Are you one of the many who fumbles their way through a conversation of the classics, with vague memories of the Cliff Notes version, having never read the original? You’re not alone, and the ‘Saturday Read’ this week is the first step to fill in the blanks with ‘War and Peace’ by Leo Tolstoy.
“Do you feel pressured to read certain books?” Journalist Alison Flood posed this question after a poll conducted by market research firm, ‘YouGov’, found that “Britons are weighed down with regret over novels they haven’t found ‘time and patience’ for”, garnering a series of Twitter comments concluding, you should try it, you might like it.
“…maybe it’s a classic because it’s good, not because it’s hard. I did precisely that with War and Peace; giving it a crack because I felt I should, and then being startled to discover that it was actually fun. Not a trial at all.”
Only 4% of Britons surveyed had read War and Peace, but that began to change with the broadcast this month of the Harvey Weinstein produced, BBC Television production of the novel as a four part, eight hour mini series.
“Judging by our recent sales … an awful lot of people have finally crossed this classic off their must-read list. Four different editions of the book have hit our bestseller list, shifting an almost equal number of copies each,” said Waterstones buyer Joseph Knobbs.
At publisher Wordsworth Editions, managing director Helen Trayler said that sales of War and Peace had grown steadily after the first episode of the new TV adaptation, with its edition in the top 20 of the Bookseller’s small publisher charts ever since the show launched.”
In December, 1,300 people joined together for a live, four day, marathon reading of the novel on Russian TV.
“Tolstoy’s great-great-granddaughter Fekla Tolstaya coordinated the participants, who are each reading a two to three-minute passage of the novel’s more than half a million words from schools, museums, libraries and other locations around the world.
Readers include Polish film director and Oscar winner Andrzej Wajda, Bolshoi Ballet director Vladimir Urin and Russian politician Valentina Matvienko. Cosmonaut Sergei Volkov contributed a reading from the International Space Station, and French readers were coordinated to read the book’s French sections”
Yes, the book is written in French and English in the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation.
Clara Bell, reviewing the novel in 1886 for the New York Times criticized both the novel and Count Tolstoy’s domestic environment.
“In fact, War and Peace may be called an illustrated historical essay rather than a novel, there being no semblance of a plot, and the characters serving to develop the public events rather than being developed by them. This inversion of the usual rule, together with the subtle but unmistakeable savor of fatalism which pervades the whole work, disturbs the reader with the same sense of vague discomfort that must have chilled many of Count Tolstoi’s foreign admirers when they found their hero living in a shabby, comfortless, untidy house a little way out of Moscow, where carpets and clean tablecloths appeared to be equally rare.”
So we avoid reading ‘War and Peace’ because it’s described as daunting, boring, long, confusing and required. What if we took the advice of journalist Flood and read it for enjoyment? I did and it is long, but amazing and you will find the seeds of many subsequent classics, and ‘not so classic’ in the story.
It turns out Count Tolstoy had a lot to say about contemporary issues; the individual, happiness and occupation-work. One example, the thoughts of character Pierre Bezukov after he is released from prison at the end of the war.
“The absence of suffering, the satisfaction of one’s needs, and the resulting freedom to choose one’s occupation, that is, one’s way of life, now seemed to Pierre the highest and most unquestionable human happiness.
“…the satisfaction of his needs…now that he was deprived of them all, seemed perfect happiness to Pierre, and the choice of an occupation, that is, of a life, now, when that choice was so limited, seemed to him such an easy matter that he forgot that a superfluidity of life’s comforts destroys all the happiness of the satisfaction of one’s needs, and that a greater freedom to choose one’s occupation, the freedom which in this life was granted him by education, wealth, social position – precisely that freedom made the choice of an occupation insolubly difficult and destroyed the very need and possibility of an occupation.”
This is why we read ‘War and Peace’. It’s why Russian TV devoted four days to a live reading. And why one of Hollywood’s leaders decided to executive produce a screenplay of his favorite novel.
If you are still a bit of a skeptic, Philip Hensher of The Guardian offers ‘War and Peace: the 10 things you need to know (if you haven’t actually read it)’
” 7. Anyone who tells you that you can skip the “War” parts and only read the “Peace” parts is an idiot. The bits that interest you personally and the bits that you find of only abstract curiosity are going to change when you read the book at 20, and again at 50. The book is the product of a very big mind, who lost interest in almost everything War and Peace was about before he died. It is a living organism that is never quite the same as you remembered when you go back to it.”