Ten days into Jillian’s War and Peace readalong and I haven’t quit! What’s more, I’m not feeling particularly intimidated. And on top of that? I’m quite enjoying the story.

My copy of War & PeaceMy copy (the Anthony Briggs translation), as you can see in the photo, is marked with tabs at monthly checkpoints. Should I lose track in all of the parts and chapters, at least I’ll know where to be when the next month rolls around! I have scrap paper for a bookmark (so I can take notes), and marking the notes section at the back of the book is my extensive character list. It includes the main families, other prominent characters, and important historical figures. I expected keeping track of the characters would be the toughest part of reading War and Peace for me, and I was partly right; it’s not as bad as I’d expected, but it still takes some work.

The history is the other piece that gets to me. I probably should have read several books on the appropriate historical events and figures prior to beginning War and Peace…but then I may never have gotten to the novel! Besides, there’s no way I would have learned everything I’d need to know to follow Tolstoy’s every political comment. Thankfully, the notes provided in my edition are quite helpful.

But what I really wanted to talk about today was how good Tolstoy is at expressing his characters. His characterizations are so effective that they help cement in my mind which character is which. Here, Tolstoy is describing the princess Helene, daughter of Prince Vasily, at a social gathering at Anna Pavlovna’s:

“The princess rested her round, bare arm on the little table and found it unnecessary to say anything. She smiled, and she waited. Sitting up straight throughout the viscount’s story, she glanced down occasionally either at her beautiful, round arm so casually draped across the table, or at her still lovelier bosom and the diamond necklace above it that kept needing adjustment. Several times she also adjusted the folds of her gown, and whenever the narrative made a strong impact on the audience she would glance across at Anna Pavlovna in order to imitate whatever expression she could see written on the maid of honour’s face before resuming her radiant smile.” (p. 14)

Or this, from the party’s end, describing Pierre, son of Count Kirill:

“Pierre was ungainly, stout, quite tall and possessed of huge red hands. It was said of him that he had no idea how to enter a drawing-room and was worse still at withdrawing from one, or saying something nice as he left. He was also absent-minded. He stood up now, picked up a general’s nicely plumed three-cornered hat instead of his own, and held on to it, pulling at the feathers, until the general asked for it back. But all his absent-mindedness and his inability to enter a drawing-room or talk properly once inside it were redeemed by his expression of good-natured simplicity and modesty.” (p. 24)

From these brief sketches, I can imagine the two characters: she, beautiful but disengaged from the conversation around her; he, large, socially and physically awkward but well-meaning.

Tolstoy is also skilled at portraying the way in which characters relate to one another. For instance, in just a few sentences, he captures a scene at the Rostovs’ home:

“For a while nobody spoke. The countess was smiling pleasantly at her lady guest without disguising the fact that she would not be greatly put out if she were to get up and go. The visiting daughter was fidgeting with her gown and looking inquiringly at her mother when suddenly they all heard a racket from the next room as several boys and girls ran to the door, bumping into a chair and knocking it over with a bang, and a girl of thirteen dashed in with something tucked into her short muslin frock.” (p. 41)

I love the awkward silence, the countess’s expression, the daughter’s discomfort, and the rush of children; from Tolstoy’s words, the scene springs to life. And there have been many other bits like this one!

In short: I’m so glad I’ve decided to join this readalong!

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33 Comments

  1. Good for you for tackling War and Peace. I considered it. I have never done Oprah’s Book Club, but when they did Anna Karinina she posted a reading schedule which I did follow and I was so happy I did. I really loved the book and would never have read it otherwise.

    I hope you have the same kind of positive experience and keep reading.

    1. Reading schedules are very helpful, aren’t they? I wouldn’t have tackled War and Peace without (a) having a (very manageable) schedule, and (b) knowing other people were reading it as well. Thanks for the encouragement!

  2. Enjoyed reading your post, Erin! I loved reading all the passages you have quoted! I love the character of Pierre, though he comes through as ungainly and awkward.

    Though the translated version I have is the same as yours (translated by Anthony Briggs), the edition I have is a different one. The edition you have looks thicker and the cover looks interesting ๐Ÿ™‚

    Happy Reading!

    1. At first I wasn’t sure about Pierre, but I’m starting to like him. It’s amazing how Tolstoy can manage to distinguish all his characters from one another! When I was doing my research into which translation I wanted to read, I came across lots of editions of the Briggs translation, so I guess I’m not surprised we have different editions. I’m not sure I want mine to be thicker, though!

    1. As soon as I realized the chapter numbers started over with each new section, I knew I had to set up some other sort of system!

  3. I am reading this as well right now, and have gotten to about chapter 22. It is a tougher read for me, and I am finding it a little dry, but it is starting to pick up for me, and I am hoping that it becomes more and more involving over the course of the week. I am glad to hear that you are finding so much success with it!

    1. I’m definitely finding the discussions about politics and current affairs a bit dry, especially since my knowledge of Napoleonic history isn’t so good. All the other parts, though, I’m enjoying, especially as I get the characters straightened out (a slow process, for sure!). I hope it continues to pick up for you and that you enjoy your reading!

  4. So organized! I chose to purchase the eBook version to carry around with me, however I’m thinking that I might want to also purchase a hard version to make lots of marks and tabs!

    I’ve been reading some background history on Wikipedia about the Napoleonic Wars–interesting, but it’s made me take a nap at my desk!

    Also wondering why you chose the Anthony Briggs edition–I chose the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation.

    1. Sometimes, I organize to procrastinate ๐Ÿ™‚ though in this case, I think the tabs will come in handy. I almost went for the eBook version, but somehow I felt like I had to tackle this monster in print. I do have a free version (an older translation) on my Reader, so that I don’t have to travel with the print version. I took one look at the Wikipedia page and decided I’ll go there if need be, but not until then…you’re brave!

      I chose the Briggs translation primarily because he translates in line all the French that P&V leave in French and translate in the footnotes. I know this sounds lazy of me, and that knowing when the characters are speaking French is actually an interesting thing to know, but I know my reading style and I hate footnotes! I sat down with a couple different translations in a bookstore and read the first chapter of each. Briggs was my favorite, so I went with that one. I’m pretty sure everyone else in the readalong is reading the P&V version!

    1. I love the organizing part! Don’t be fooled by the pretty tags, though…it’s still War and Peace ๐Ÿ™‚

  5. Those tabs are genius! I might just have to steal your idea, especially since I think the chapter numbers start over again with a new section.

    I’m struggling with the characters…there are so many, and I’m reading while I’m walking on the treadmill, so the note taking isn’t happening. I may need to rethink my strategy.

    1. Yeah, as soon as I realized the numbers started over with each new section, I knew I had to figure out another system. I thought about marking by week, but that seemed excessive (and I didn’t have that many tabs!). I’m not sure I could read this one while doing anything but sitting down with my character list and my notes. You’re brave for trying it on the treadmill!

  6. What a great idea!! I should have had those little markers when I was reading Musashi … I needed to know when I was going to be done a section. Good luck … I think I’ll try this one someday.

  7. I’m almost finished with War and Peace, and I must just add here that I know nothing about the Napoleonic wars and the history and I’ve been just fine. I’m learning a lot! Tolstoy has a tendency to go on long tangents about things and it’s rather irritating, but nonetheless, the read is rather satisfying for those moments that you indicate above — those wonderful descriptions that make it so good.

    1. Good to know it’s possible to survive W&P without extensive Napoleonic war knowledge! I’m waiting for a really long tangent to pop up. I think part of what will work for me in reading a chapter a day for a year is that I won’t get as bogged down by those passages as I might be otherwise. It’s hard to get stuck when you just have to read a few pages every day! Or at least, that’s what I’m hoping…

  8. It’s really nice to see comments from someone doing the read-along that Jillian is hosting. I love the passages you’ve highlighted here, a few of them jumped out at me while reading as well. The descriptions are absolutely amazing. On this chapter a day schedule, we’re still in the mist of the story’s exposition and I’m so impressed by what an excellent job Tolstoy does of setting everything up so meticulously! It’s such a pleasure to finally read this and really fun to discover it with others at the same time! ๐Ÿ™‚

    1. I agree, Marisa! I love knowing that for a whole year I’m reading a massive classic along with a bunch of other people. A chapter a day seems to be a nice pace, too, much to my surprise! Thanks for stopping by. I look forward to spending the rest of the year with Tolstoy and you!

  9. It’s always tricky reading such a classic book – what if I don’t like it? What if I don’t see what others have seen? But with this one, I absolutely agree with you. I am loving it! Tolstoy is indeed a master.

    1. I feel the same way! Through blogging, though, I’m starting to see that everyone has his or her own opinions about every book, classics included. I discovered I’m not an Alice in Wonderland fan and was a little apprehensive about admitting it…but no one seems to mind! It’s almost more fun to see who likes which book and who dislikes which. It sounds like most people, so far, are enjoying Tolstoy…we’ll see where we end up!

  10. Oh, you SO make me want to rush out and pick this one up. And maybe in a few months I’ll catch up to you but I’m committed to Ulysses and afraid that Joyce guy will suck it all outta me.

    I have two Russian coworkers and they both highly recommended War and Peace–especially when I was struggling with Brothers Karamazov for months. I’m glad you’re enjoying it so. The characterization does sound fabulous. Russian history is very much a mystery to me but also very intriguing.

    1. Ohhhhh Ulysses…good luck! The nice thing about War and Peace is that we’ll be reading it for a loooong time. You could start in July, read two chapters a day instead of one, and catch up with us by the end of the year ๐Ÿ™‚

      War and Peace is my first classic Russian novel, which seems somehow appropriate. So far it seems it won’t leave me with a bad taste in my mouth. After watching you guys struggle through Brothers Karamazov, I’m not touching that one with a ten-foot pole!

  11. It’s so exciting to read this in pace with other people! I’m really liking the story so far. I think I prefer Prince Andrei over Pierre. Pierre, while passionate, seems a bit dishonourable (so far.)

    Prince Andrei is like… Mr. Darcy. ๐Ÿ™‚

    1. I agree, I love knowing other people are reading it, too! Pierre isn’t my favorite character, but I do think Tolstoy does a fantastic job describing him in particular. I’ve never read Pride and Prejudice, but I’m going to assume Andre = Darcy is a good thing ๐Ÿ™‚

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