Sunday, August 3, 2008

Eating my words, or at least regretting some of them

My book group is reading War and Peace. Really.

It is largely my fault - I'd read a review about a new translation of the Russian classic, celebrating how accessible it made Tolstoy and how close it was to his original prose style. I suggested it when group members were considering the 2008 book list and they took me up on it. I'm on about page 60 - only 1,100 or so to go...

In the meantime, there is a "wow" factor in even being able to say that I'm trying. Another book group member has taken it with her while traveling, and says it's a conversation-starter in airport waiting areas. It's clearly at the top of the heap of classical literature, iconic for its length and gravitas, a book that few tackle unless forced to by an English teacher at some point along the journey through formal education.

The story actually is interesting, but the Russian names and their various permutations are hard for me to follow. My confusion is not helped by the fact that two of the characters are Boris and Natasha; each time I encounter them I cannot escape the mental image of a like-named couple from Rocky & Bullwinkle cartoons of my youth.

Some of the dialog is in French, which baffles me -- if these gifted translators bothered to export the text from Russian to English, why not go ahead and translate the French as well? -- but I get the fact that keeping the French in its original form helps identify characters from the Russian nobility. Still, having to stop every few paragraphs to check the English footnotes slows my progress.

But what's most annoying is Tolstoy's wordiness. He never fails to take 50 words to express what could be accomplished quite nicely in 15. And therein lies this realization: I am getting a dose of my own medicine.

So, to all of you through the years who have urged me to whittle my words - I get it, and I'm sorry. Brevity is a virtue.

War and Peace has not yet cured me of my chronic verbosity - a fact clearly evident from this post - but check in about a thousand pages from now. Maybe it will have.


Robert said...


I am very fond of War and Peace and read it through one summer back in the 80s when I could still read more than one chapter at a time without getting drowsy.

I drove Patty up the wall for years with having stopped without reading the final chapter. She would see the book on the shelf with my bookmark in it, and she could not let it pass without asking me why I would go through 1,000 pages plus and NOT finish it.

Frankly, I loved the characters so much that 1) I did not want the book to end, 2) I did NOT want to know how they turned out a decade later. I would rather leave it up to my imagination.

Actually, one of the most often mentioned criticisms of the final book of Harry Potter were along the same lines. They thought the final chapter to show where the characters were some 20 years later were a cop-out, that it cheapened the story. And I knew exactly what they were saying. I thought the same thing with War and Peace.

And yes, after considerable spousal pressure, I did finally read that last chapter. And my assumptions were right. Tolstoy should have stopped before adding those final pages.

I encourage you to read through it, but stop before the final chapter. You will be better for it.

Bob Inderman

LO said...

Thank you for the advice! At my present pace, I may be in the nursing home by the time I get to the next-to-last chapter but I am determined to get there, and I don't want to ruin the experience in the final pages.