A bunch of us have been reading War and Peace at the rate of a chapter a day for the duration of this year – a slight initial miscalculation led us to believe that there are 366 chapters, but in fact there are only 365, so most of us finished this morning, to general rejoicing. It’s a long, long book, and I think that reading it in solidarity with a group was a useful discipline as well as an enjoyable experience. I didn’t contribute all that much to the group discussions but I was very glad that they we there (my main contribution was supplying timetables at the start of each of the internal books to remind people which chapter to read on each day). We are more or less settled on the Chinese epic 三國演義, the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, for next year (though there is also a Les Misérables faction).
One quite unexpected bonus of reading the book in this format was that the summer months almost exactly coincided with the 1812 invasion of Russia, from June to October. (I added to this by following the live feed of John Quincy Adams’s diary from 1812, when he was the American ambassador in St Petersburg, though in fact he got the news of the war very late and was anyway distracted by the illness and death of one of his children.) Tolstoy presumably did not plan it this way but it was a nice real time additional feature to our reading.
So what did I think of it? It is a grand narrative essentially about two Russian noblemen – Pierre Bezukhov and Andrei Bolkonsky – and their extended and intertwining families and love-lives, including particularly Natasha Rostova, who at the start of the novel is a young teenager, but
It’s not so very different from Anna Karenina, but is more ambitious – the backdrop of the Napoleonic wars, with several chapters about Napoleon himself, makes it a more political novel, and I was happier with the interweaving of the characters’ private lives here. I had first read it in 1990, and was surprised at how well some of the incidents came back to me after two decades. One of my former bosses claimed that after reading War and Peace he never needed to read another novel, and I can see how he might have come to such a conclusion. Just because it is done at such length doesn’t necessarily mean it is done well, but in this case it s pretty good. (There are a couple of minor flaws – the ageing of the Rostov kids through the book is a bit inconsistent, and the second epilogue with Tolstoy’s theory of history can be safely skipped.)
I am not really a Russian speaker – I can just about puzzle my way through a short text with a dictionary – but I am aware that one of the things we miss in translation is that in fact quite a lot of the dialogue between the leading characters is in French, decreasing as the story goes on to the point where the Russian elite start taking Russian lessons, The very first sentence of the novel, translated into English as
Well, Prince, so Genoa and Lucca are now just family estates of the Buonapartes
Eh bien, mon prince. Gênes et Lucques ne sont plus que des apanages, des поместья, de la famille Buonaparte.
The English text doesn’t even hint at Anna’s clarification of the French word with a Russian equivalent (and unfortunately neither my French nor my Russian is good enough to pick up any significant difference in nuance between “apanage” and “поместье”). One can never get at the precise original meaning in a translation, alas.
A final rather random point: the character Platon Karataev, encountered by Pierre during his French captivity, is described as “the personification of everything Russian”, suffering while remaining true to his Christian faith. But I note that he comes from the Apsheron Regiment – Apsheron is in today’s Azerbaijan (the peninsula on which Baku is located, which at the time of War and Peace it had flip flopped back and forth between Russian and Persian control several times). Also Karataev’s surname would seem to indicate that he has Turkic roots. His Christianity as practiced is pretty eclectic as well. I think Tolstoy is actually sending a rather non-conformist message with Karataev, who certainly had Muslim ancestors and may be not terribly close to the Church.
Anyway, the discipline of reading a book, or set of books, over the course of a calendar year is a very healthy one, and this was a good book to do it with.