I have a confession–a guilty secret that I’ve been concealing for many years. I risk losing all credibility as a russophile if I confess, but I can’t live with the shame any longer: I’ve never read War and Peace. As someone who has devoted every day of my life for the past 13 years to learning and teaching about the Russian language and culture, this has been something I’ve been secretly castigating myself for. Granted, my job description is language teacher, not literature teacher. I only think of myself as a literature lover, but maybe I shouldn’t even call myself that, considering this dirty secret. The fact is, I know the basic plot. That was enough to get me through my literature exams at Moscow State but I’ve never sat down and read it. Recently the BBC has come out with a new adaptation of the book. I had been seeing articles about it everywhere and my desire to read this Russian classic has flared up again.
11 years have passed since my time studying literature at Moscow State and if I thought I was too busy back then, oh boy, I had no idea. I now have three small children. I work. I run a household. My husband is gone on weekends working on an MBA. This beast of a novel is 1300 pages long with easily over 100 characters (I didn’t even count, just glanced at this). So with a life like mine, I’ve had to get creative to break this daunting novel down into bite-size pieces while still making the read a rich and enlightening experience.
But again, no small task. I knew that I would only be able to move through the novel a bit at a time. So I had to do something to keep the plot fresh in my mind. In addition to reading the actual text, I have created a way to be magically whisked away into that living, vivid and magical universe that one finds in the pages of Tolstoy’s works. Here’s how I’m getting through War and Peace piece by piece.
STEP 1: Abridged audiobook while doing housework: I first listened to the abridged audiobook. I know abridged is a curse word for literature lovers, but with three kids and CONSTANT distractions, I felt that I had to first get a feel of who is who and what to expect. This way, if I can’t read the book for a few days I don’t forget completely and have to backtrack. The audiobook took me about 5 hours and I was able to zone out and listen to it while doing housework. Hooray for multitasking.
STEP 2: Nightly reading: I then, of course, started reading the unabridged book. I have a goal of 15 pages a night, but I usually end up doing more. So the math on that is that I should be finished with the book in 86.6 days! I’m using the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation.
STEP 3: Supplemental Materials in Audio form while driving: I have been listening to and watching all information that I can get on Tolstoy and War and Peace. While I commute to work (45 minutes each way) I listened to Dr. Irwin Weil’s lectures on Tolstoy and War and Peace. I’ve also enjoyed the following:
- BBC Documentary “The Trouble with Tolstoy Part 1” and Part 2 on Youtube.
- Lectures/presentations from Professor Andrew Kaufman (Professor of Russian Literature at University of Virginia, author of Give War and Peace a Chance, which I plan to read and review this summer). I love how Professor Kauffman brings Tolstoy to life and makes him and his works relatable even to our generation 150 years later.
- Listening to the unabridged version in Russian on the drive home. I typically cover what I read the previous night in English, so I don’t have a hard time understanding the Russian. This is a strategy I teach my students: first get a feel for what you’re going to be hearing in Russian, so that when the Russian starts getting dumped on you you don’t have to stress about what’s happening in addition to what’s being said–you already know. If needed I come home and go over what I just covered (Russian text available here), to make sure I understood everything correctly and to get my grammar nerd on.
Step 4: War and Peace Movies While at the Gym: Lastly, I have been watching the screen adaptations. When I’m exercising on the elliptical at the gym I watch the classic Soviet adaptation by Sergey Bondarchuk. At night, time willing, I crash on the couch and watch the most recent BBC adaptation. I have yet to get to the BBC 1972 version with Anthony Hopkins or the American one with Audrey Hepburn as Natasha, that will come next.
I’m not a student anymore but when I was my Russian literature classes were my happy place. It has truly been magical to escape to the universe of Tolstoy and Russian literature for a few moments here and there during my day. I’ve tried to enrich the experience with all sorts of supplemental readings, documentaries, podcasts and Youtube videos. I will share them in a future post. For now, wish me luck that I will once and for all be able to stand a little taller in my Russian classes knowing that I have conquered the great Russian classic!