Saturday, 23 August 2014

Tips for Reading War and Peace & Getting Started with Leo Tolstoy

A reader recently got in touch to ask what advice I'd give for reading War and Peace the first time. I've written before about the reasons why I love War and Peace, but with any 1300-page book, it takes some motivation to get started and, perhaps more so, to keep going.

If you've been looking to read the almighty Russian tome, perhaps this article may help you out. The following tips are based on my own experience, but I hope some readers find it useful.

A backdrop to envisage War and Peace. Scene in Red Square, Moscow, 1801. Oil on canvas by Fedor Yakovlevich Alekseev.


Think about what's motivating you to read it


I'm motivated to read War and Peace because I know it has a positive effect on me. It helps me to confront my anxiety in a mindful way, and I know I have a lot more to learn from the characters and Tolstoy's life lessons.

You may have been recommended the book by a friend, or you may want to say you've read it. Perhaps you've seen it on screen, or you're eagerly anticipating the BBC adaptation and would like to know a bit more about it. You might have read a few quotes and enjoyed them or wanted to hear more.


Look for the character (or characters) you can relate to


For me it's Pierre Bezukov with his lack of social graces but also his desire to do good and act in a moral way. But there's also Natasha Rostov's vibrant sense of life, Andrei's disillusionment, and Sonya's humility, as just a few examples. We can learn from their successes and failures, and understand a bit more about ourselves in the process.

“Pierre was right when he said that one must believe in the possibility of happiness in order to be happy, and I now believe in it. Let the dead bury the dead, but while I'm alive, I must live and be happy.”

While there are hundreds of characters in War and Peace, I think Tolstoy wants us to find the ones who really matter. I'd say it's like differentiating between friends and one-time acquaintances in our own lives.


Reading War and Peace can take a while - that's fine


Whether you choose to read a chapter a week, a chapter a day, or to do away with all targets whatsoever, read it in your own way. You could also try listening to an audiobook, perhaps while you travel, walk or go about chores. This is something I'm planning to do for my reading of War and Peace next August.
The Penguin edition of War and Peace,
translated by Anthony Briggs.


Don't hesitate to start again with a different translation


My favourite translation is the Anthony Briggs, although the Maude translation is defined by many as the definitive War and Peace. The Pevear and Volokhonsky is probably the most commercially available of all, and I know lots of people who have loved it, but I couldn't get into it.

I'd say it's worth sitting down in a bookshop and reading the first page of each translation available. Alternatively, if you find one translation difficult to read or get into, don't hesitate to start a different one (no matter how far you are through the book).


Keep notes, read summaries or stock-up on Post-its (whatever works for you)


On my first reading of War and Peace I simply read it through. I didn't make notes, but I did refer to the chapter summaries at the back of my edition when I got confused.

On my next reading I started writing about the book here on the blog, and I also underlined favourite passages made some notes in the book (this will probably offend a few readers!)

This year I've been sticking Post-it notes all over my books to help me categorise quotes I love, topics I'd like to write about, and connections to other books. I'm not far through War and Peace yet this August, yet there's already enough Post-its on my copy for a lifetime (with 1200 more pages, it could be a terrifying amount).


Treat it like any other book


War and Peace is just a book. How would you go about reading any other book? Do the same with Tolstoy (ok, and perhaps persevere a little more).

“If we admit that human life can be ruled by reason, then all possibility of life is destroyed.”

The Battle of Borodino (1812) is vividly depicted in War and Peace. Painting by Louis-François, Baron Lejeune, 1822.


In my opinion, here's why I think you should read it


  • Tolstoy knew all about failure in love, work, friendships and ambition (and much more). He wasn't perfect - certainly not towards his wife - and neither are his characters. I think this all amounts to a great deal of authenticity.
  • To say that War and Peace is about everything isn't really exaggerating. While I would say it is too long in places (ahem, the essays at the end), there's so much to mull over and compare to our own lives. For me, it's like a handbook for life, both in helping me realise what to do and what definitely not to do.
  • (If you need more convincing, here are twelve more reasons why I'm such a supporter of War and Peace)

If you've read War and Peace, what would be your tip for another reader who's keen to get started on it?


Further reading

I'd also encourage you to seek out some of the great work by Russian literature scholars. Tolstoy: A Russian Life (2011) by Rosamund Bartlett is my favourite biography, while Andrew D. Kaufman's Give War and Peace a Chance: Tolstoyan Wisdom for Troubled Times (2014) makes a great case to give the book a go.


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3 comments:

James Henderson said...

Those are all great ideas for anyone reading War and Peace for the first time. Another thing that I have found helpful is to associate the characters with their respective families. This is very much a novel about families and their relationships and differences. I remember my first time reading the novel, starting slowly about one hundred pages per week and then finding I could not put the book down because it was so exciting. The only thing better is rereading it!

Brian Joseph said...

Another great post Lucy with lots of great advice.

I now usually do a bit of research on translations before starting abook. This makes a big difference.

Also your advice about taking one's time is something that I often give people.

With all that I have not yet read War And Peace. I plan to soon though!

Irene McKenna said...

Great post! I plan to re-read this novel someday.