Wednesday, February 3, 2010

War & Peace? Surprising ...

Growing up as a writer and reader, Tolstoy's War and Peace occupied a special place in the pantheon of books. It was the doorstop all other literature was measured against, often squatting atop "Best Books Ever Written" lists like some kind of fat, Russian toad. It was the yardstick against which all literary endeavors were really measured. "Well," someone would say, "it's not like you're writing War and Peace." Or you'd hear people say, "Someday, one of my life goals is to read War and Peace," and they'd say it in the same way that people talk about getting a colonoscopy.

So I'd always avoided War and Peace. I worked my way through Dostoevsky and The Man of La Mancha, then all those 18th century French translations, and of course many years spent with Dickens. I did 100 Years of Solitude and Faulkner. Heck, I even did Gravity's Rainbow. But never War and Peace. Even as a dedicated reader, I always figured life was too short for books like that.

Recently, my father-in-law bought the new Pevear and Volokhonsky translation of War and Peace. I'd read about this translation in a few places, and most people who would know were saying it was the best translation of Tolstoy ever done. That it rendered War and Peace as close to the Russian original as any translation had ever come. Then not too long ago, we joined my in-laws on vacation, and my father-in-law happened to bring his book along, which is a pretty sure invitation for me to pick it up and thumb through it. I read the first page. Then the first 20 pages. And that was it ...

I borrowed the book.

I'm about 200-odd pages into the book now, and I don't know why I should be surprised by this, but I'm kind of blown away by how good it is. Tolstoy's sense of character is incredible, and the scope of each scene is so impressive. I've never seen a larger cast of characters handled so adroitly. It's not hard to keep track of the scores of people because each is rendered so individually. And even more surprising: Tolstoy is funny. Hard to believe, but he is. He has this really fine sense of humor; he frequently tells jokes at his characters' expense, and he sets up situations that are utterly believable but droll (there really is no other word to describe it). Finally, his description of impending combat, of armies lining up preparing to shoot and the feelings and thoughts that go through a person's head in the moments before the bullets fly, is just so authentic feeling.

You know Beauty and the Beast? If War and Peace is the beast, then I feel a bit like Belle (which is still infinitely better than a singing teapot). I expected this book to have fangs, to beat me over the head until I was senseless, but instead I found something else entirely. I guess generations of critics know a little something about books after all.

Anyway, you tell me ... have you ever been surprised by a book? Which one? Why?


Natasha Fondren said...

Moby Dick. I've heard so much about it, so many put-downs and groans and the like, so I never tried it.

Last year, I sat down with Moby Dick and fell in love with the beautiful prose. I mean... wow. Just wow. I set it aside for a time when I could devote special attention to it, and haven't gone back yet, but I'm so there.

I just kindled this translation of War and Peace. One of my projects is supposed to be a multi-character epic sort of thing, and I need all the help I can get.

LurkerMonkey said...


Woo hoo! A Moby Dick convert! I've said this like a zillion times, but that's my favorite book. Melville's writing is crazy beautiful and Ahab is just about the best psycho character I've ever seen on paper. Wherever you are in the book, it only gets better.

Erica Orloff said...

I love Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky . . . and like you, I had avoided them for years. I'm reading Anna Karenina again . . . the wry offhanded character descriptions--small noticed things, like cufflinks and so on . . . I am amazed at how it nails character so amazingly well.

Surprises for me included The Joy Luck Club--I'd ALWAYS avoided "women's books" . . . not sure why, but I don't see myself as reading "chick books." Well, I wept my way through it. Loved it.

LurkerMonkey said...

I remember the Joy Luck Club. I read it as a college guy and I was surprised also by how good it was and how moving.

And yeah, exactly about Tolstoy's characterization. It's really intimate.

Allen said...

Not a book, but the writings of Edgar Allen Poe. I love the beauty of his lyrical poems and prose against the backdrop of such a lovelorn heart and the utter passion after losing a woman. His heart may be crusted in black, but the insides are gold.

Reading them in school was one thing, but add some life experiences and when I returned to his works, it was all new again, vibrant and alive.

Plus, I like scary things.

Melanie Avila said...

I can't think of one that surprised me necessarily. I read Anna Karenina last year and let's just say, I'm glad I got it over with. I didn't enjoy it as much as I'd hoped.

And... um... I've never read Moby Dick.

LurkerMonkey said...


I hear you on Poe. I still think Hop-Frog is one of the great characters... and you're right, too, about his prose. Sometimes I think his prose gets sold a little short, but he really was a beautiful writer, not just a creepy storyteller.

LurkerMonkey said...

If you didn't like Anna Karenina, then you should probably avoid Crime and Punishment.

And Moby Dick ... well, even I can appreciate that the book isn't for everyone. But those people are dead to me. :)

Melanie Avila said...


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