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Saturday, 26 August 2017

Saturday Rave: War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

Inspired by the hilarious example of so many of our great minds, as revealed in the Sunday newspaper literary columns, my holiday raves have been some of the heaviest, most serious and generally least suitable holiday reads imaginable. 

Last week it was Clarissa, and now it's War and Peace.

It took me half a century to get round to reading War and Peace. Well, I did read the first paragraph several times but it's frankly quite dreadful, and so I put the book aside. 

The trouble is that so many of our great minds (see above), urged to name the best novel they've ever read, have had an inconvenient habit of saying War and Peace, so the dreadful suspicion was always lurking in my mind that the book was a transcendent masterpiece, and that I was missing out on a profoundly mind-altering and moving experience.

So, recently, with a new translation by Anthony Briggs before me (which I trusted would improve that awkward first paragraph) and a very useful list of characters to refer to, I took the plunge.

So here are a few things I didn't know about War and Peace until I actually got round to reading it.

War and Peace has short chapters, many of only two or three pages. This is a great help in making the reader feel he's making progress.

There's a lot more Peace than War.

War and Peace is not a novel. For one thing it's got great chunks of reflections on the theories of history and war in it, and for another the book has also got a lot of actual history in it, too. (If you're saying, well that doesn't necessarily stop it being a novel, then you're right, but Leo Tolstoy himself said that the book isn't a novel, and he should know. 'War and Peace,' he went on, 'is what the author wanted to and could express in the form in which it was expressed'.)

Tolstoy was a great admirer of the works of Anthony Trollope and started off meaning to take Trollope as a model for writing of the book. This may account for some of Tolstoy's addresses directly to the reader, and the completely random hunting scene.

About two per cent of the Tolstoy's final version of War and Peace wasn't in Russian, but in French.

War and Peace is longer than it used to be. The first full-book version missed out many of Tolstoy's philosophical musings (and it was all in Russian).

War and Peace is shorter than it used to be. The Russian alphabet was reformed in 1918 and several useless letters were removed. This made the book about eleven pages shorter.

Tolstoy didn't think War and Peace was much good. 'People love me for my trifles - War and Peace and so on - that they think are important', he said.

The book is famously about Napoleon's march on Moscow in 1812, but the original title of the book was The Year 1805.

It took Tolstoy a year to write the first scene.


Now, the thing is, is War and Peace any good? Well, so many people say it's a masterpiece that I suppose it must be. But personally, I'm afraid I couldn't honestly recommend it.

I mean, that first paragraph...

Word To Use Today: peace. This word comes from the Latin pāx.

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