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On War and Peace

On War and Peace

[illustration of two women, each sitting in an armchair and reading a gigantic book]
Tine Modeweg-Hansen

We were standing under the Tiffany glass dome at the Chicago Cultural Center when I turned to my friend and said, “I think we should start a book club.”

My friend lived in Chicago at the time, and a monthly phone call to chat about the book we were reading seemed the perfect way to keep in touch. Perhaps the grandeur of the mosaics and literary-inspired architecture of the former central library went to our heads when we agreed to start with Leo Tolstoy’s famously long novel War and Peace. Yet, in that moment, any other book wouldn’t have made sense. We agreed to read a volume each month and be done with War and Peace in just four short months. In reality, it took us eight months, but the read was well worth it.

If you’re interested in tackling Tolstoy’s novel here are a few things to consider:

  • Pick a translation you like. There are several translations of War and Peace available and while it is tempting to select one with a beautiful cover, I found reading a few translator’s prefaces helped me choose which edition I wanted to spend time reading.
  • Although this book is set in Russia, there is a lot of French. Much of the dialogue between the characters is in French, especially when the action is in St. Petersburg, and there are numerous letters exchanged in French as well. Translations for the dialogue and letters are in the footnotes. The Russian aristocracy under Catherine the Great had to speak French and know about French culture. The novel takes place during her grandson Alexander I’s reign and spans 1805–1820. Language becomes a commentary on the classes and characters in the novel.
  • Every character has two or three names: their long full name, a French version of their name, and a family nickname. Having a character chart when I started reading helped me keep track of who was who.
  • Yes, this novel is about both war and peace, but it is also about family, love, Freemasonry, philosophy, and more. Tolstoy dedicates a number of pages to exploring his own philosophy on history and writing. These philosophical bits can be lengthy, just like the battles, but I encourage you not to skip over the war or history and just read the peace bits. You might miss out on major plot points!

I don’t underline or mark passages in novels, while my friend does. In our phone calls, she often brought up lines and phrases that really struck her. Looking at my own copy now I wish that I had left traces of my own reactions to Tolstoy’s poetic prose. In volume four, part three, chapter 10, there are four sentences that exemplify his beautiful style:

Drops dripped. Quiet talk went on. Horses neighed and scuffled. Someone snored.

Tolstoy is describing the soldiers’ camp at night as Petya anticipates an upcoming battle. These short sentences precede the sound of swords sharpening and other camp noises. In his excitement, Petya imagines the camp sounds as a glorious symphony. The whole chapter is really amazing.

Aside from our different reading practices, my friend and I both enjoyed War and Peace and were quite invested in the characters. Half of our conversations were full of predictions of what we thought might happen to our favourite characters. While there was a sense of accomplishment that we finished the book, it was also sad to say goodbye to those characters, as is so often the case when you finish a good book.

Jillian Sparks is the special collections librarian at W.D. Jordan Rare Books Special Collections in Douglas Library. She read War and Peace, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky,Vintage-Random House, 2007.

[illustration of Queen's students in 1918 wearing army uniforms and Queen's students in 1968 at a peace rally