I’ve finished it. After over half a million words, I’ve finished this “masterpiece of world literature”.
First, a warning. I am not a literary critic- I stopped studying literature at 15. (I am generally grateful for this, as it has enabled me to read what I like and form my own opinions. However, I am also grateful for being introduced to Shakespeare, Browning, Hardy and e e cummings at school.)
I started ‘War and Peace’ with a great deal of enthusiasm. Having seen the excellent BBC TV dramatisation I broke my long-standing resolution not to read novels in translation, which I had adopted because there is so much I will never have time to read in English alone.
I read it on a Kindle; the eldest Miss Oblique pointed out its unwieldy size as a physical book. The Kindle show how far you hve read. I didn’t at first see it as a challenge, but did gulp at realising I’d only got to 30%. I stalled at 70% and started to read Trollope’s ‘Dr Thorne’, again inspired by a (somewhat less good) TV adaptation. The two novels continued side by side, but inevitably the good Dr Thorne finished way earlier.
At the 70% mark, I must admit to finding the ‘spiritual’ passages of ‘War and Peace’ tedious. Possibly this is just a personal problem- I’ve always been a plot-driven reader. Additionally, I started to find that the analyses of historical motivation, causes and effects dragged.
So, reverting to my old principle that life is too short to persist with a book you are not enjoying, I stopped and a little guiltily skimmed through to the end. (After all, this is Tolstoy, right? It’s meant to be uplifting and improving.) I’m glad I took this decision.
Now purists may say that I have done this all the wrong way, especially by starting with the TV series. I have very successfully done this before with Dickens and others. ( See In praise of our mutual friend, Mr Dickens) However, it does mean that the “discovery” aspect of the plot loses impact. To be honest, I don’t think I would have followed the plot without an introductory guide. Now here I get a little controversial, and will no doubt be dismissed by serious literary types. I found the plot rather thin. Some of the characters are very appealing: I especially liked Pierre Bezukhov, although this may also be coloured by the very sympathetic TV portrayal. Generally, though, I thought it lacked a main narrative thread. ‘Our Mutual Friend’ has a similar cast of characters, but the plot, although tortuous, is strong.
The narrative thread is diluted by the passages, mentioned above, of spiritual and historical philosophising. I must be missing something here. I have a different view of what a novel should be; I think the fiction itself should develop ‘insights’, rather than them being spelled out explicitly. Wow, I’m developing a literary philosophy. Or theory. Or rationale.
In the end, I didn’t care too much about the fate of the characters. I like a happy ending; I suppose it was. Two long epilogues dissipated the effect of the conclusion, such as it was.
Anyway, I’ve read it. Perhaps I should have learnt Russian first… or not have watched the TV version… or have read it with no distractions. I wouldn’t recommend it; it has made me decide to revert to my principles of not reading literature in translation and not finishing anything I am not enjoying.
Footnote: while checking a few facts, I noticed that Tostoy said ‘War and Peace’ was not a novel.