Introduction – what am I doing here?

Welcome to War&peace&me, a blog I’ve created to share my experiences and ideas as I read through War and Peace for the first time.

I’m no stranger to big books or to novels of ideas. One of my college majors was English and I’ve read many of the big novels, usually more than once. Moby-Dick, Karamazov, Ulysses, Doktor Faust, Don Quixote, Tristam Shandy, and so on. But War and Peace has always eluded me. It’s an intimidating book.

Its sheer size is an issue: almost 1300 pages in the edition I now have (a Christmas present from 2008), four volumes with an epilogue, 17 parts in all.

Lots of people to keep track of. There are 35 “principal characters” (out of 580 total) with Russian names listed in the introduction (Count Peter Kirillovich [or Kirilych, the list of Principle Characters helpfully adds] but there’s also a Count Peter Ilych; there’s a Denisov and a Dolokhov, a Tikhon and a Tushin. Then there are the names themselves – people often (but not always) have three of them: a first name, a patronymic [a middle name derived from the father’s first name] and a family name and tend to be referred to or addressed by first name and patronymic, as in Pyotr Kirilych. But the names can be inconsistent. Count Pyotr Kirillovich is Count Pyotr Kirilych or Pyotr Kirilych Bezukhov or Pierre. Got that? I thought so.

The form in which I first I encountered it: a ridiculously thick paperback with fragile pages and an English translation with a narrative voice that never caught my attention.

So War and Peace sat on a shelf, unread.

But it’s time to make a decision. I’m almost 60 years old. Am I going to read this book or not?

I had already done “not” and maybe it’s was time to reconsider. The book is famous, deeply loved by all kinds of people. It appears over and over again on lists of the greatest novels ever written. Virginia Woolf, who knew something about reading and writing, called Tolstoy “the greatest of all novelists”. He was praised by Dostoevsky, Flaubert, Chekov, Mann, Joyce, Proust, and Faulkner.

So, there must be something there and if all those very smart, very busy people could find the time to get through this book, so can I.

I’m going to post every week from that week’s reading. My plan is to cover a Part of a Volume every week, though it may turn out that some Parts have enough going on in them to take more than a single week’s posting. If I actually can do this at that pace, the whole enterprise should take 17 weeks, that is, until about September 19 if I post on Sundays as I plan to. Somehow, I think this schedule is not going to hold and that I may still be at this project as the year ends, but who knows?

I hope you enjoy joining me in this trip and that those of you who have not yet read the book will think about reading along with me. Those of you who have already read it may enjoy revisiting it, but please be careful – no spoilers!!
I have to mention that I’m using the translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. I’m looking forward to reading it. I enjoyed their translations of The Brothers Karamazov and Demons. The Knopf hardbound book is a handsome (and impressively large) thing.

I will probably supplement the physical book with the Kindle edition that I will read on my phone. I have mixed feelings about reading books on the phone. The iPhone screen image is clear and sharp and the navigation from page to page is easy and quick. It seems to me like a better experience than the Kindle itself. But I think it’s easier to read a book closely in the paper version. Maybe I can test that in this project as well.

All for now. Off to read…


About Stephen Chakwin

Stephen lives in Connecticut and practices law in New York City.
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