Very Long Reads – Part Two: The Obvious Russian Ones

Something to do as we have more time.

Growing up there were always two books joked about when anyone wanted to hyperbolise a long text; War And Peace and Crime And Punishment. I always liked the symmetry of the fact that for two books to have the same reputation they always had the same concepts in their titles; something and something, each side balancing the other.

Firstly forgive me on this as I had planned to do a blog on Russian Literature in general, there is far more to it than just these obvious two (it probably will be a two parter) so I will look at it in greater depth elsewhere. But as frustratingly not everything falls neatly into separate categories, I realised when I was thinking about long books to read I had to include these.

Let’s start with War And Peace by Leo Tolstoy. Like a lot of literature in those days, this was originally serialised and in this case it was in The Russian Herald. In fact some sources state it took between 1865 to either 1867 or 1869 to do the whole thing. It was, however published as a book in 1869.

Once again this is a massive tome, and having been written in a foreign language it’s hard to be specific in exactly how long it is, as translations and formats will differ in word and page count. Instead we can say it is broken up into four Books and an Epilogue (of two parts).

It literally is about War and Peace. Starting in 1805 amidst the Napoleonic Wars that were sweeping across Europe it follows the course of the lives of five intertwined families, in both Peace and War times. Epic is the very word for its scale.

Tolstoy himself said it wasn’t a novel. As you read this you see he had a far greater ambition than just telling a story. The book includes various essays and philosophising on the part of the author. Some say this slows the plot, some say it adds more weight to it. Either way taking on this tome is no mean feat. Don’t be put off by hearing that, but it’s probably good foreknowledge to have so you know what you are taking on.

I read it years ago when I was living in London and was taking the Underground to work every day. I had the time and made use of it. I’d seen it for sale in a shop reduced in price and I decided that the amount of hours entertainment I was buying made this a very good deal. Also I’d always heard people joking “it’s like reading War And Peace,” about other things and since I loved reading, why not actually do it? I’m very proud to say I finished it, as gloating rights are automatic, but it did open a door to the world of Russian Literature as having enjoyed it so much the natural next step was…

Crime And Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Fyodor Dostoyevsky has since become one of my favourite authors so you will be getting more of his other works later. But Crime And Punishment was such a game changer for me when it came to reading. In theory it was War And Peace that made me take on these big classic works, and whilst I enjoyed that, I LOVED Crime And Punishment.

As it was first published, once again as a serial, in 1866 and then as a book in 1867, it was a contemporary of War And Peace. However this was set at the time of publication and reflects St Petersburg as it would have been known to the author.

It is no way as long as War And Peace but it is deep. The premise is that Raskolnikov, a former student, decides that it is morally acceptable for him to kill someone, and then the plot follows the consequences of that judgement. It’s not exactly light reading, however the way it takes you into the thoughts of this man is a fascinating insight into the workings of conscience and paranoia. How does this choice affect him? Does he act on it? I’m not going to tell you, but I’ll recommend you find out by reading it for yourself.

I read it a couple of years after War And Peace. I’d concluded that having read both of the obvious very long reads that would be enough; but it just gave me a taste for Russian Literature and I’ve read a lot of it since, and plan on discovering even more.

Both of these novels are well worth the challenge. If you want an ongoing saga of family life amidst the historic wars of Europe read War And Peace. If you want a psychological thriller read Crime And Punishment. If you liked one, read the other.

Buy War And Peace By Leo Tolstoy
Buy Crime And Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

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