To read or not to read War and Peace this summer? As a treat for myself during an essay-based hell period before Easter I bought myself the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation as motivation so it really must be time soon. I actually have a good copy now (having previously only owned a really old version where all the names are anglicised; how can I read how many hundred pages of a character called “Prince Andrew” in Napoleonic Russia and take it seriously?), so there should be no more excuses! I now have my own copies of a few other such Great Russian Classics™ that I’d like to read sooner rather than later, all books that I’m rather ashamed to not have read yet – Life and Fate, Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov – and what’s more with every passing day they go unread the risk of having them spoilt for me grows greater, as my studies progress further and everyone assumes that for me to be a Good Student™ I should be familiar with them. I must get there first!
So it must be soon, then. And it only makes sense to tackle such a book during the holidays, now that exams are out the way and I have two months before me to just sit down and plough through it. And the conditions for this most long and arduous of literary voyages are good; I am in a better frame of mind to attempt it now, I think, than past-me, because of the way in which my attitude towards originally serialised books has shifted quite radically (another post for another day). But there are two things, still –
1) if I am to read it this summer I wonder if I ought to work up to it first. Since Easter especially I’ve been getting through a lot (having perhaps prior to that been in a reading slump without realising it?) but reading The Piano Teacher a couple of weeks ago I realised that very few of these books have been novels; TPT was my first in a good long while, the rest all having been poetry and essays and anthologies, asking less of me during exam season. Do I need to ‘get back into’ reading novels – get my mind used to working on something longer, that requires greater devotion and more loyal attention – before launching into one so long? I wonder if that would make things a little easier.
2) That’s my main problem, I think, that I haven’t even picked it up off the shelf and already I’m fretting about my enjoyment of it. How I want to like it! It is a book so famous and so acclaimed that I can think of nothing worse than beginning it and finding I don’t like it. To confess “I haven’t read it yet”, while embarrassing, is perhaps less shameful than admitting “I couldn’t finish it” – horror! – or “I hated it!”, and having to defend that. Everyone else likes it*; and it’s not to fit in with others, necessarily, that I want to like it too, but because it would feel like a personal failing; it’ll be my fault if I do not like it, there will be something about me that has ruined it for my own self. Not “you should like it to have the right opinion/fit in/look clever” but rather “everyone else has enjoyed it, what’s wrong with you that you don’t?”
I’m obsessed, also, with the idea of reading books at the right or the wrong time; I realise now that there were books I read at a younger age and didn’t appreciate as fully as I might have had I waited a little, and I fear with any classic I start that it’ll be the same. Yet I must stop thinking like this!; I used it to put off reading certain books in my early teens, and just as I say it now at twenty I could still be putting off the same works at thirty or forty. Then where are you?
What’s wrong with me? I don’t know what I’m afraid of; I read Anna Karenina when I was seventeen and I enjoyed it, so why should this be any different? The years and the new knowledge and experiences between then and now will have helped; all this I know, sensibly. I suppose it’s just that I’ve emerged out the other end of Anna and I simply won’t know about War and Peace until I make a start, and there’s no going back then. Seven hundred words I’ve spent agonising over all this and such navel-gazing won’t bring me any closer to what I must do.
*I said as much to my mother, ‘everyone else likes it,’ and she said, ‘do they? I thought no one could get through it’, so I’m glad that I spend all my time in a little Russianist bubble where everyone knows and loves it.