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56. War & Peace by Leo Tolstoy

I wish I wasn't so far behind with this, or that I took notes or something, because I had a lot more thoughts about this that I can't remember.  This was supposed to be the first of four big projects this year and is the only one that I finished.

To my immense surprise, given that both war and all things domestic bore me, I loved this book.  (Most of it, anyway).  Which is why it's especially frustrating that it took me so long to read.  In short, it follows the fortunes of several upper class Russian families through the Napoleonic wars. Mainly, the appeal is Tolstoy's pithy descriptions of the characters that are spot on.  The early "war" portions were more interesting than I expected - mainly young men overwhelmed and blundering around the battlefield.  Later on, the battle of Borodino goes on forever but I think that was Tolstoy's point.

Tolstoy is at his best with the domestic scenes, which surprised me, because, as I said above, I have zero tolerance for that kind of stuff.  Jane Austen gives me the stabby rage.  I think it's the sheer variety of the characters and seeing how they live.  I would particularly have liked to know more about the religious pilgrims that Princess Marya interacts with.  When the Rostovs are being useless and taking two days to leave Moscow I wanted to slap them all into next week.

Conversely, this book is at its weakest when Tolstoy philosophises about history and fate etc, and where he has Napoleon as a character - it's just never convincing.

I've read a lot of 19th century Russian literature but mainly Gogol and Dostoyevsky - this is a lot easier going.  I also read Anna Karenina about 20 years ago and I don't particualrly remember liking it.
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24. Eugene Oneigin by Alexander Pushkin, translated by Stanley Mitchell

I spent a lot of my early to mid 20s obsessively reading Russian literature, yet somehow never got around to this.  

It's absolutely lovely.  The reason I include the translator in the title at top is the accessibility and beauty of it is entirely down to the translation.  He tells the story yet uses the same verse forms (the interplay between different forms depending on whether it's narrative or digression is essential), which can't be easy with a language like Russian whose structure is quite different from English.

It's largely an homage to Byron, but also a commentary on the state of Russian literature.  It is Very Russian - in short, very tragic and quite political.  

Accessible yet complex in all types of ways, and just gorgeous.  Definitely a keeper.

My next Russian Lit project is War and Peace, which my mother kindly bought me for Christmas.  I've leafed through it and think I'm very much NOT in love with the translation, so if anyone has any better suggestions, I'm interested.  Interestingly, my edition of Anna Karenina is a hardcover from 1947, and I really hated the translation of that too.  I'm beginning to wonder if it's a Tolstoy thing.

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