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Last Updated: Thursday, 1 March 2007, 11:20 GMT
Ever read War and Peace? No need...
Book entitled War and Cheat
It's World Book Day, a time to promote the enjoyment of reading. But who has the time these days to pore over a tome like Tolstoy's 1,500-page classic War and Peace? You don't need to, says one book bluffer, who below takes on an expert. Read their conversation then guess who you think is the bluffer.

In our time-poor age, many people wish they were more well-read. And World Book Day, with its polls on the nation's favourites, can compound this feeling of inadequacy.

Results of the vote
But help is at hand. A bestselling book in France by academic Pierre Bayard, How to Talk about Books that You Haven't Read, claims anyone can have an intelligent conversation about novels they have never even opened.

We put his theory to the test by pitting one of the country's most respected literature experts against an unashamed "bluffer". Below is an edited transcript of a conversation between Professor John Sutherland, former chairman of the Booker Prize judges, and Ross Leckie, author of The Bluffer's Guide to the Classics.

MEET THE SPEAKERS
Professor John Sutherland (left) and Ross Leckie (right)
John Sutherland (left) is professor of literature at University of London and regular Guardian columnist
Ross Leckie wrote the highly-acclaimed Hannibal and is a full-time writer living in Edinburgh
The subject? Tolstoy's 1,500-page epic War and Peace, which has an abridged version published next month... and which Leckie has never read.

So who is the expert and who is the faker? The vote is now closed and the results are above. The answer to who is the bluffer can be found after the conversation.

A: The central character Pierre is, I think, a fascinating and major fictional figure. There's something in him that speaks, I would argue, to all of us. His paradoxical behaviour - one moment he's religious, the next moment he's atheistic. One moment he's in love with Elena, the next moment he wants to be in love with Natasha. He's very volatile. One moment he is for the war against Napoleon, one moment he's against the war. So in Pierre I think Tolstoy has created a character who speaks to all of us.
B: I would more or less agree with that but the pity about Pierre is that he's such a bumbler. He's not a hero.
A: (chuckles) Isn't that why he's so empathetic for us?
B: But I have this theory that Tolstoy is very influenced by Thackeray. He read three huge Thackeray novels in one week while he was in the siege of Sebastopol in 1855. At one point in his life he steeped himself in Thackeray and I think that "novel without a hero" idea took root when he came round to doing War and Peace. I think Pierre is very like the kind of character you would find in Thackeray or even Trollope, the hobbledehoy. It would have been so tempting to have someone who was dashing and who cut down the French enemy with his sabre.
A: And he doesn't of course.
B: No, he doesn't. He wanders around in the battlefield without the faintest idea what he's doing. The other point is he becomes a Mason. He's a complete duffer and yet incredibly interesting because of that. Tolstoy, I don't know if you'd agree, has a theory that war is a gigantic cock-up. Napoleon is not a great strategist he's just rather lucky and things go very badly for him when he arrives in Moscow.
A: And then he makes the mistake of staying in Moscow instead of trying to defeat the Russian Army in the field. I love the whole section of the novel when Pierre is forced to march with the Grand Army during its appalling retreat from Moscow and the meditations he has then on the misery of war and pointlessness of war. I love his ambiguity.
B: Back in Moscow, there are people who admire Napoleon and regard him as a hero and Tolstoy is very scathing about that glamorisation of the enemy.
A: And belligerence.
B: And belligerence.
A: It's very moving I think. And the juxtaposition by Tolstoy of Napoleon with the Russian general Kutuzov who is his chiaroscuro, both the same as and the opposite to Napoleon is fascinating and beautifully done in the novel.
B: The great thing about War and Peace is you don't have to have, whether you've read it or not, you don't need to have a mastery of Russian history. All you need is the great events of the early 19th Century and the Napoleonic fiasco.
A: Well it is just 1805 to 1813, isn't it? It covers a very small period of Russian history, which is one of the novel's triumphs, to pack so much human experience into eight years.
B: Why isn't it more read? Why isn't it at everyone's fingertips? Because it's so long or because we have an insular contempt for anything which doesn't originate in our own country?
A: I think it's because the novel is so audacious. Nobody else - not nobody, Joyce certainly tries it but I find Joyce utterly unreadable - nobody that springs to mind apart from Tolstoy has ever attempted so broad a sweep, so wide a canvas with good guys and bad guys and happy people and sad people. The characterisation throughout War and Peace is magnificent. We all talk about Pierre but look at Natasha as a central female character, isn't she fascinating?
B: Yes she is. The whole marriage theme is beautifully handled. The fact he fumbles into a kind of terrible marriage and it breaks up. It's a very grown-up novel in that respect. There's very little simple-minded romance in it. What do you think happens to them in later life? I sometimes wonder about the aftermath and the sequence of these things. Does Tolstoy actually forecast what the afterlives of his characters are?
A: No he doesn't but he leaves Pierre pretty much resolved. If you remember Pierre suddenly inherits this great estate with serfs and hundreds of miles and acres, and he doesn't know what to do with it. He agonises about how one shoulders this responsibility. Does he keep it or ought he give the estate back to the serfs; give it back to the people? How do you lead a moral life in a patently flawed imperfect world?
B: Isn't it amazing that someone like Tolstoy was a master of what you call this huge gigantic canvas. But at the same time he's also a master of the miniature. The death of Ivan Illych.
A: Yes, a beautiful moment.

THE MAGAZINE: Could Tolstoy have done anything better?

A: Enormously, you could cut it. It's notoriously difficult to abridge such a great work, but the last third of the "novel" is in fact what we could call a polemic. It's a philosophical rant about the meaning of life the best form of government and so on, thinly disguised and inadequately disguised as fiction. It's Tolstoy philosophising, he's on his soapbox and my goodness, he bangs on. So you could improve it easily by cutting that out.
B: That's one of the really engaging things about Tolstoy. What's that short story which is usually translated as "what for?" or "why?" He asks huge questions - "Why are we here? What is life for?" No British novelist would have the gall to stand up, well possibly Hardy but not with Tolstoyan confidence.

THE MAGAZINE: Is there an element of soap?

A: The love triangle between Elena and her brother Anatoly is straight soap stuff. They conspire for Anatoly to seduce the still chaste Natasha but Pierre then gets involved to try to stop it and himself falls in love with Natasha, the woman who he is trying, out of honour, to protect. Meanwhile he's already married, which doesn't help. So yes, it's a very contemporary theme. That's why it's so strong and successful. Yes, there are these massive brushstrokes about the meaning of life and if God exists and other hardy perennials but there is also very intimate delicate brushwork in the extenuation of these minor characters and these major characters' feelings and inclinations.
B: One of the problems that British readers have and one which no translators can help with is the Russian use of patronymics. They all have three names and the names alter according to context. There are various other things as well we are not used to but Russian readers would have taken for granted. They are baffling. It's a novel that needs annotation and a certain amount of patience.
A: My trick is that I stick to the Anglicised Christian names so I don't worry too much about whether or not Bezukhov is a prince or a count or indeed what his surname is. But Pierre is a name we can remember. Natasha changed her surname, according to context as you say, from Rostov to Rostova to Rostovnika. I just stick personally to Natasha.

B: It is awkward. Sometimes a whole line in the book is taken up with a row of the same character's name parts. That is a difficulty. It's a book which needs a very tactical introduction and quite a bit of annotation but there's nothing wrong with that, there's no reason why one shouldn't have some help over the style while reading.

Had a guess? The bluffer, Ross Leckie, is Speaker A.


Thanks for your comments. The debate is now closed.

It's a bit like saying 'instead of jogging round the block I'll take the car, its the same in the end'. The whole point of reading is in the act itself -not in the talking about it.
Athos Athanasiou, London

B is the bluffer. You can see that he's just reciting the "argument points" that he got from the bluffing book. A seems to have more of a feeling for and thoughtfulness about the book that comes from close reading. B stands for Bore.
Margaret Reardon, Ottawa, Canada

Anyone who has a deep interest in 19th-century fiction will have read some of John Sutherland's books, and hence will recognise his style, even in conversation. He could have been disguising it, but I doubt it. Style doesn't lie for long.
Rob Watt, Angus, Scotland

I'm now 39 years of age and I have a friend from school who to this day is bitter and twisted about the fact that though he read all the set texts religiously for our A level English Literature exam he only got a Grade C while I achieved an A. What particularly ticks him off is the fact I answered an essay question on Mansfield Park even though I've never read the book, (just read bits of the York notes during my last revision week). Every time we meet, after an hour or so, (and some alcohol), he raises this bone of contention with me to the degree that I now very much fear this one incident in his life has done inconsolable damage to his faith in the concept of hard work, honesty and diligence and probably explains why he ended up working as an estate agent.
Tony, Carlisle, Cumbria

B only mentions one character: Pierre. A clear case of bluffing.
LKH, Edinburgh

If you think War and Peace is long try Proust. I'd love to read the bluff for Remembrance of Things Past - how about - "couldn't sleep; too much to think about"?
Matt, Snape, Suffolk

It must be 'A' because of the constant reference to facts & figures - very clinical. Would you really throw dates into a conversation about a book?. 'B' seems more real- they way you would talk about a book which evokes feelings & opinions.
Dawn, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk

I read War and Peace (over 10 years ago now) and have seen the great Sergei Bondarchuk film of it. I find it difficult to guess but would have to lean towards B though both of them know more about the book than I do now. A shame the way so much leaves us in time. I remember the passage where Pierre is lying mortally wounded on the battlefield and Napoleon walks up to him impressed by his courage in battle. Then he sees Napoleon so diminished against the blue sky. Whatever people say about its greatness on different levels, unlike many other important novels it remains a joy to read. I couldn't put it down and read it in two weeks.
Jonathan Beamish Waterloo, London, London

Looks like A is the bluffer to me; reciting a list of things that happened, but clearly no interest or joy in the major themes of the book. And I'm not sure anyone who ever read WaP would describe Pierre as a hero.
Peter Ashton, London, UK

It seems obvious to me it is B - Leckie has probably read some Thackeray and a Tolstoy short story. He obviously knows quite a bit of history. But he barely mentions the content of novel.
Rachel , Edinburgh

It reminds me of a legend I heard about my dearly-missed English tutor at Oxford. The summer assignment before the second year was always an essay about Spenser's voluminous (or should that be six-voluminous) "Faerie Queene". One year a particularly earnest student was interrupted reading out his work by the aforementioned tutor, who was doubled up with laughter. He paused, and asked if something was wrong. "You read it!" she replied. "You actually bl**dy read it!"
David McGuire, Camborne, Cornwall

Is that all that matters, then - lying convincingly?
Neil McGowan, Brit living in Moscow, Russia

So to be able to blag how to not read a book, you have to go out and read this guys book...? Does this seem tremendously ironic to anyone else?
Andrew, Blackpool, England

The comment about the death of Ivan Illych seems to be the clincher for me. A demonstrates a fairly comprehensive knowledge of the plot, which is what you would have if you had just read bluffer notes on something. B is more interested in the texture, and focuses on that one miniature moment, for which A has no real answer. Of course, a really clever bluffer would have found some detail like that to give authenticityż Another give away for me is that A says Pierre is volatile -- 'one moment... the next moment'. In War and Peace, nothing happens from one moment to the next. Pierre is never volatile in the way that, say, Catherine in Wuthering Heights, is. But if you've read a condensation of the plot, then things would appear to be happening from one moment to the next.
Martin Turner, Birmingham UK

I'm sure it's A. The Death of Ivan Ilych is not in War and Peace, it's a short story by Tolstoy but A's reaction to it suggests that he thinks it's part of War and Peace
Jane, Durham, UK

I would suggest A is the bluffer simply on the basis that no professor of literature worth his salt would state that Joyce is unreadable; or would they? Anyway I preferred Anna Karenina.
Huw Morris, London

Surely the point about books is that it's not the destination that's important, but the journey to get there. I read for the pleasure of reading a story, not so I can appear clever to others by making a pompous critique. Aside from appearing like a literary snob, what's the point in claiming to have read books you haven't.
Ross, London

Wasn't the comment made about Princess Anne that she only did just enough work to get through her exams and didn't Benenden point out that that was a sign of great intelligence, to be able to calculate exactly what was needed?
Katy Charles, London/England

The final third of the book isn't a polemic thinly disguised as a novel. In fact book four (which is only a few chapters) is an avowed polemic, and its not about 'the meaning of life' and so on but about readings of history, and the reality of terms like 'great'& 'genius' when applied to humans in general, Napoleon in particular. It's the rest of the book that's about the meaning of life. Tolstoy couldn't have shortened it; he intended it to contain everything. It's the greatest novel ever written, I recently read it for the third time, and I will read it again, John. PS. Oh, all that means I think A is the fake; if s/he's not then s/he and I have to disagree in our readings of the text, that's all
John Knight, Beverely

It's clearly A. He's done a very good job of blagging it but as someone who's used to using a similar technique myself it's obvious that he is doing so. The main factor for me is that he just doesn't have the background knowledge of the professional at the end of the day.
Matthew Cruickshank, Glasgow

It seems obvious to me - but I figured A was the bluffer as it comes across that this person has learnt from a bulleted list of major points, when you have this in mind it is fairly easy to extrapolate from conversations and piece things together convincingly...
Billy Blister, London

I like the commentary, and to be blunt, it's not clear who's who. However, I would argue that it's a pity someone would need to bluff their way through. The great thing they miss from not reading, the slight nuances, feelings emotions and words that bring them to where they are. That for me is the ultimate joy of reading. The subtleties of human emotion and behaviour. You really can't know a character's individuality without taking in their whole persona. Speaking and semantics are different things. Thus people could be saying the same things, but their personal experiences of those events etc are deeply personal and hopefully give far more pleasure.
Craig Woolford, Canterbury

I got an A* grade in my GCSE (12 years ago now). The exam and an important piece of coursework were on Jane Eyre. I only ever read the York notes.
Michael, Bristol, UK

What an excellent feature! I'm pretty sure I got it right. One of the speakers kept changing the subject which I think gave him away, but then that seems a little too easy...as an English degree student I hope I got it right, but won't be surprised if I don't! Everyone should give War & Peace a chance. For all the burdensome history and names etc etc there are frequent gems of truly life-affirming moments. Tolstoy loved life and his books remind us that we do as well, even if sometimes we forget it. I recommend dividing it into episodes and reading other (somewhat lighter) material in between. You could read it intermittently over a whole year or more that way.
Charlie, Romsey

It is A, I just have the feeling that all his mumblings amount to an English student trying to bluff his way when all he has read is the study guide
Siobhan Devlin, Belfast

I am an avid reader, but found WaP so difficult, I only got to page 7 or so. I pretended to keep reading and moving my bookmark on during work breaks in order to impress a girl who worked with me! It worked! I ended up marrying her. Unfortunately for both of us! Perhaps if I had concentrated on the book instead of the girl, my 20s would have been a little more harmonious.
Paul, Swindon

I voted B, because I can see B picking up all of A's points and bringing them back later on. A is the only one of the pair that actually brings up anything new regarding the plot of the story, B just knows a bit about the history of the period. Even B's little speech about marriage could be deduced from the blurb on the cover of the book and A's previous comments. For the record, I am an engineering student at university.
Adacadus, Suffolk

Only two things in life are more miserable than War & Peace. 1 - Trying to read in Russian (I got stuck on page 3), 2 - Anything by Dostoyevsky.
MK Paul, Milton Keynes, England

I can't understand why anyone would want to bluff having read a book. If one is sufficiently interested in reading the book, one reads it. If not, one doesn't! Sure you can scan War and Peace simply in order to obtain some ego-points by impressing people, but then you'd miss out on the great story anyway. Why not just admit that you'd never read it, and let that become a conversation piece in itself?
Rob Howe, The Hague, Netherlands

I'm probably going to be bitten by this, but 'B' doesn't offer any information about the book. The only new information provided throughout the interview is from 'A', which is then incorporated in to 'B's responses. From this, I have to conclude that 'B' has not been anywhere near the book. Of course, I've never read it, so 'A's information could be completely duff!
John Wilson, Hants, UK

Ok, so he can blag his way through having read the book... but has totally missed the joy of reading it, which is surely the point?
Tim Crocker-Buque, Nottingham, England

I wish I hadn't read this article. I'm on page 369 of WaP and now I know how the rest of the plot unfolds!
Jethro Price, Reigate, Surrey, England




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