This week I’ve been reading… War and Peace (Vol. 1) by Leo Tolstoy

I was on such a roll with my reading challenge for this year. My aim was one book a week and at the end of January I was averaging two. I’d read one Monday to Friday to perk up my disappointing work lunches of tinned soup. And another I’d start as I snuggled down into bed on Friday night and have it finished by brunchtime on Sunday (a legitimate time of day that only exists at the weekends).

And then I looked back over the list of books I’d read and was a little disappointed in myself. Yes, there were a lot on there, but they were all contemporary. I pride myself on my diverse reading interests and especially on my love of classics. So to make up for this I picked up not just any classic, but the classic to end all classics – War and Peace. 

And before I get right into the actual review I should point out that I have not yet finished it. I am merely at the halfway mark because damn this is a long book. And it hurts me deeply every time I consider that at the end of the year it’s only going to count towards one off my reading goal. So the least it can do is provide me with two blog posts.

This is not a book I ever pictured myself reading. I loved Anna Karenina but even that was hard work at times. And War and Peace has such a fearsome reputation, not just because of it’s length but because of Tolstoy’s habit of drifting into chapter after chapter of historical detail and philosophical pondering. In fact, before I saw Miss Quickly’s posts charting her progress through it I didn’t know it was the kind of book people actually read for pleasure. More like Chaucer or Homer; you might read it for academic reasons but not the kind of book you settle down with after a long day. Not gripping or involving or escapist. So imagine my surprise when only a few days after starting it I was already a third of the way done. But I really was enjoying it that much. The love stories and heartbreak and intrigues and deceptions – what’s not to like!

It is also hugely easy to read. The translation I’m reading was done in 1957 so any archaic language is dispensed. Instead of having to decipher the meaning underneath outdated speech you can concentrate on immersing yourself in the lives of three elite Russian families.

The narrative focuses mainly on the Rostov family, the Bolkonsky family and Pierre Bezukov and I found it helpful to keep reminding myself of this. There are literally hundreds of characters mentioned throughout the book and I had to let myself lose track of just a few of them or the book would have stopped being fun very early on. In fact it probably would have been abandoned entirely. The same with following the exploits of Napoleon and the Russian army – I was reading it for the parlour room gossip, trips to the opera, trials of the heart – if I lost track of which side Austria was on at any given time then I wasn’t going to be beating myself up over it.

And as far as I can tell the book doesn’t lose anything if you’re willing to give the war chapters a bit of a skim read. Especially as there are more important things to get back to. Andrei Bolkonsky’s search for a purpose to life, Nikolai Rostov’s need to distinguish himself, Pierre Bezukov’s good intentions. Natasha Rostova’s ill-fated love affairs have had me a sobbing wreck and I have such sympathy for Maria Bolkonskaya and her really mean father. But I really wish more page space was given to the Kuragin family. Even with just the occasional mention they’re carving themselves out a nice little place on my list of the best literary villains but I’d love to hear more from them so I could really get myself properly  riled up.

All this, and there’s still a whole second volume to go!


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