Monday, January 25, 2010

War and Peace : Book Review

For a few years now I've had a book club with two of my good friends from college. We take turns picking books, we read them and then discuss them online with IM and more recently by conference call. We have similar tastes, moral standards, and open mindedness so it has been enlightening and interesting to read and discuss books with them. I especially love talking with others who are as passionate about great lit as I am.

Last summer when we got together in person we decided to pick our books for the entire year (we're also a bit neurotic and organized--some more than others). Anyway, Mandi wanted to add Tolstoy's War and Peace to the list. It's the book that everyone is "supposed" to read eventually and none of us had read it before. We decided to give ourselves three months (November, December and January) to read the 1400+ pages of tiny print. This wasn't the first time we had read an epic tome. Marie picked The Count of Monte Cristo (so, so good) a few years ago.

I read Tolstoy's Anna Karenina a few years ago and I loved it. However, I admit that War and Peace was intimidating to me. It's so long. It sounds so boring.

I started reading War and Peace  in December. The first 100 pages were interesting. The second 100 pages were dull. And the book was heavy. It was hard to read it while I nursed Molly. I didn't think I'd finish it. I put it down over the holidays to read a book for the neighborhood book club. Determined to finish, I picked War and Peace up again in January. (I've been sick with a chest cold on it's way to becoming my yearly bout of bronchitis which has given me a good excuse to sit on the couch and read.)

Another 100 pages into the book and I was hooked. The characters came alive and the story was fascinating. In fact, the characters are so human as they fall in and out of love during their search for a spouse, that I could see them transferred out of their Russian early nineteenth century setting and onto the BYU college campus (minus the duels to the death). That being said, the setting is vitally important to this story and the history of the wars between Napoleon and Europe/Asia is all absorbing. I've cried (I don't usually cry during books or movies) and laughed and rejoiced. Essentially, I've experienced nearly every human emotion while reading this book. It's just that good. Not only that but Tolstoy was unusually wise (he does tend to pontificate some). His shares opinions on nearly everything. And Elder Bruce C. Hafen even cites War and Peace in his book on marriage titled Covenant Hearts (also a very good read).

Utah Dad would agree that the book is all absorbing. He is glad that my friends are reading it too so that I can discuss it with them and spare him (I really haven't spared him all that much). The cashier at Walmart's name was Natasha (a main character from the book) and I had to catch myself from becoming the crazy customer that she would tell all the other cashiers about during her break. I've checked on Netflix and there are several movie versions. One stars Audrey Hepburn (I think I can convince Utah Dad to watch that one with me). The BBC version is five discs long (he says I should watch that one while he's away at business meetings).

On a slightly different note--I've read several books over the past few years that have been translated into English from the original language and I've become fascinated and interested in translation. I personally have no gift for learning foreign languages. I took two years of Spanish is college and only know a few basic words (colors and numbers). Perhaps that is partly why I am so impressed by those who not only understand other languages well enough to know what is being said, they also know words well enough to understand the nuances and meanings well enough to translate and demonstrate the intent of the original author be it irony, sarcasm, sincerity etc.

For War and Peace, I read the translation by Rosemary Edmonds. Her translation was published years ago by Penguin but is hard to find now. I enjoyed her writing and found it poetic and lyrical. Utah Dad has a copy of War and Peace in his leather-bound, gilt-edged, very intimidating Great Books collection. This version is translated by Maude and is the version in most anthologies. I read some and compared it with the Edmonds translation. I found it good but perhaps less poetic. While many do not like the Garnett translation of War and Peace, I read her translation of Anna Karenina and enjoyed it. My sister-in-law got the latest translation by Peaver and Volokhonsky which is hailed by many as the great translation of War and Peace (the French is left untranslated in the text with English footnotes). By the way, beware of the version that claims to be the "original version". It is a translation of Tolstoy's rough draft and not what he intended to be published.

I doubt that it really matters which translation of War and Peace you read. The true greatness is in the story and words of Tolstoy. There are still a few months left of winter and time to enjoy this masterpiece.


Kate Weber said...

I might have to read it, but like you, I find it intimidating. It's a very large book. Maybe in a few years.

anna said...

I got that for Christmas last year (the same translation my mom has - I love them - they're amazing translators) but was a little intimidated by it also. I just finished Anne Tyler's newest book, and could use something a little more substantial now. Maybe I will give it a try. Then again, we were outside all day setting up our new swingset, so maybe I'll wait until July, when Texans sit inside, on the couch all day :)