On reading War and Peace

War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy and translated by the Maudes with revisions by Amy Mandelker

So I finished War and Peace.

Reviewing a book like War and Peace is a bit like reviewing Henri Rousseau’s Tiger in a Tropical Storm. You may think Tiger is a masterpiece. You may agree with contemporary critics who argued Tiger was implausible and amateurish. Whatever your opinion it’s been argued by experts for well over a century. What’s left to add besides personal reaction?

My complete lack of qualification to do so won’t stop me reviewing War and Peace (it’s never stopped me reviewing anything else), but before I do that I thought I’d write a post about the experience of reading it and recommendations for anyone else considering doing so. My next post on it will be the actual review, and then I’ll do a third and final post comparing translations.


That picture’s actually the poster for the 1967 Soviet film version. For a single piece of art it captures the book surprisingly well.

The first thing to say about War and Peace is the strikingly obvious. It’s very, very long. My version weighed in at 1,318 pages including both parts of the epilogue and the Appendix written by Tolstoy in 1868. If you decide to read this you’re in for the long haul.

The second thing though is that mostly it’s also very readable. As I write this readability is once again the subject of debate. Is it a good thing in a novel? That’s not a question I generally find interesting and I think the whole supposed contrast between readability and quality is a nonsense, but in the specific context of a book that’s this long? Yes, yes readability is a good thing.

War and Peace divides into four books and an epilogue. Each of those four books divides into between three and five parts (the epilogue into two parts). Each of those parts then divides into chapters, each neatly capturing a particular incident or character moment (or idea, but I’ll come back to the historical theory aspects of the book in a bit). Each of those chapters is fairly short.

What all this means is that once you’re stuck in it’s actually surprisingly easy to pick the book up, read a chapter or two and put it down again. You can treat it like a tv box set, putting a half-hour or hour aside to read a bit and then returning to it the next day or a couple of days later. It stands up perfectly well to that. Some sections benefit from a more sustained commitment (a wolf hunt sequence for example), but happily those sections tend to be pretty gripping so it becomes natural to give them a bit more time.

For 80% or so of the book Tolstoy judges the balance between narrative and reader time commitment very well. If you’re a student or retired and can down this in a couple of weeks then all power to you and you’ll pick up connections the slower reader will miss, connections I missed. If like me though you have a job and other commitments that’s ok, Tolstoy gets that and structures the book accordingly. 80% of it.

The book is also absolutely rammed with characters. That has the potential to be a flaw, but apart from keeping the names straight in practice they’re all well enough drawn that it’s easy to keep track. I’ll talk more about this in my review proper, but Tolstoy is an absolute master of the minor character and much of what I loved best about the book were the lesser cast members.

This is a sprawling gossipy book, a grand soap opera filled with love affairs and cavalry charges, fortunes lost and won, homebodies and adventurers and life so brimming the pages can hardly keep some of it in. Helpfully, intentionally, the earlier parts of the book are among the most gripping so that by the time Tolstoy starts introducing his arguments on historical theory you’re already several hundred pages into the text.

Unfortunately, once Tolstoy starts introducing his historical theory things do get a bit patchier. I said above that 80% of the book is well judged. It might even be 90, but that remaining percentage? That’s the history.

Tolstoy famously said that War and Peace is not a novel, and he pretty much meant what he said. In many ways War and Peace is a treatise on Tolstoy’s ideas on the science of history and his issues with contemporary historical theory, all illustrated by use of fictional characters. In the final section of the book this leads to lengthy sections where Tolstoy directly addresses the reader  (nine pages at one point, much worse later). The narrative is increasingly abandoned in favour of direct criticisms of the great man theory of history.

As a writer of character and description Tolstoy is a master. As an essayist, not so much.

That takes me back to the epilogue, and to a recommendation I’ve never made before. I said above that the epilogue is divided into two parts. Stop at the end of the first part. It’s a clever and emotional ending that works well. What follows in the second part is 39 pages of pure historical theory (and another ten in the Appendix). The characters don’t reappear. The story is done. It’s a 39 page essay on Tolstoy’s views on history and reading it straight after the first part of the epilogue just kills any emotional impact and ultimately numbs the reader. It certainly numbed me.

If Tolstoy’s views on history interest you then by all means read that second epilogue and the appendix, but read them separately. Even the marvellous introduction in the edition I read talks as if the book ends after the first epilogue, makes no mention of the further 39 pages which utterly diminish the book’s impact.

My other recommendation, having said that the book is easily read in small chunks, is that initially at least don’t do that. I read the first 300 pages or so on a long flight, and after that on my daily commute in half-hour instalments. That first time commitment made a huge difference. I knew who everyone was, I had a sense of the setting, I was interested to know what happened. I was engaged.

Please feel free to ask questions in the comments. As I said at the start of this piece I’ll write an actual review and I’ll write a piece comparing translations, but today I just wanted to talk about how one reads a book like this, what’s required and what the challenges are. War and Peace is undeniably long, but the structure and the sheer volume of incident and character packed into the pages makes it a much easier read than you might imagine.

Finally, here’s Henri Rousseau’s Tiger in a Tropical Storm. In case you were wondering, I think it’s a masterpiece.



Filed under 19th Century, Historical fiction, Russian, Tolstoy, Leo

22 responses to “On reading War and Peace

  1. I wonder how it was designed to be read. You say it was divided into four books. From the perspective of a modern paperback, that is almost a cosmetic detail since all the pages can be bound into a single volume. Perhaps in Tolstoy’s day they appeared separately and weren’t intended to be read all in one go, a bit like Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. Was it serialised like the works of Dickens? All this makes a difference to how we feel when we pick up the book to how contemporaries would have done.
    In any case, what a heroic feat of translation! It’s hard enough to read something like this in a foreign language, let alone to produce an English version.

  2. The benefit of the structure isn’t so much what you carry I think but it makes a difference to reading it. It’s designed to be taken in chunks, which makes it much more manageable whereas Proust tends to be designed to be read in multi-hundred page slabs at a time.

    The volumes aren’t quite distinct enough to make it worth publishing them separately I’d say. No idea if they originally did, but it’s not like Don Quixote which actually is two separate novels. You’d generally want to move straight from book one to book two and so on, but at the end of a book you can take a pause at least and aren’t committed to keeping going during that reading session for another 100 pages (which again, in Proust you often kind of are).

    No idea if it was serialised, but it doesn’t read as if it were.

    And yes, it’s an amazing feat of translation.

  3. Excellent and very informative post – thanks Max! I am hoping to embark on this eventually and all your thoughts and advice are very useful. I will try to begin when I can get a good run at it and send sometime getting established. Look forward to more thoughts!

  4. The first book, the 1805 and Austerlitz sections, was published serially, in five big parts, in 1865 and 1866. Then nothing until a six volume edition was published (not all at once) in 1868 and 1869.

    In 1873, the book turned into a four-volume edition. Almost all of the historical essay material was moved to an Appendix. Guess who moved it – Leo Tolstoy! He also translated all of the French in this edition. If only he had thought to do some of this earlier. That Second Epilogue is a disaster.

    It was common to publish novels in multiple volumes at the time, so the number of volumes doesn’t mean much. I kind of wish I had a four volume edition – easier on the wrists.

  5. Good luck Kaggsy!

    Tom, fascinating on the history, thanks for that. My thoughts on the volumes were more to reassure people that you can sensibly break up reading it – it takes to that pretty well.

    That second epilogue is awful. To be honest I struggled with a fair bit of the last two or three hundred pages when there are routinely large wodges of historical theory chucked in, and Natasha’s character transformation in the first part of the epilogue felt like character being broken for politics to me.

    The French I thought important in that it reflects character, but I’ll talk more about that in my next piece.

    Incidentally, I tried leaving comments at your W&P pieces but they seemed to get swallowed. Not sure why but glad to see you commenting here since I couldn’t at yours. I’ll be linking to your pieces in my next one.

  6. Arrgh! I tell you, I make the commenting as friendly as the software will allow. Does it have some kind of feud with WordPress?

    I don’t mind the French, either. It is just funny, though, that the first person to get rid of it was not a grumpy translator but the author himself.

  7. You obviously did better than I did at keeping that cast of characters straight. I had to rely on the list at the beginning of my edition – it was the fact that a number of the characters were referred to with up to three names that confused me.

  8. No idea Tom. I think the two platforms do sometimes have issues. Anyway, interesting posts!

    Booker, I relied heavily on that list. Characters were well drawn, but if they’re in the background of a scene sometimes they’re not doing much and it can be hard to be sure who’s actually present. At one point with the Karataev Platov character Tolstoy keeps referring to him by first name and last. I recognised Platov semi-alternately in the very same passage. Naturally I got the impression that there was an extra character called Karataev in the scene due to how it was written even though I’d thought Karataev was Platov’s first name – I figured I must have misremembered.

    Similarly if someone referred to an offstage character as the prince or the count I’d often have to take a few moments to figure out if they were talking about the son or the father.

  9. Really enjoyed this post. Thanks! Hoping to tackle W & P later this year.

  10. I really enjoyed this post too. It’s incredibly useful and encouraging – thanks for taking the time to put it together. I’m also planning to read W&P as some point in the future, maybe next year – my interest was fired by last year’s BBC adaptation, but I decided to leave the novel for a while just to put a bit of space between the two. I had no idea about historical theory bits or the difficulties with the second epilogue. How frustrating! Thanks for the heads-up on that – I shall follow your advice accordingly.

    Looking forward to your other posts on this novel. I’ve been looking at the Maudes’ translation so I’m very curious to hear how you found it.

  11. Jonathan

    ‘re blogspot comments; I find that leaving comments using the WordPress method never works so I tend to use ‘Name &URL’ method which does work.

  12. Jonathan

    I haven’t read much by Tolstoy at all but I may read a few of his shorter works before embarking on W&P or AM. It’s always interesting hearing about others’ reading strategies. The thing with any big work is that you’re forced into reading in installments no matter what. I’ve found the guiding principle is ‘don’t try to force it’.

  13. Jonathan

    n.b. predictive text changed AK to AM.

  14. sendra

    While not needed, it also helps to watch the top-notch 1972 BBC adaptation. Knowing a character’s fate is no impediment and there are plenty of surprises left. My personal preference is to read a very large novel in large chunks and , somehow, knowing in advance can lubricate the process and make one more curious.
    I loved the book and initially, I was patient with the essays. Tolstoy had garnered a lot of goodwill but, dear God, they broke the flow and even replaced it. I remember one of his lectures mentioned a train and that threw me out of the book entirely. I knew we were on a diversion, I knew we were out of the novel but that train slapped me with what I really wanted. To continue with an excellent story beautifully told.
    I think Tolstoy got carried away with something he thought more important than his story, some granular theory of History that is arguable but not particularly interesting. Unlike you I found the end of the piece rather perfunctory. After ten or so years, perhaps he just got bored.
    But those sections aside, I’m very glad I read War & Peace and it is highly readable with no sacrifice in quality (why should there be).
    You might remember, Max, I recommended that BBC adaptation to you some years back. It was written by Jack Pulman who also adapted I Claudius. I hope that second epilogue and appendix hasn’t put you off. Unsurprisingly, they didn’t make the cut.
    Be kind in your review, Max. Even the greats fuck up a bit.

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  16. I read this ages ago and I remember I couldn’t put it down even if the battles sections were too long for my taste.

    Looking forward to reading your next piece.

    About the French words in it. For me it’s not a problem, they just become words in italic in my translation. But how does it feel for a non-French reader? Does it bother you? Are these words translated in footnotes in your translation?

    PS : For huge books like this, ebook versions are very handy.

  17. Good luck with tackling it!

    The second epilogue isn’t properly an epilogue at all, it’s an attached essay elucidating the historical themes of the book which have been set out pretty directly by that point anyway. You can as I say always read it separately later, it’s reading it as part of the wider work that does the damage.

    I have the recent BBC adaptation but haven’t watched it yet. I missed on reading any implied incestuous affair on Helene’s part, which I suppose supports the BBC adapter’s argument that it’s too subtle for many readers (if it is there).

    Jonathan, thanks for the blogger comment posting tip. I had been using the WordPress details to log in to leave comments.

    Generally I think don’t try to force it is good advice, but with these mammoth texts sometimes you do have to as with anything that size the odds are at some point there’ll be a section that leaves you cold and you just need to push through it somehow. Sometimes there’s a later payoff, but sometimes it’s just that the author packed a lot in and not every bit works for every reader. What can you do? I plan to read his shorter stuff before giving AK a try.

    sendra, I do plan to try the 1972 series, and it’s interesting to learn it’s by the same people as I, Claudius. That’s some pedigree. I’ll probably see the recent one first though as I already have it and it’s shorter.

    As you say, the essays break the flow and at times replace it. Particularly in the last 20% or so of the book. You get a bit of Pierre then a page or two of essay then back to Pierre. I do think a stiff round with an editor would have helped some of those sections.

    Re the end, I’ll be careful for those who’ve not read it but it’s the very end that I liked. The child left alone in the study thinking about his future, unaware of the history the contemporary reader would know (and which I have to read the introduction for…) and elegantly encapsulating the central dilemma of historical determinism and free will that runs through the text.

    The rest of the first epilogue chapter? Much of it is ok, the treatment of Natasha is clumsy and left a slightly sour taste.

    I shall endeavour to kindness. Probably not a bad thing to try generally in life.

    Emma, I thought the war sections and peace sections both worked well. There are some genuinely gripping action sequences, particularly memorable for me was Nikolai Rostov riding across a massed cavalry charge as well as later in the book when Prince Andrei’s regiment is ordered to stay in place despite being under heavy artillery fire. Still, it’s the peace sections I liked best I admit.

    The French threw me out of the flow a bit at times, but simply translating it into English didn’t work for me as the use of French is often used to comment on the character using it. I did wonder why no translation didn’t just use italics to denote the French, which seems to me the blindingly obvious thing to do. Glad to hear that was the French solution, even if nobody in the English speaking world seems to have adopted it.

  18. Great post Max, and looking forward to the follow-ups. Funny how you and Guy both have “Russian series” running concurrently.

    I have a load of Tolstoy, all unread, but am determined to get through him. I am slightly more inclined to read Anna Karenina that W&P, but either way will read the P&V Vintage collection of his shorter works before either.

    Your advice about actually managing the reading of a monster like this is very apt. Reading changes as life changes: I’d never have given a second thought to starting a big book years ago, but now with drastically reduced time available and the reality of where and when you read it becomes a consideration. I sometimes find the risk is that you realise 3+ weeks into something huge that you’re *still in the middle of this thing* and you just get bored, or antsy. You feel you need a change. That certainly happened to me e.g. in the middle of 2666 (which I was really enjoying) – and losing momentum is fatal (for me anyway). The more I think of it, the more I like the sound of a W&P ebook – although that would reduce my smart Penguin edition to the absurd status of an unread decoration.

  19. A great and helpful post, indeed. I’ve had it all n my piles for ages and would love to read it but I’m afraid I wouldn’t be able to read anything else for a long time. I agree, readable in a case like this one is important.
    I remember the essay parts in Anna Karenina. About farming. Tedious. Not his forte.

  20. I suspect AK is probably the better of the two Ian. Guy particularly recommended the Rosamund Bartlett translation of that – there’s a review at his.

    There were times during W&P where I thought “why not just read something short as a break?” but I figured if I did I’d just end up not going back, so I pushed on. That I think was worth doing.

    Re the ebook issue. Why not read the ebook version while travelling and the hardcopy at home? There are real benefits to the hardcopy in that it’s much easier to flick back to the notes on characters at the front, which you’ll probably do a lot, but it’s not the most portable.

    Caroline, perhaps something to read over Christmas? As I say above, I started it on a long flight and that can help too (though to get very far it would need to be a very long flight indeed, there’s a lot of book here).

    So delighted to hear that AK also has essays. So delighted. Sigh.

  21. Anna Karenina does not have essays! The farming bit is a scene.

  22. That Tom is a merciful relief.

    I fully plan to read AK, but probably not in the immediate future. I am looking forward to it though.

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