6 important things to check before reading War and Peace

Procrastinating the idea to read War and Peace? Here are 6 important things to consider before reading War and Peace.

Let’s face it. The thought of reading a classic novel is always a daunting one. For many of us, the fast-paced lifestyle means we are seldom used to reading books or seeing movies that are slow and big. But there is a huge volume of wisdom in the form of philosophy, history, and much more in those classics.

Introduction

 War and Peace is a great classic in that regards. It is quite a massive book. Massive in terms of both its size and its wisdom. As far as I remember, the book has been sleeping on my shelf for over two years now. Even before that, the idea of buying it took three more years of procrastination. And I believe this to be the case for many others too. 

When I finally performed the act of reading War and Peace, it turned out to be one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. But the process wasn’t all roses. As the title of the book says, there was war, and there was Peace. 

“Success is not built on success. It is built on failure. It is built on frustration. Sometimes it is built on catastrophe. ”

This is true for this book. Though it was challenging to read this giant, it just needed a little push from my side. Leo Tolstoy took care of the rest. But in the process, I learned a few things that I should have known before and hence this list.

Here are a few things that I feel must be regarded before reading this book. These might help some confused readers decide on how to proceed with the book. So let’s get started. 

Medium

For many, the sheer size of war and Peace puts them off. As I mentioned above, We are seldom used to reading books this big. ‘War and Peace’ runs close to 1500 pages.  

      “It’s not the length of life, but the depth of life.”

Leo Tolstoy

Similarly, the mammoth size only indicates the depth of knowledge yielded. The book delves deep into the characters and their lives and draws a stark picture of Russian society in the early 19th century. Once you get into the story, the hugeness of the book gradually disappears. You’ll begin to understand the schema of this book. Slowly, you’ll appreciate the book for its minute detailing.

But for people considering the physical medium, the size is an important factor to consider – Reading this book while commuting is almost impossible. The e-book readers can have a blast as nothing is ever going to stop them. But for others, I would suggest switching between the two. You can (You have to) use the electronic version of the book when you are commuting and when you are at work/other environments. You can enjoy the physical book in the comfort of your home.

War and peace - medium

Mind that the book needs some aid too. Holding it for a long period is not advisable. You could use a chair or a table for that matter. Audiophiles have an additional option of using the audiobooks while travelling. So decide on the medium first. If you absolutely desire a physical book to rejoice this novel, try to read it while you are home. Do have a second novel (a very light one) to read while you are travelling. 

Commitment

The next most important factor to consider is your commitment. 

“Without commitment, you cannot have depth in anything, whether it’s a relationship, a business, or a hobby.”

Once you finalize that you are going to read ‘War and Peace’, stick with a plan. Whenever you feel like you can’t make it, ponder on why you started the book. As I mentioned before, the hurdles won’t matter when you look back after finishing the book.

war and peace - commitment

Stay motivated throughout and take ample breaks in between. I, for one, took a three-day break while reading this book. Just make sure that you are committed to reading it, come whatever. Do not worry about how long it is going to take to complete the book. Concentrate on the now and enjoy the story. Staying committed will take you through to the last page. 

History and War

Let us get to the specifics now. As the title of the book says, a big chunk of the story revolves around war—the war between Alexander and Napoleon. Close 35 or 40 % of the book talks about this series of wars. I would strongly suggest having background information about this series of battles fought between 1803 and 1813. Though not a must, a summary of what happened will help you understand the details described in the novel. 

Be assured that this piece of information won’t have any impact on the storyline as Tolstoy himself considers his work to be a Russian interpretation of the war. Many historians feel that Tolstoy has made the war look like an entirely unreal one opposite to what happened. But Tolstoy feels that every historian who came across Napoleon and his heroics failed to understand the other factors that led to the rise and fall of the emperor. War and peace analyses this war in a deep fashion

war and peace - war

Tolstoy provides a long-drawn sketch of the war and gives philosophical interpretations in between to offer a new understanding of war. If the war stuff is not for you, I’m afraid these portions of the story will be an utter bore. The point here is that if you are a history buff, Tolstoy’s description of war will provide a completely new understanding of its functioning. For others, it might be a drag, so having an idea of what happened will help you better travel that terrain.

Family chart and names 

‘War and Peace’ is set in the early 19th century. Russians have a different naming hierarchy. That hierarchy is slightly different from the present generation. There are two areas of concern with the names. One, there are dozens of characters in the novel. It is a pain to remember every name. Two, the way their names are makes it almost impossible to remember them and also to keep in mind their relationship with the other characters. Those names of the characters are going to trouble the readers big time. 

Consider, for example, the name of one of the principal characters of this novel – Prince Andrei Nikolaevich Bolkonsky. This name has to appear over a thousand times in the story. However, he has other names too. All Russians have a family name appended to their names. In the case of Prince Andrei Nikolaevich Bolkonsky, it is Bolkonsky. So in the whole novel, he is referred to as Prince Bolkonsky in a few places. However, he also gets called as Prince Andrei, Andre, and Andryusha in other places. 

war and peace - confusion

I believe you understand the basics of what the problem here is. It gets so problematic when we are into the second or third parts of the novel. But Tolstoy has a solution for this. He provides us with a list of important characters that appear in the story and a small family tree. He also mentions the alternative names that a character might be called with. 

Worst case, I suggest you have a screenshot of that initial page in the novel and refer to it as when the question of doubt arises. Readers can also write the family tree in a way they understand and keep it with them separately. They can refer to the sheet as and when required.

Language

Another aspect of war and peace that might be daunting is the fact that the book has a few conversations happening entirely in french. Though there is a footnote at the end of every page providing a translation for all the conversations happening in French (and German in some places), almost all the translators except a few have kept this part as it is. But I wish to say that though this might be irritating at the beginning, I sort of got accustomed to it, and it didn’t matter much after a few chapters. Also, keep in mind that there is only some 3-4% of french dialogues in the whole novel. 

Though it might feel difficult, it is not much considering our commitment to reading the book. A few translators have also made these dialogues translated to English in the main content. More on that in the next section.

Translation

Another doubt that props up the readers’ minds is the question of which translation of war and peace to choose from. The same question troubled me before I went ahead and picked Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. The translation by this pair is considered to be one of the more truest versions of the original. But that’s not why I chose their translation. I fell in love with the book cover of the special edition published by Vintage books. The title, along with five other Russian classics, was published under the Vintage Classics Russian Series. I love special editions as they add to the uniqueness of my collection. 

War and peace - translation

When it comes to selecting the translation, my humble suggestion is to go ahead with any translation of this book. I did switch between the editions of P&V and Garnett. In fact, I couldn’t find any substantial differences neither in the flow nor in understanding. I used the Garnett version on my Kindle since it is now available in the public domain. 

If at all, I need to pinpoint one thing, Garnett’s was a little easier to read. It looked to me as if it was written with an entirely English context in mind. But P&V is much more flat and strong that it made me ponder in many places as to how Tolstoy would have imagined those phrases and analogies. If I were to suggest a translation, I would wholeheartedly recommend any of them as they all ultimately solve the purpose of conveying us the story of War and Peace, albeit through different words and phrases.

 I believe it is impossible to recapture the exact feelings and emotions of the original in any translation, as there would surely be a fine graining independent of the translator’s knowledge. However, I have provided a link that I found interesting in trying to figure out the best translation. In a nutshell, go with whatever translation you find interesting or rather go for the one which is readily accessible to you. You won’t go wrong with any of them.

Conclusion

I hope I gave some clarity on how to go about reading the masterpiece ‘War and Peace.’ Do consider the points I discussed above. War and Peace needs your time and dedication to read and understand. If the book seems daunting to read, it just means you are not yet ready. Consider giving it some time and get to the task sincerely.

If this interests you, a lot more is coming up, stay tuned and look for the books section to find others.

War and peace - book cover

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