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At War With War & Peace – How I Struggled With The Great Classic And Realized That Some Books Remain Unconquered

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Well, Prince, Genoa and Lucca are now no more than private estates of the Bonaparte family.
- First line of Leo Tolstoy's monumental epic War and Peace

A friend of mine who was born in England, brought up in US, and presently living in a small town in Sweden, had claimed to read Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace when he was fourteen. It was during the summer vacations he was spending at his aunt's farm in Vermont, where he discovered the novel in a shelf in her living room. He started reading while lying down on the ground, under the shade of a tree, and finished it within a week.

Could he be lying?

Drafted at Sixteen

I was sixteen when I was given a copy of War and Peace by a family friend as a birthday gift. This gentleman had no passion for books and had mistakenly assumed, after noticing my stacks of Enid Blytons, Nancy Drews… and let's face it… Danielle Steels and Sidney Sheldons, that I was into serious reading. He was unaware that I was only beginning to recover from a bad decision of buying Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities. I had read an easy English version of David Copperfield in my school without realizing it was not the original edition. (Nobody told me!)

I had imagined that A Tale of Two Cities would be an equally easy, exciting, emotional, tearful roller-coaster of a novel. But I could not go beyond the first celebrated paragraph of "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…" This was an original unedited version and Charles Dickens was difficult!

Now I had this War and Peace. It was thick as an elephant and had a most appealing cover of an elegantly dressed Napoleon, in his Tricorn hat, riding atop a white horse on a grassy slope. The evocative cover picture appeared to be a still from some television series based on the novel.

The translation, of course, was by the great Constance Garnett. At that time journalist David Remnick still had to write his now-celebrated essay on different translations of Russian novels ("The Translation Wars", 7 November, 2005, New Yorker; not available online), and so my ignorance rescued me from the torment of later years that a translation could be of great significance to the soul of a story originally written in an unfamiliar language.

Besides, it did not occur to me that Constance Garnett was a woman!

Nevertheless, I started reading the novel. It begins in the St. Petersburg drawing room of Anna Pavlovna, a confidential maid-of-honor to the Russian Empress Marya Fyodorovna. In the first line of this epic novel, Anna Pavlovna was commenting on Napoleon's march through Italy during her chit-chat with Prince Vassily, a man high in rank and office who was the first to arrive at her soiree.

I closed the book after struggling through two pages. The possibility of arguing about the lack of an interest factor in the beginning of the novel was immaterial; it was simply beyond my powers to grasp the conversations in this opening scene: I was not acquainted with the European history; I was also unfamiliar with the ways of the Russian writers, especially Tolstoy, who could be so undramatic in his narration.

Even then there lingered certain certainties: I knew the novel was about Russia and Napoleon's invasion; I had heard of Leo Tolstoy and had seen his pictures — he looked so much like Rabindra Nath Tagore — the great Indian poet and the first Asian Nobel laureate in literature. But a great work of art could not be appreciated by depending on the perceptions of partially trained sensibilities. And remember I was young (sixteen!). I decided to give myself some more time before attempting the book. May be after a few years…

The Passage of Time

Days passed. Weeks flew. Months slipped. Years disappeared. By then great many things had taken place in my life: I discovered Toni Morrison; found a refuge in brother James Baldwin; developed a comfort-level intimacy with sister Maya Angelou; spent pleasant afternoons with Nabokov; shared masala sessions with Salman Rushdie; romanced with Vikram Seth; made a hero in Arundhati Roy; began an affair with old cookbooks; and saw a mother-figure in MFK Fisher.

In addition, I lived in Gulags with Alexander Solznetsyn; understood Madame Bovary's obsessive compulsive shopping disorders; witnessed the making and breaking of relationships with Alice Munro; grasped the ways of the world with Shakespeare; found a soul-mate in Jane Austen; and most happily I divorced Danielle Steele and distanced myself from other equally shameful secrets of the past life.

But War and Peace remained unread.

I tried reading the same gifted copy again. I somehow waded my way through the soiree scene, and reached the point where Prince Anatole's drunkard friend was challenging to drink rum while sitting in a third story window, with legs dangling down outside. But it was boring and I was drained. So the excursion was called off.

Same Story; New Versions

In the winters of 2005, I came across an old, handy, two-volume hardbound edition of War and Peace. This edition was translated by Louise and Aylmer Maude. It was an American printing and was extremely handsome, and littered with original beautiful illustrations. How could I have restrained myself from buying it?

It was promising this time: here was finally an arty edition; a translation said to be approved by Tolstoy himself. Besides, I had a mind considerably improved by a more extensive reading, and had developed a taste for history.

I successfully finished the soiree scene; was actually amused by Anna Pavlovna's hospitality and skills in managing her guests; shook my head at Prince Vassily's despair with his "foolish' sons"; shrugged at the blank beauty of Princess Ellen; sympathized with her suffering husband Prince Andrey; enjoyed my time with the wild ways of Anatole and his gang; felt for the once-rich Princess Drubetskoy who had to plead to Prince Vassily for her son Boris's career prospects. Most of the action took place in the soiree scene alone! And then (oh!) I switched over to another novel, and then to other books.

Days peeled over into more days. Leaves died and seasons changed. I started from the start – again invited myself as a guest in Anna Pavlovn'a drawing room, again eavesdropped on the chatter of the most important people of St. Petersburg. By the time of Pierre reaching Anatole's bachelor pad, situated in the Horse Guards' barracks, where the burly Dolohov was daring to drink rum while hanging out from the third-floor window, I had called it a defeat. Yet again!

A New Beginning and a New Promise

A new translation was published by Penguin in 2005 – the first major translation to appear since last fifty years. I was thrilled. It was translated by Anthony Briggs, a British professor of Russian at Birmingham University, who claimed that his version, unlike the great translations which were all done by women, (Mr Briggs is a man) better reflect the earthiness in the dialogues of the soldiers in the war scenes.

But it was not merely these subtleties that attracted me to Anthony Briggs. It was the cover – the hardbound had a picture of an elegant and beautiful young woman, dressed in a white gown, sitting on what seemed to be a throne, while being waited upon by a uniformed valet. I had to get this translation with exactly this cover.

The problem was this edition was out of print in amazon.co.uk and was no longer published. It was not available in amazon.com, too. But it was in Amazon's Canadian outlet.

After a quick settlement with the sympathetic owner of a Delhi bookshop, the book soon arrived from Toronto. It was difficult to get my eyes off the cover. I turned to the first page and felt at home. They were all characters who had by now almost become a family: Anna Pavlovna, Anatole, Prince Vassily, Boris, Dolohov, Princess Bolonsky, Pierre….

But just as I begun to finally enjoy the novel, there appeared The Looming Tower – a most gripping book on 9/11. My greedy mind struggled with tormenting life-defining questions: is it advisable to stick to reading a rather-dull thousand page novel while the heart is whispering to opt for a thin one which promises to be a page-turner and a quick read? If I stand by War and Peace, would my distracting mind be able to give full attention it deserves?

And more seriously, don't I realize that life is short and books are many? If I'm not exactly enjoying War and Peace, if my heart is not in it, do I still need to read it? Won't I be better reading books I could enjoy? What if I die tomorrow? Won't it be tragic to have spent the last minutes of my life reading something which I was forcing myself to read and not because I really wanted to? Hello, who am I fooling?

So I dumped Tolstoy for The Looming Tower which I hungrily devoured only to start Isaac Bashevis Singer's Collected Stories. There seems to be no immediate plans for War and Peace. I have instead decided to wait for the much-awaited and much-hyped new translation that is to be released in the fall of 2007 by Modern Library.

The classic is being translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky – a celebrated couple who are considered the best Russian language translators of our times. Their translation of Anna Karenina was famously selected by Oprah for her book club. The critics are already calling it the authoritative translation in English.

Oh yes, I promise to read the hardbound edition of that translation of the War and Peace.

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About Mayank Austen Soofi

  • Mark Saleski

    i have had the same struggles with Ulysses.

    the main problem is that there are a few books which i “wish to have read”….the last time i forced myself through a difficult read (which i think was with Gravity’s Rainbow) i told myself that life was too short.

    still, the “pull” from these volumes is there.

  • Nancy

    Some books are legendary for the inability of just about any reader to get through them; W&P is one of the top of the list. It’s like wading through mud; there’s only so much you can take before you give up in exhaustion.

  • Mark Saleski

    exactly!

  • Bliffle

    I managed to get through it when I was about 20, but didn’t count it as a favorite at that time. I liked the epilogues, which I thought wrapped up the stories very well. I guess it was worth reading the novel to get to the epilogues.

    Rather than read it, you might be interested in hearing it read. Some years ago the Pacifica station in NYC (WBAI?) read the novel live over several days. They started with Tolstois granddaughter reading the first chapter, then many guest readers, including several varieties of celebrities, over the next few days. It was taped but disappeared for several years and was recently rediscovered. Sometimes they offer it on CDs during fund raising drives. I’m guessing that they are in MP3 format, so you could loadup your iPod for the next several weeks listening.

  • duane

    Great stuff, Mayank. My Great Books collection mocks and torments me while I read the pageturner paperbacks. Herodotus, Thucydides, Plutarch, and Augustine ridicule me for my short attention span. You will be apalled to learn that I have made it only half-way through Emma three times. I have yet to meet a goal that I set for myself 15 years ago, to read the entirety of Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. That is my War and Peace. I am what they call a “starter.” Twenty years ago, I was easily able to plow through Ibsen, Voltaire, Lorca, Dostoevsky, Nabokov. Nowadays, bleaagghhh …. I look at my guitar case sitting on the floor and think about the tactile, aural, and even geometrical pleasure that my Ibanez can so easily provide. I give in. Middlemarch goes back on the shelf. I hate this need to sacrifice one pursuit for another.

  • http://giftedadults.wordpress.com Catana

    War and Peace is a good book to wrestle with, but if it doesn’t give you pleasure, there’s no point. I first read it in my teens, and it’s one of the few that I go back to every few years. But my tastes were always weird. The longer and the more complex the book the better. Except for Ulysses.

  • Nancy

    There are very few books that I can think of that I started off disliking and ended up glad I had read. Those I disliked from the start remained a waste of time, then & now. I ditto that advice: if you don’t enjoy it, then refer to Cliff’s Notes & pass on to something you do enjoy; life’s too short to torture yourself with literary dreck, no matter how classic.

  • Mark Saleski

    i have a few that i’ve changed my mind about over time. Jane Eyre i absolutely hated in high school. but heck…i was 15! read it about five years later and loved. it.

  • Nancy

    I never cared much for Dickens until I got out of college and started again with Pickwick – where we should have started, instead of trying to plunge in to Tale of 2 Cities, which none of us were ready for, either content wise or stylistically. When you’re 15 you don’t really take it in that folks had a lot more time back then, so stories were more leisurely, etc. Now I can even read Thackery without fliching, but I admit W&P got the better of me & I finally quit even trying. Ditto ‘Ulysses’, but mainly because I consider Joyce to be a posturing gasbag (which of course is just my opinion).

  • http://www.redinked.com Amy

    I loved this!

    I had the romantic notion that I would read War and Peace during the nine months of my first pregnancy.

    Instead, I sat around watching the Golden Girls eating peanut butter.

    I did make it halfway through, and though I found it tough, the odd thing is, it affected me like no other book. Must be that wrestling with it really impacted my imagination.

    Thanks for a great read!

  • http://ECB EmmaCB

    I think that W&P is perfect in every way; I read it recently on holiday and it did not leave my side until I had finished it (save for the second part of the epilogue where Tolstoy reflects on different schools of historians…). I think that it is the length of the book rather than the content that puts people off which is unfortunate. I feel privileged to have read it and cannot believe that I put it off for such a long time.

  • http://thedelhiwalla.blogspot.com Mayank Austen Soofi

    EmmaCB, I do not doubt that WP is a great classic. It is just that it hasn’t happened to me. Yet. Once it does, even I will wonder that why I put it off for such a long time.

  • Peter

    At the age of 15 I was ill in bed for a month and read W&P, have since forgotten most of it. But I do remember the whole experience took wing when I got to the parts with Natasha and Bolkonsky and Pierre. And the section where Pierre passes the oak tree refusing to leaf in April and then repasses it in its full late-spring glory and applies the “lesson” to his own life… The passage is still with me, still guides me.

  • Peter

    PS: A sher for Pierre:

    May birds forgive the tree that will not leaf
    Until each past year’s grief has flown away.

  • Peter

    Apologies to whomever might have read the two preceding comments to Mayank’s blog. I looked up the oak-and-late-spring passage in W&P and found it concerns Prince Andrei, not Pierre. So much for the vagaries of a reader’s memory!

  • Mayank Austen Soofi

    Peter, no need for apologies. I’m still awed. All cheers to you. I hope I will be able to enjoy that classic, too.

  • http://www.gpb-katie.blogspot.com Katie McNeill

    you’ll get there, and you never know once it’s done you might enjoy it. I’ve never read it myself but I’ve hear it has it moments. I perfer the movie with Audrey Hepburn.

  • http://www.bertelsen.ca Brandon Erik Bertelsen

    I finished it last week, on the night before an exam. By far I struggled with the 2nd Epilogue where Tolstoy nit picks over free-will and taking the path of least resistance. But it’s done and I’m very happy that I read it. It was a challenging book to read at times but the end result was a fantastic story that created over two months of enjoyment on my way to and from work.

  • http://www.bertelsen.ca Brandon Erik Bertelsen

    Although, to tell you the truth, I really didn’t begin to enjoy it until I got about 400 pages in. I think it’s like beer, it’s an acquired taste (and I still don’t like beer!)

  • Dan Leikvold

    War and Peace seems to pop up during periods of catharsis in my life. Like your friend, I first read the great novel when I was 14 years old (finishing when I was 15). I had only recently been uprooted from a fairly typical Midwestern life of baseball , paper routes and piano lessons when my father decided to take a job as an engineer in Africa. I was sent to a boarding school in England. Before I left, my father handed me his copy of War and Peace and suggested I give it a try. At my new school, surrounded by long haired kids I could hardly understand, I was the American outcast at first. Out of a mixture of extreme homesickness and boredom with myself I gave it a go. After overcoming the daunting Russian names, I was hooked. For that first semester, Tolstoy was my best friend.

    Fast forward about 10 years and I’ve just left a Christian commune after a shakeup at the top of the ministry revealed the usual grubby selfishness that seems to attach itself to those who hold the power in too many religious organizations. I was rethinking my beliefs and trying to reshape my life. For a summer I moved in with my sister and her new husband and worked a janitor job at night. In the afternoon, I would retreat to the backyard and read War and Peace. My old friend did not let me down. Inspired by him, I went back to school to study literature.

    Finally, two years ago a book club I’m in decided to form a small subgroup that would tackle War and Peace. I was one of the few who joined. At the time, I had only recently become a quadriplegic as a result of a freakish bicycle accident. I was trying to make sense of a world that seemed tragically and cruelly random. Again, I retreated to the backyard with Tolstoy and again his magnificent opus on the great themes of life was like an arm around my shoulder.

    This Christmas I gave my 20-year-old daughter a copy of Anna Karenina. She grew up with computers, the Sims, iTunes and 57 channels (with nothin’ on) so I expected the book to end up with the other good ideas I’ve given her over the years, collecting dust in her bookshelves. But I underestimated the power of my old companion, and she’s now halfway through the book. I think I’ll have to give her a nice edition of War and Peace for her upcoming birthday.