Saturday, January 30, 2010
War and Peace - Some common misunderstandings
Some common misperceptions about War and Peace: It's hard to read? No, it really isn't. In conversation with friends last night someone mentioned that they could never read it, that it would take them the rest of their life to do so, etc. It does take a long time, of course. There's so much material in the book, it covers such an expanse of time and so many families and lives. And the historical references are remote to most of us today. That said, the V&P translation has good notes to help with the history, to the extent you need and want it. And it does have a list of main characters - it would be good to tag that page, as you'll refer to it a lot, throughout the reading. The names are the biggest problem, as with all Russian lit for American readers, the many variants and titles and patronyms and so on. That alone will be a problem. Other than that, the prose is so clean and the story so clear and compelling that it's not difficult to read at all, totally absorbing. Brother-in-law Jay mentioned once that he remembers reading it and that Tolstoy went on for three long pages about someone donning a cloak. I never found this scene, and I think Jay was wrong. Tolstoy does not go on at great length unfolding descriptions, as Proust, famously, does. His scenes are driven by action (though they often include the unfolding of a character's thoughts, perceptions, or realizations) and are really models of concision. The two scenes referenced in the previous post are perfect example, from vol. 4 section 1: the execution that Pierre witnesses, and how it shakes his faith in humankind, and the death of Prince Andrei, so awful and chilling because so understated.