Reading War and Peace – that Behemoth of Russian literature, and indeed one of the longest novels ever written, is not undertaken lightly. It is more akin to living a second life than reading- the characters are so developed, so detailed, so multi-faceted, so alive, as to feel like they are people you could reach out and touch. The plot covers such a breadth of life in early 17th century Russia as to make the era and place feel as fresh as if Leo Tolstoy had just written it down the street, at your local hipster café. How should one even approach starting to read this glorious novel?
The key is to not take it too seriously, to not allow its reputation as one of the greatest novels of all time to make it untouchably holy. One of the reasons that it is so celebrated is because it is largely as accessible as any other novel, just more and better. It’s a novel about love and romance, about family and sacrifice, about gossip and scandal, about war and the Tsar- but none of it takes any greater level of understanding to appreciate than a beating heart and a commitment to finish. Of course there are things that need to be understood to get the most out of the experience, but they are nothing that good footnotes cannot remedy. Intense interest in facts about Russian history, the French invasion of Russia, and the era is not required to follow the trials and tribulations of a multitude of characters and their intersections.
Another pro tip: skim the boring parts. There is nothing wrong with not reading every word that Tolstoy put to paper if it stands in the way of true enjoyment of the novel. If skimming seems like cheating, feel the freedom that comes with rejecting what every high school literature teacher has ever said and instead enjoy the book on your own terms.
The excellent and prize-winning husband/wife translation team of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky ‘s version of the novel is extremely readable, has satisfying footnotes, and preserves the portions originally written in French with same-page translation. This matters to the purists out there; Imperial Russian aristocrats were multilingual and spoke French among themselves, so where the characters are speaking French their highborn status-and thus their particular foreignness, even in the country of their birth- is being especially emphasized. Don’t be overwhelmed by the occasionally lengthy portions in French, it’s simply part of the multilayered nature of the novel, and the translations provided are convenient and offer a very seamless reading experience.
Believe in yourself and embark on the most transformative literary experience of your life. Despair of fortunes lost, of reputations in jeopardy. Delight in balls and new gowns and close friendships. Cry over love lost, confessions made too late. Start out disliking characters and watch them redeem themselves. See what happens behind the closed doors of a Freemason initiation. Marvel at the snow, at the moon, at the Tsar. Read War and Peace. Make yourself proud.