Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Why Read War & Peace? The Reasons Why I Love Tolstoy's Masterpiece

Anthony Briggs War and Peace translation
My well-worn (and well-loved) copy of
War and Peace

If you tell someone that you're reading War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, you tend to get a reaction. I've found this is usually because people are impressed by it, the book being one that is renowned as being very long and, generally, very difficult. People tend to praise your efforts, but at the same time refrain from envying your reading choice. I'm often told...

  • It's too long
  • There are too many characters
  • The character names are impossible to remember
  • It's difficult to understand
  • Tolstoy is depressing
  • Why would I want to read about war or peace?

I find it a shame when people tell me this. I wish I could reply, "no, you're missing out on one of the best books ever written!" There's a reason why writers such as Nabokov and Proust regarded Tolstoy as a favourite author, and War & Peace a landmark text. Yes, at roughly 1300 pages it is a long book. However, the first time I read the Anthony Briggs translation I was shocked at how quickly I got through it. On my second reading, last August, I finished it in twelve days. I struggled intensely with Cloud Atlas, but always seem to fly through War and Peace

Here are the reasons why I read War and Peace, but also why I enjoy it so greatly.

  1. The truly incredible writing. You frequently find yourself thinking - or exclaiming aloud - "God, this is good!"
  2. The intricate portrayal of characters and their connections. The characters weave, separate, and reflect on each other's situations in a way that is truly skilful. 
  3. The incredible love stories. Some of my favourite literary matches are in this text. 
  4. The great explorations of life and death. The quote that goes something like, "a sense of remoteness from all earthy things, and a strangely joyful lightness of being" is certainly worth savouring.
  5. Pierre Bezukhov is a truly remarkable character, and one in which I can see so many aspects of myself. His transformation is great to follow. Pierre learns that "man was created for happiness, and happiness lies within", and goes on to state that as there is "a limit to suffering and a limit to freedom", "there is nothing in the world to be frightened of". This latter phrase means the most to me - it helps me realise that my anxiety is entirely meaningless and trivial. 
  6. It demonstrates a true passion for living.
  7. It doesn't present war in a positive way, although neither as terribly bad. You can make up your own mind. “If everyone fought for their own convictions there would be no war”, Tolstoy writes.
  8. You learn a bit about history. Napoleon is described from so many perspectives, and you can experience the historical context for yourself from a really great angle.
  9. The author was a fascinating man. He first visited a brothel at fourteen, was watched by the Russian secret police, and had a game with his brother that involved standing in a corner and not thinking of "anything white" for thirty minutes. What more can I say? If you'd like to learn more about him, perhaps watch this film
  10. The characters are never static, but constantly developing. We see how they grow and change because of events, feelings, and other characters.
  11. Tolstoy manages to put everything into the grander scheme of things, and you find yourself appreciating life rather than worrying without reason. As one of my favourite quotes reads, "Yes! It's all vanity, it's all an illusion, everything except that infinite sky!"
  12. Characters lift each other from depression with their own joie de vivre. Happiness is presented as contagious, and it's remarkable to see how characters regain their love of life because of others.
“Here I am alive, and it's not my fault, so I have to try and get by as best I can without hurting anybody until death takes over.”

I've learnt so much from War and Peace. As you can read about in my guest post on Better Living Through BeowulfWar and Peace became the antidote to the severe anxiety I had been suffering from for years. I first read it when I was fifteen, and it wouldn't be inaccurate to say that it changed my life.

I'm making an effort to reread the book every August, and while I'm very behind this August due to my upcoming move to Spain for eight months (leaving on Monday!), I'm still enjoying it thoroughly. This book has everything I need for a great read, and I'm sure it will continue to read a lot to me.

Have you read it? Did you finish it, or was there a reason why you stopped reading? If you stopped reading, which translation did you choose?

You can get the Anthony Briggs translation of War and Peace here.

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Wuthering Expectations said...

Do you want to know what Nabokov really thought about War and Peace? Definitely not a favorite. He judged texts more than authors.

Twelve days is very impressive. But it is an invigorating book. It probably is too long, the only point of yours I would quibble with, but not by much.

Rivorniel Tinubelin said...

I haven't read War and Peace, but I want to! All the Russian lit I have read so far (which is not much, but something) I've loved. There is some kind of special air in those books - or what I think some would call "Russian spirit". I don't mind the names either, to be honest I find it very refreshing to get names different from pretty much the same set always appearing in original English language literature. I love your bullet points on the novel.

Brian Joseph said...

I must confess never having read War and Peace but I really
want to sooner rather then later. Great list of reasons as to why you love the
work. I love the quote about vanity, illusion and the sky.

As you have read this multiple times do you have a favorite
translation? I may give this a go sooner rather then later.

Good luck and safe travels in Spain!

Paula said...

Reading this is making me want to read War and Peace again!! It was an incredible reading and experience. Its length scared me off at first, but as soon as I got into the story (which didn't take me too long) I read it pretty quickly. Although, not as quickly as Anna Karenina.

Fionaing said...

The length has always put me off, also I regard Russians as depressing although I haven't read Tolstoy and only Dostoevsky who I enjoy because it is difficult and worth getting through.

Yet I like long books and have read brickish classics - Tom Jones by henry Fielding is almost 1000 pages in tiny text. But that is English and so a bit easier to read.

My main issue is how long such a classic would take me. I'm a one-book girl as a general rule and fail at reading more than once. I fear I'd have to read W&P in parts due to its length and the fact I doubt I'd race through it - or want to. And my reading is already slow and rubbish enough with non-heavy books. Saying that, I tend to go towards heavy depressing classics when in a slump so who knows.

Maybe one day I will read it. And not just when I'm stuck in a bunker during a nuclear war.

Sharon Henning said...

War and Peace is my very favorite book and that's saying a lot. The first time I read it I was 19 and it was a turning point in my life. Tolstoy is one of the most perspicacious writers, ever. He showed me that people are multi-dimensional. His compassion for others inspired me to look more deeply at people I didn't initially like.
My favorite part is where (I can't exactly quote from memory but the gist is:) Pierre used to find qualities in people that he learned to love. Then he just loved people first and afterwards invariably found lovable qualities in them.
And I'm with you, I love the romance and Pierre is so love able in his clueless bumbling way. Thanks for the review.

melissa vizcarra said...

Great post, Lucy! I've been wanting to read this book for ages, but it intimidated me a little. I have read other "difficult" Russian book so I know I shouldn't exactly hear what people usually say about Tolstoi. Your post has just made me want to read War and Peace soon, although reading it in the summer would be a good idea, but I would have to wait to late December for that. Nope, I think I'm reading it very soon. :)

Sandra Danby said...

It is sitting on my Kindle, waiting, and you have just made me want to read it now! Thanks for that.

tolstoytherapy said...

Thanks, Sandra! I hope you enjoy it :) I have so many books on my Kindle that I need that little bit of encouragement to get started on!

tolstoytherapy said...

Thanks, Melissa! I think you would actually really like it :) I thought it would be much more difficult to read than it actually was, and I found myself really involved in the plot rather than concerned about how many pages were left. Perhaps take the opening few chapters slowly and see what you think of it... Although I'll warn you that you are confronted with a lot of names straight away! After the opening soirée scene you do get to know individual characters better though, and it becomes much simpler and relaxed to read (in my opinion). Let me know if you choose to read it!

Stephanie said...

Gorgeous list! I love how you expressed so much so succinctly, and the quotes you chose are terrific. You're making me want to re-read this -- one of my all-time favorites, too. I also enjoyed The Last Station.


Eleanor Baggley said...

Thank you for this, Lucy! I have recently finished Anna Karenina and completely surprised myself with how much I loved it and how easy I found the reading experience even though Tolstoy always intimidated me. I've added War and Peace onto my pile but now, reading this, I think I will shift it a bit closer to the top. There is nothing like reading a good chunky book to make you feel better :)

tolstoytherapy said...

Thanks Eleanor! I'm so glad you enjoyed Anna Karenina and didn't find it too challenging. I tried rereading a different translation of it lately, and was amazed at how challenging I found it compared to my original edition. I'd love to give the translation I enjoyed (well, loved) another go soon. I'm sure you'd love War & Peace too! Don't let the length put you off and see how you get on! Best wishes, Lucy

tolstoytherapy said...

Thanks Steph! There were so many amazing quotes to choose from, I must say! I love that War & Peace is one of your favourites too. And The Last Station is a good film, better than I thought it would be. Hope you're going well!

tolstoytherapy said...

Thanks, Sharon. I love that it's your favourite book too! I'm so glad that I read it so early in my life, as, like you said, it's a book that can really affect its reader. Tolstoy was such an incredible writer - and incredibly complex person! - and it's great that people are still learning from his work and thinking about what he teaches/encourages in it.

I remember that passage you mentioned, and will be sure to pay attention to it when I read it this time round. Pierre's a superb character.

All the best, Lucy

tolstoytherapy said...

Hi Fiona, I think you might like it! Tolstoy is very different to Dostoevsky, and I've found him to be much more life-affirming, particularly in War & Peace. I think with a reputable translation (I personally like the Anthony Briggs edition, although other recent ones are meant to be good too) you don't lose out on much or come across difficult writing.

I'm different to you in that I often read several books at once, and frequently far too many! I'm not sure if W&P would prove difficult for you because of this, but I'd definitely recommend giving it a go and seeing how you get on :) Perhaps read the first part, and see if you want to carry on or leave it until a later stage of your life. Many people gain more from classics later in life, after all :)

Let me know if you do choose to read it! It does require motivation and initial bravery, but it's a book that you can really gain so much from.

I hope you're doing well,

tolstoytherapy said...

Hi Paula, I'm so glad you liked it! You do sort of have to push yourself into the deep end to get started, but once you get to know the characters it can be a really compelling read. I enjoyed Anna Karenina too, although not as much as W&P I must say! I would like to try some other translations though and see if I like them more!

tolstoytherapy said...

Thanks for the comment, Brian. I do think you'd enjoy War & Peace, particularly as you're used to reading quite hefty classics! My favourite translation is by Anthony Briggs, although I'd like to try the Pevear Volkonsky translation that I've heard good things about. Let me know if you start reading it! Lucy.

tolstoytherapy said...

Rivorniel, thanks for the comment! I definitely know what you mean by "Russian spirit" - after not reading much Russian literature for a while, I find myself really looking forward to my next Russian text because of it! I definitely enjoy the different names too :) I think you'd enjoy War and Peace!

tolstoytherapy said...

Hi Tom, I remember being quite surprised by Nabokov's thoughts on War and Peace in his Russian literature lectures! I remember that while he did say Tolstoy was the greatest Russian writer of prose fiction (correct me if wrong!), he didn't think W&P was perfectly written and also added it was too long. I think for him AK and Ivan Ilyich made up for War & Peace.

Although I don't personally think it to be too long, I do think that the epilogue could possibly be scrapped. I'm sure many would debate this!

Wuthering Expectations said...

That's right. You are way ahead of me.

I believe many readers would have been happier if Tolstoy had moved the epilogue to a separate book, a little supplementary Theories of W&P text.

Shelf Stacker said...

One of my all time favorite books and I only have 3 on that list. Bottom line for me, after reading the last page, if he had continued writing, I would have continued reading. It was like life, it goes on.

tolstoytherapy said...

I definitely agree with that solution! After battling through the main bit of W&P it's not really the type of writing most readers would want!

Claire McAlpine said...

I've always wanted to read War & Peace and I think I just needed to read a really great review. Done. I'm going to dust it off and make sure I read it this year. Thanks for the inspiration.

tolstoytherapy said...

You'll have to let me know what you think of it, Claire! It's always great to discuss great books with others, and War & Peace is no exception! I'm so glad you enjoyed the post :)

Best wishes,

tolstoytherapy said...

Thanks for the comment! I'm curious to know what the other two books are, but I'm glad War & Peace made the cut! And I agree - for me, War and Peace encapsulates life better than anything else I can think of. It's a truly remarkable piece of writing, and I'm so glad I first discovered it at such a young age.

Best wishes,

Nishita said...

I started and stopped reading War and Peace many times. It's been my literary bugbear actually. I read the excerpts you put out from the Briggs translation and it sounds much much more readable than the one I have. I"ll make sure to look out for this translation the next time I attempt it.

tolstoytherapy said...

I have so many books I've started and stopped reading, Nishita! Thinking about it, they're mostly novels in translation (The Master and Margarita for one), which makes me think I should try a different translation.

I'd definitely recommend that you try the Briggs translation... something about it made it so much more readable for me! I can't wait to read it again this summer.

I do hope you find a translation you like at some point!

Thank you so much for the comment :)

Evelyn thompson said...

I started War and Peace in May and now have about 100 pages left that I can't bring myself to read. I started reading it as a challenge to myself but turned out loving it! I too have the Briggs translation, and have gone to the bookstore and read exerts of other translations, and Briggs is definitely the best. The only thing is, I'm in high school, and that brick is not very fitting in my book bag, so finishing it is strenuous. How did you like the epilogue? Should I read it right after I finish, or wait for the story to set in?

David said...

I've only started this book last week very tentatively. I'm on page 67 (mine is the cheap Wordsworth edition so it clocks at 950 pages). I shall continue though I don't know if I'll get through it at the speed you have. I'm enjoying it all the same.

Emily said...

I've only started reading some of the classics but even thought i'm not far in this book yet I find that it's amazingly well written. My mum laughed when I said I started to read War and Peace. I guess you don't get many 15 year olds willing to read such a large book