On reading War and Peace at the holidays

Tolstoy's War and Peace is the January discussion book for the Classics Book Group I belong to here at the library, which explains one reason we're not meeting in December, to allow extra time for everyone to – hopefully – get through this chunker.

One thousand two hundred and ninety six pages. That's 1,296, in the Pevear/Volokhonsky edition. And where am I? Somewhere in the early 100s. It's not looking good, my friends, though that could change at any minute. Things are just that exciting around here.

The rich language is one thing slowing me down. The other is understanding what Tolstoy is trying to say with the aforesaid rich language. I had to read the first few parts three times before I understood who was who and what what. I didn't get that the first bit was set at a party, for goodness sake, until I'd both read and re-read the section and took a gander at the Cliffs Notes – just to give me a little help mind you, not to skip the reading.

Ever read a Russian novel? It has its challenges, among them being the multiple names each character has, because in Russia it's common to have your formal given name as well as two or three nicknames. The same character can be called Princess So and So, Lise, then Liza, all within the space of a page. So, just when you think you have Princess So and So nailed down suddenly there's this other person being referenced. Of course you first think this is someone totally different, but then comes Lise and the same person's involved in the same dialogue with her. What the hell?

Luckily the translators included a character list at the front of the book. I could get by without it.

Another thing I find disruptive is the tendency of the Russian characters to exhibit alternating rapid emotions. Thus, you could have a dialogue like this:

Princess So and So:

"I love you! Yes, I will marry you! Oh, but Boris, you make me so sad. I want to kill myself. I hate you! I hate you! Would you like some tea? But life is not worth living! Kiss me! Then go away and die. Do you take cream and sugar?"

Okay, that's totally made up, but not far off from how the Russians seem to operate. It's like taking uppers and downers, in quick succession. Were all 19th Century Russians rapid-cycle bipolar? It's hard justifying that sort of behavior otherwise. I mean, I'm bipolar, but I don't vacillate like that. If I did I'd be hospitalized. Mine is much more sedate, if I can even use that term in the same paragraph as a chemical disorder.

But the language. Again, the language. It's gorgeous, thus impossible to read quickly. It's so richly plotted, not to mention a bit stream of consciousness. You just can't hurry it. So I'm a little worried about the January 19 deadline, especially with the holidays thrown in. I haven't even made a list of what I need to do for our celebration, though I have bought several gifts. Four others are easy peasey, leaving only my daughter who's difficult to buy for. And she gave me a list. It's just finding the very specific things the girl wants.

That leaves the food and the extras. And does Christmas ever have the extras. We need Christmas "crackers" (not the food, but the things that pop to reveal fortunes, little toys, and the paper crowns I covet), the cookies, as well as menu planning. No small feat. Not at all. And did I mention my daughter's birthday falls the week before? Oy.

So I'll be a little busy over the next month or so. Good busy, in some ways, but busy nonetheless. 'Tis the season.

4 thoughts on “On reading War and Peace at the holidays

  1. You are a brave woman! I must say War and Peace intimidates me immensely. It seems like it would be one of those complex books that work better in long doses so you don’t lose what is going on–and at the same time, one of those intense books better read in short doses. Aargh!

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  2. I’m on page 480 — I figured I need to read about 160 pages per week to finish in time for our discussion. Unlike my normal reading 4 books at a time, I’m focusing almost exclusively on War&Peace and that has helped me a lot to keep track of everyone.

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  3. I’m in the 200s now, and moving along at a pretty good clip. I expected the war parts to be dull, but for the most part they really aren’t. They’re full of lots of emotion and a sense of what it’s like to be caught up in the danger. I feel more optimistic I’ll catch up now.

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