? This we shall see.

Hey, I got through Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, which is as long or longer than War and Peace, so I know I have the mental stamina. Hopefully it won’t be as much a bore as Hugo’s opus.

This is just me clowning around, this is a giant dictionary, not War and Peace...