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Checking in for week 2 of the #WarandPeaceNewbies readalong!

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After the issues with the translation from last week, things have settled down a bit and I’ve now finished part 2, the first ‘war’ section of the book. I was a little apprehensive about this, to be honest, as battle scenes are not normally my thing. However, I needn’t have been, as Tolstoy, in his wisdom, focuses on more than just fighting and this part of the book was fascinating.

At the end of part one, Prince Andrei set off to war, abandoning his beautiful, young and pregnant wife – which possibly tells you a lot about Tolstoy’s attitude to marriage! Also setting off to battle was young Nikolai Rostov, eager to prove himself. This section of W&P follows both of their experiences, although they are moving in very different spheres: Nikolai is a mere cadet, but Prince Andrei has been attached to the higher ranks and is thriving.

Alan Dobie as Andrei in the BBC’s 1972 adaptation

Inevitably, we see more of Andrei’s adventures: throwing himself into battle, watching the troops move and fight, mixing with the high and mighty; and all through this his emotions fluctuate wildly. He’s obviously happy to be away from the restrictions of home and society, and in many ways has found himself within the manly structure and discipline of the army; but he has noble notions that are often dashed. Andrei has studied battle strategies and imagines these things take place like clockwork, following a plan; and his ideals are somewhat shaken by the reality of the conflict and the chaos around him.

Because chaos it certainly is, and Tolstoy captures this disorder brilliantly in a series of vignettes, conveying how it feels to be caught in the middle of a conflict with one element not knowing what the others are doing and no real cohesive command. He paints a vivid picture of the chain of command, from the generals at the top working on strategies down to the common soldier who’s the one who bears the brunt of the battle, often with his life. No-one in that chain really knowing what the overall picture is, instead dealing simply with their small area of the fighting. And it became obvious that the inability to communicate effectively was a major element in the failure of a battle – often nobody knew where they were and who they were meant to be fighting. The one successful action in this particular battle was because of a small battalion with an inspired captain who ignored orders and just fought.

However, just because this was a ‘war’ section didn’t mean there was no character development, because there was. We met a wonderful mixture of soldiers and civilians of all types, all memorable and well-drawn. I particularly warmed to Captain Tushin, the maverick soldier who kept his battalion fighting away when all around him were withdrawing; and Dolokhov, an officer reduced to the ranks, determined to redeem himself.

Somehow, despite his close-up view of the fighting, Tolstoy manages to convey the wide panorama and the sheer scale of the war. He doesn’t stint on his description of the conflict and portrays a muddy and bloody reality. Both Andrei and Nikolai enter the battle expecting one thing, some kind of nobility, and finding a very different reality. Nikolai, in particular, has his first skirmish and it’s anything but glamorous; and we leave him in a rather precarious situation at the end of the section.

So, a gripping and thrilling read, wonderfully written and capturing the gritty and confusing reality of being in the middle of an old-style battle. I found I really enjoyed it, which I wasn’t expecting – so that bodes well for the rest of the book, in particular the war sections!

#warandpeacenewbies – Week 1 update

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Ermmmm – what was that I was saying about the Maudes’ version? 😦

Lovely as it is, I hit a major snag fairly early on with the Everyman volume of “War and Peace”, despite finding the book readable and easy to handle… Unfortunately, the Maudes render Prince Andrei as Prince Andrew, and that’s going to be a deal-breaker.

Maudes version with Andrew and Pierre….

Pierre is left as Pierre and not Peter, and as OH commented when I mentioned this problem to him, it sounds like the Prince belongs in Scotland and not Russia. And then I discovered that Kirill is rendered as Cyril…  No. I want my Russian characters to sounds as if they *are* Russian. So I switched to the Edmonds version, as she has the Prince as Andrei, and once I settled down again, the reading has gone swimmingly!

The Edmonds version character list

So, putting these irritations aside, how have I got on with my first week of reading “War and Peace”? Quite well, actually. I’ve found the reading easy and very enjoyable, and boy am I impressed again with Tolstoy’s storytelling abilities. He plunges straight into the action, right into Russian society of the era, and in the first part we get introduced to what I believe are most of the main players. Instantly, we learn about the kind of behind the scenes machinations that go on, favours being called in to get your son into the right regiment, or your idiot son married off. The war against Napoleon is on everyone’s lips and Andrei (as we shall correctly call him) is heading off to fight, mostly it seems to get away from his young and light-headed pregnant wife. Pierre, our other main character, comes into money and title through to even more machinations on his behalf. And Natasha is still a young girl.

I love the way Tolstoy moves the action on, with the result of the actions in one chapter being revealed almost in passing by a character in the next. And all of the players are leaping off the page, wonderfully realised, so that’s a plus.

I think these posts are not so much going to be a review as such (how can you encapsulate such a massive work in some blog posts, after all?); but I shall probably be more using them to record my reactions as I read. What’s clear is that Tolstoy is very good at observing the small details in life, using his snapshots of relationships to build up a bigger picture. He captures the interplay between characters brilliantly and is not afraid to build up to a dramatic climax, such as the one which occurs at the end of the first part of the book.

So I’m about 100-odd pages in, and so far loving “War and Peace” – let’s hope all continues this well!

#warandpeacenewbies – Here we go…..

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Well, today is the day we officially get going with our reading of “War and Peace”, but I have to confess that I’ve been dipping my toe in already. I decided to read the first few chapters (they’re short!) of each of my editions to see which one I would read.

The translations I have, as I mentioned, are by the Maudes and Rosemary Edmonds, and to be honest there isn’t much to choose between them. The French sections are rendered in English, which is a relief to me as I can’t read in French and I don’t want to have to keep checking notes – I want to go with the flow and just immerse myself.

My two available options

And so far, both versions seem very readable; several of the major characters have already made an entrance; and I’m feeling a little more confident about coping with the length as I seem to have read through these parts quite quickly.

So it may come down to something as simple as the physical ease of reading the book; because it *is* big, and the little hardback Maude I have flops open quite nicely, and the paper is very thin India paper, so it’s really manageable. That may be the decider – I’ll let you know in the next update! 🙂

Onward and upward!

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