A Year of “War and Peace”

Ever since I listened to The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, I’ve toyed with the idea of reading War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. Renee, a concierge and one of the two narrators in The Elegance of the Hedgehog, adores Tolstoy’s tome and talks of it often. The way she speaks about it made me want to read War and Peace despite its high intimidation factor, and the desire to do so hasn’t left me since. It’s not so much that I’m scared of War and Peace itself. Rather, I’m nervous I won’t make it through, that I’ll be overwhelmed and have to give up.

So imagine how excited I was to discover that Jillian at A Room of One’s Own is hosting a War and Peace readalong that runs the whole of 2011! It turns out War and Peace has 365 chapters–perfect for reading over the course of a year. A chapter a day sounds manageable, and it will be wonderful to have the moral support of knowing other people are tackling the same book. Want to join in? Visit the sign-up page!

(Note: When I introduced my Classics Reclamation Project, I said I’d always be reading a classic. I am not letting myself off the hook just because War and Peace is a classic I’ll be reading all year. I’m undertaking this readalong in addition to my C.R.P., not as an easy way out!)

Six War and Peace Covers

Between now and the end of December, then, the challenge I face is selecting the translation with which I’d like to spend an entire year. I’ve never read anything by Tolstoy, nor have I read any Russian classic in translation. (Or not in translation, for that matter, seeing as I don’t speak Russian!)

Before I ask for your help, I have to mention one thing I do know about my preferences for reading in translation: I don’t enjoy translations that involve large amounts of a foreign language. I remember perusing one translation of War and Peace (can’t remember which) that left large swaths of the original French dialogue in French. That would drive me batty.

For those of you who have read War and Peace, or anything by Tolstoy, or any Russian classic in translation: which translator did your edition? If you read something other than War and Peace, I’m happy to check to see if your translator did War and Peace as well. Did you like the translation you read? Are there any pros/cons/recommendations you could share to assist in my selection process? I know how important the translation can be to a reader’s enjoyment of a novel. Thanks for your help!

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  1. My first, and only, attempt at reading Russian literature went badly, but I have been told repeatedly that Pevear and Volokhonsky are the best translators when it comes to War and Peace.

    1. Thanks for your input! I looked the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation up, and it turns out it’s the one where a bunch of the dialogue is in French. I guess I’ll have to go for second best.

    1. With most books, I couldn’t do it. But with War and Peace, I think this might be the only way I’ll make it through!

  2. I read Anna Karenina in the Constance Garnett translation (who did War & Peace too, in the Modern Library edition, the furthest on the left of your pictures) and really liked it, I think she was one of the first people to translate it into English but somehow I was very sucked into when I’d been looking at other versions of it for years and wasn’t interested. But I didn’t get her translation of War & Peace, it didn’t grab me the same way, I have the one third from the right, with the woman on the cover. I don’t remember the translator’s name or if there was French in it (probably not as I’m not fond of that either), but I did read 400 pages of it at one point, I just put it down because it didn’t have a big romance like Anna Karenina! But that’s about all the Russian literature I’ve read, it’s so difficult to keep straight all the different translations and which is supposed to be good and then which one I might like (I read a few pages of them all on Amazon and then start to get really confused) so good luck, I hope you find one you like!

    1. I was considering Garnett’s translation of War and Peace, but I agree, it didn’t grab me when I skimmed a little. I will keep her in mind for Anna Karenina, which I do plan to read at some point as well. After poking around a bit, I think I’ve discovered the translator of your War and Peace edition was Anthony Briggs, who is my current forerunner! I ordered a copy from the library just to make sure, but I think his dialogue is mostly devoid of French, thank goodness! Thank you so much for your input — you’ve managed to help me decide on translators for not one, but two of Tolstoy’s novels!

  3. I was toying with the idea of reading War and Peace this year so I’ll be curious to see what translation you settle on. I’ve learned that I get stressed out over planned readalongs though … and sometimes I need to speed along or I forget what is happening so I think I’ll just “go it alone” (if at all). Good luck … and maybe I’ll meet up with you along the way.

    1. I’m leaning towards the Briggs translation right now. More when it comes in at the library and I can actually read a bit! Readalongs seem to work better for me than challenges…at least, so far. I don’t think, though, there are many books I could even consider reading for an entire year. Yet somehow, I’m giving War and Peace a shot! I wish you the best on your solo journey. I’m sure our paths will intersect at some point 🙂

    1. I read several at once too, so I don’t foresee any problems. I’m glad you decided to structure your readalong as you did! I’m looking forward to it!

  4. Hmmm, I might just join you in this, a year seems ok to finish it! Have you watched the BBC adaptation? It’s from the 70s I think, but it’s really very good, might be worth watching it in parallel to keep track of everything…

    1. Do! The more the merrier 🙂 I’ve not seen the BBC adaptation, but that’s a great idea, to watch it in parallel! I’ll have to see what I can find.

  5. I have the Pevear and Volohonsky translation, but it has all that French in it. 🙂 I have also heard good things about the Penguin edition with Anthony Briggs as translator. I haven’t looked inside myself, but I’ve heard that its pretty accessible.

    I’m reading it during January and February, so hopefully it isn’t too bad!

    1. Thanks for your suggestions! I’m leaning toward the Briggs translation. I’m waiting for it to come in at the library for me so I can confirm before I buy a copy (because I’m like that!). I know the Pevear and Volohonsky translation is supposed to be great, but I just don’t think I can keep reading the footnotes — there is a LOT of French! I’ll look forward to hearing what you think during your reading. Good luck! 🙂

  6. I just finished part 1 of the P&V translation. Yes, there are paragraphs of French in it, but the translation is right next to it, at the bottom oft he page. I thought it would irritate me, but it actually is interesting to note WHEN they switch back and forth from French or German to Russian (i.e., the English). It doesn’t bother me at all. And the book it moving not too slowly — I’m enjoying it, 200 pages in at least.

    1. I know it’s fussy of me, but I think in a text that long and dense that so many footnotes and so much of a language I don’t speak would put me over the edge! I do think it would be interesting to know when the characters use different languages. I’m thinking (though it would take a lot of time!) of comparing the P&V translation with whichever I choose and somehow marking which passages are in other languages. I realize that’s probably more work than reading the footnotes, but to me it’s less disruptive to the reading process and, therefore, somehow better! We’ll see 🙂

      I’m happy to hear the pace isn’t too slow. I look forward to your thoughts on it!

  7. I LOVED The Elegence of the Hedgehog. I will admit it has not induced me to read W&P thought! I suck royally when it comes to readalongs, so I won’t even attempt to join in. There is no way I would read a chapter a day.

    1. I’ve found readalongs work better for me than challenges, so hopefully this will work! I don’t know why Elegance of the Hedgehog so firmly lodged War and Peace in my mind. I think maybe because I listened to it, so it was like hearing Renee wax poetic about the book and basically recommend it to me over and over! I’m thinking I may not actually read a chapter a day…it might be more like a couple chapters every other day, or even a week’s worth of chapters on Sundays or something. But I like the really slow pace — it makes it sound manageable to me!

  8. I’m the wrong person to ask, since I LOVE that P&V included the original French in their translation. 😉 You know that the English translation is in footnotes at the same page, right? So you don’t need to flip to the end to read it?

    I read War & Peace in less than a week (when I had a job too), I was so gripped by the plot! So I’m curious to see if you’ll stick w/ a chapter a day or skip ahead. 😉

    1. I do know that it is right there at the bottom. I sat myself down with a copy of the P&V translation–twice–and got so darn frustrated with having to look down and find the right footnote. I know there’s a little symbol at the end, but I’d prefer it at the beginning so I could just skip all the French. And then if there are a couple of English words in the middle of the French, the footnotes have ellipses and you have to look back and forth even more. I know I sound neurotic, but I know myself and I’ll never make it through with all that French!

      Holy cow…less than a week? I suppose I might end up skipping ahead. Though I’m usually reading so many books at once that it shouldn’t be hard to mostly neglect one 🙂

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