November 15, 2007


REVIEW: of War and Peace by LeoTolstoy, Leo Tolstoy (Michael Dirda, Washington Post)

[A] fine new translation, especially one by the widely acclaimed team of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, offers an opportunity to see this great classic afresh, to approach it not as a monument (or mausoleum) but rather as a deeply touching story about our contradictory human hearts.

Stressing that their War and Peace sticks more closely to the Russian text than any other, including Louise and Aylmer Maude's semi-canonical 1923 version, Pevear and Volokhonsky retain the considerable amount of French used by Tolstoy's counts and princesses, preserve the author's penchant for word repetition and aim to match his tidy syntactic conciseness. The result certainly reads smoothly, its English being neither egregiously contemporary nor inappropriately old-fashioned. In this respect, the Pevear-Volokhonsky War and Peace joins company with recent translations of The Tale of Genji, Don Quixote and In Search of Lost Time, these being among the few works of classic fiction equal to Tolstoy's in scope and richness. Given so capacious and generous a masterpiece, it's simply impossible to do more than offer -- with due humility at how much is being overlooked -- a few introductory propositions for the would-be reader.

Nearly every man and woman in War and Peace is deeply flawed, and will make at least one truly terrible mistake in his or her life. This may be an epic, but there are no larger-than-life heroes in it. The main character, Pierre Bezukhov, is illegitimate, clumsy, naive, absent-minded and fat. He has red hands and wears glasses. The exuberant, impulsive Natasha Rostov, the principal heroine, eventually settles down as Tolstoy's ideal woman, but not before her unnaturally repressed libido wrecks her own happiness and that of her fiance, the noble-minded Andrei Bolkonsky.

Minor characters tend to be unconsciously corrupt or simply depraved. Boris Drubetskoy starts off as a charming young man and turns into an ambitious, calculating trimmer, always looking out for his advancement. Though the Countess Helene Bezukhov is promiscuous and stupid, her beauty ensures that the world finds her profoundly witty. The gorgeous Helene knows that her smile can reduce all male arguments to nonsense. Salons and drawing rooms reveal the French-speaking Russian aristocracy as venal, unctuous and self-important.

Though Stendhal's Charterhouse of Parma helped teach Tolstoy how to describe battle, most of War and Peace might be likened to a compact version of Balzac's multi-volume Comedie humaine. In these pages an old man's heirs connive over his fortune. Parents strive to marry off their worthless children for money and status. Couples form and break up, young girls attend balls, their admirers quarrel and duel, fortunes are lost at cards, babies are born, families face social or financial ruin, and the most cherished dreams are dashed. The book never flinches from showing us deliberate cruelty, repeated heartbreak and survivor guilt.

While his villains never change, only worsen, Tolstoy's heroes evolve, deepen, see more clearly into the nature of things. Society, the novelist believes, corrupts us because it is built on falsity and pretense, on role-playing and the acceptance of the unreal. It's all opera. Only the very young and the very holy can ignore the pervasive artificiality. "As with all people, the moment she looked in the mirror, her face assumed a strained, unnatural, bad expression." However, those chastened by suffering or allowed ecstatic moments of insight may sometimes escape the world's meretricious allure.

As its title suggests, the novel examines two opposing realms, alternative paths through life. Tolstoy repeatedly contrasts war and peace, the artificial and the natural, erotic torment and family happiness, the city and the country, Moscow and St. Petersburg, Germanic military tactics and Slavic submission to the force of history, intellectual complexities and Christian simplicities, this world and the next. But note that copulative "and" rather than "or" -- we are both apes and angels. Still, our movement through life should be spiritually upward.

Some of these same polarities recur in another classic juxtaposition: Tolstoy or Dostoevsky? Young people nearly always prefer the latter -- Dostoevsky's alienated heroes are anguished intellectuals, often murderous and dangerously attractive. But then Dostoevsky is fundamentally romantic. By contrast, Tolstoy possesses an almost Homeric indifference to his characters' fate. His only interest is truth. This is Natasha, this is Pierre, he seems to say, I am not creating them so much as simply recording what they felt and did. As Isaac Babel once observed, "If the world could write by itself, it would write like Tolstoy."

For the author of War and Peace-- and Anna Karenina, The Death of Ivan Illich and Hadji Murad -- excels in just this unblinking focus, coupled with the artistry to illuminate a scene or a character by employing the exactly right but sometimes startling detail. When Napoleon surveys the field of battle, "on his cold face there was that particular tinge of self-confident, well-deserved happiness that can be seen on the face of a boy who has happily fallen in love." In one of the most endearing scenes in world literature, Tolstoy describes the happy hubbub as Sonya and Natasha ready their young selves for a ball, while the maid crawls on her knees to pin up a dress and Natasha's blushing mother retreats from her husband's embrace "so as not to have her dress rumpled."

War and Peace constantly overturns expectations. The great questions of the book, with a surprising set of answers, are the most fundamental ones: Who will die? Who will marry whom? Just when we think that Andrei and Natasha are established as the perfect couple, we realize there are 600 pages to go. One can't even be sure that the admirable Sonya, unwavering in her adoration of the soldier Nikolai Rostov, will be rewarded with the storybook ending she deserves. Much turns on sheer coincidence: When Prince Andrei lies wounded in a field hospital, who should be on the next operating table but the man he has sworn to kill?

But, then, God's ways are mysterious, and Tolstoy's main characters are all spiritual pilgrims. Prince Andrei, convinced he is dying, peers at the eternal sky and finds a strange joy. The abused Princess Marya invites holy wanderers into her home and dreams of joining these primitive Christians. Pierre becomes a Freemason as he searches for how best to conduct his life, but learns the answer he seeks only from a saintly peasant. Is love that answer? Not really. To gain peace of soul we must surrender our wills to the will of God. Similarly, Tolstoy insists that Field Marshal Kutuzov is able to defeat Napoleon not through cleverness but by submitting to the historical moment and becoming its instrument.

Though Tolstoy believes in spiritual meekness, he still knows the flesh is frail.

-REVIEW ESSAY: Tolstoy's Real Hero (Orlando Figes, NY Review of Books)
Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky have begun a quiet revolution in the translation of Russian literature. Since the publication of their acclaimed version of The Brothers Karamazov in 1990,[12] they have translated fifteen volumes of classic Russian works by Dostoevsky, Gogol, Bulgakov, Chekhov, and Tolstoy, restoring all the characteristic idioms, the bumpy syntax, the angularities, and the repetitions that had largely been removed in the interests of "good writing" by Garnett and her followers, and paying more attention (in a way that their predecessors never really did) to the interplay or dialogue between the different voices (including the narrator's) in these works—to the verbal "polyphony" which has been identified by the literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin as the organizing principle of the novel since Gogol.

War and Peace is their latest translation. It is an extraordinary achievement, particularly because Pevear does not speak or read Russian but relies on a literal translation (with notes on syntax, nuances of meaning, and literary references) by his wife Larissa to write a more finished English draft. What really makes this wonderfully fresh and readable translation stand out from its predecessors is its absolute fidelity to the language of Tolstoy. Words for particular types of clothing and fashions have been carefully researched: the "aunt" in the opening scene is dressed "in high ribbons"; Prince Ippolit wears a "redingote"; and when she dresses for the ball Natasha pins on a headdress called a "toque" (mistranslated as a "ribbon" by Garnett).

The same is true of military and hunting terms. There are occasional misjudgments: the "uncle" in the hunting scene is awkwardly described as refusing "social service" instead of "public appointments" (as in Garnett and Edmonds) or even "public service" —the usual understanding of the Russian term obshchestvennaia sluzhba. There are also one or two errors, such as making Prince Andrei and his sister Maria bid farewell at the end of Part One by kissing "each other's hands." The correct custom, as described by Tolstoy, was for Andrei to take his sister by the hand and kiss her.

One of the virtues of this translation is its sensitivity to different linguistic idioms. It captures the archaic phrasing used by the old Prince Bolkonsky, for example:

"Well, tell me," he went on, getting back on his hobbyhorse, "how have the Germans taught you to fight Bonaparte by this new science of yours known as strategy?"

The new War and Peace is more inventive in its rendering of plain speech than previous translations, which are too cockney-coy, too grammatically correct, to communicate the drunken street-talk of the workmen in this scene, for example, just before the capture of Moscow by the French. Compare Pevear and Volokhonsky's

"He ought to square it properly with people!" a skinny artisan with a sparse beard and frowning eyes was saying. "Or else, what, he's sucked our blood—and he's quits."

with Rosemary Edmonds (who follows Garnett closely):

"Why don't he give us our wages we're entitled to?" a lean boot hand with a scanty beard and knitted brows was saying. "He sucks our life-blood out of us, and then he thinks he's quit of us!"

Another merit of the Pevear-Volokhonsky translation is its fidelity to Tolstoy's syntax, its countless repetitions and endless sentences, so that for the first time the English reader gets a real sense of how his writing sounds and feels to read in the original. In the scene before Prince Andrei's coffin, quoted above, where Tolstoy uses the past tense of the verb "to weep" (plakat') no less than seven times, Pevear and Volokhonsky are the only translators not to flinch from using "wept" throughout: Garnett says "cried" four times and "wept" three; Louise and Aylmer Maude say both words three times each, omitting one verb altogether; Edmonds has "wept" four times and "cried" thrice; while Anthony Briggs says "wept" five times, omits one verb, and then breaks the repetition with "gave way to tears." There is another passage where Tolstoy uses the word "anteroom" (priemnaya) five times in as many lines. It is a specific word with specific meanings which he goes on to discuss:

During his service, mostly as an adjutant, Prince Andrei had seen many anterooms of significant persons, and the differing characters of these anterooms were very clear to him. Count Arakcheev's anteroom had a completely special character.

The Maude translation uses three different words for "anteroom" and omits it once. Edmonds omits the word twice; Garnett once; while Briggs removes the repetition altogether by omitting the noun twice and using two rather different words ("reception-room" and "waiting-room") on the other occasions. Pevear and Volokhonsky are the only ones to translate all five repeats of the noun.

They also make the most of those large rhetorical structures that are such a hallmark of the Tolstoyan style.

-FILM REVIEW: Filming the Great War of Words (GRADY HENDRIX, October 19, 2007, NY Sun)
With newspapers and magazines heralding Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky's new translation of "War and Peace" with all the ballyhoo normally reserved for a Lindsay Lohan arrest, and the Metropolitan Opera staging a gargantuan version of Sergei Prokofiev's "War and Peace" in December, Leo Tolstoy's 1,312-page ox stunner of a novel is suddenly, 138 years after its initial publication, hot. This poses a dilemma for New Yorkers who want to be in the know: It's too late to start reading the thing if you didn't begin plowing through it long before the hype began, and buying Cliffs Notes would be downright tacky, so how do you pretend you've read it at this point? Film Forum comes to the rescue with its screening of Sergei Bondarchuk's 1968 film version of "War and Peace." Unfortunately, it's almost seven hours long. Fortunately, it's amazing.

Like Kevin Costner, Mr. Bondarchuk was an actor who decided to direct an epic motion picture starring himself, although unlike "Waterworld" or "The Postman," "War and Peace" turns out to be worth the effort. Shot over five years, it cost around $100 million ($500 million in today's dollars) and mobilized the entire Russian film industry, won an Academy Award, employed 120,000 actors, and is pretty much forgotten these days.

Just as an excellent translation vastly enhances our enjoyment of a great novel, so too can an insightful essay.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 15, 2007 12:00 AM
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