Monday, March 11, 2013

Guest Blogger, Ed Werstein: Scaling War and Peace

In the weeks ahead, Stoneboat will continue its new endeavor of giving this forum over to various guest bloggers. Today, we are pleased to welcome poet Ed Werstein as he attempts to make his way through one very long tome:

For the third time, I am attempting to read War and Peace.

I am employing three bookmarks like pitons to anchor me on my quest to scale the 1273 pages. One in the front of the book marks a page of Principal Characters to help me keep everybody straight. Another sits in the back of the book helping me to follow the extensive historical notes. There are 53 entries comprising four pages of fine print enhancing the first 100 pages of the story alone. Forty-eight pages of fine print in all.

The third marker, of course, flags the ascent itself. Currently this toehold is hammered into page 117.

In addition to the historical notes in the back, there are footnotes on each page. Tolstoy wrote a significant amount of the nobility’s dialogue in French. This, as I read in the editor’s preface, was an accurate reflection of historical fact. The translators have chosen to authenticate the reader’s experience by translating only the Russian into English, leaving the French as written. They then footnote a translation of the French on the bottom of each page.

This causes me two problems. First, it is fucking tedious. I can’t imagine 1273 pages of this back and forth attention. The second, just as annoying, is that “je connais un peu de francais,”*  but not enough to facilitate reading without referencing the footnotes. Just enough so that I delay a bit each time trying to figure out on my own what was said.  I wonder, couldn’t they have accomplished as much by just marking the translation of the French with italicized text? Would the reader lose something? I know I’d gain a great deal of time.

As I struggle into triple digit pages, the doubts and questions from two previous failed attempts set in again. A hundred seventeen pages down, but over 1100 to go. How much do I really care about the lives of the Russian nobility two centuries ago? What makes this tome of cannons and tranquility such an important part of the literary canon? Is there value in meeting the challenge itself? Could I just learn to admit, matter-of-factly, that I haven’t read War and Peace? Might I have better luck at scaling a different peak? Ulysses perhaps?

Yes, Ulysses! It was almost written in English in the first place. And this attempt (my second) only after a significant training period. My training will begin immediately. I head down the street for a couple of pints at Callahan’s Pub.

* I know a little French

Ed Werstein of Milwaukee, WI, spent 22 years in manufacturing and union activity before his muse awoke and dragged herself out of bed. His sympathies lie with poor and working people. He advocates for peace and against corporate power. His poetry has appeared in Verse Wisconsin, Blue Collar Review, Stoneboat, Mobius: the Journal of Social Change, and some other publications. Rumor has it that War and Peace will not accompany him on his upcoming trip to Chile.


Anonymous said...

My recommendation as you struggle with your third attempt to conquer this Everest of a book????

Screw it!....and let's go play handball! Now THAT'S an Everest you HAVE conquered ...and besides, it's not all that painful!

Anonymous said...

A fine post, Ed. Keep plugging away. The last door-stopper I finished was "Crime and Punishment" and the first 200 or so pages were fairly rough going. But gradually I got drawn in and immersed and thoroughly enjoyed the work--and it was work. Maybe W&P is another beast altogether (it's certainly longer)but if you do finish, you could post another blog. Just a thought.

Mark Z.

Anonymous said...

Ed, I admire the heck out of what you're doing, but there's GOT to be another edition that doesn't saddle you with so much bliblio-crap. Have you checked? Because I see there are at least 4 different ones that come up on Amazon. One of them, at least, should be readable, doncha think?

Marilyn T

Anonymous said...

Get it on tape or have someone read it to you in French ala a Bill Clinton intern.