It was a recent television adaptation of War and Peace that spurred me on to my second reading of the great novel, some forty years after I last read my way through its 1,200-plus pages. On that first reading I revelled in the love stories and vivid portraits of its infuriating protagonists, skipped and skimmed through the battle sections, and earnestly pondered Tolstoy’s philosophical musings. I paid very little attention to which translation of the book I was reading, probably the Constance Garnett version since it was she who opened the door to the Russian classics for most of us back then.
We are spoiled for choice these days. Our editor Rosie Goldsmith wrote about the great Anthony Briggs translation in Riveting Reviews last year; I opted this time for Pevear and Volokhonsky’s translation, because it fulfils my three requirements for War and Peace: the long French passages must be intact; the Russian names, with all their variations, must be unadulterated; and the voice, with all its irony, delicacy of touch and occasional bombast, must ring true. Garnett was reputedly cavalier with the text, paraphrasing freely and skipping over passages she didn’t understand. By contrast, Pevear and Volokhonsky are meticulous in their respect for the language of the original and have created a richly nuanced English-language version that beautifully reflects Pevear’s understanding of translation as “a dialogue between two languages”.
Manipulating this handsome but weighty volume of 1,273 pages is no simple matter. My solution was to cut it into four sections, which I then bound with the help of some sellotape and last year’s wall calendar. Book fetishists may be horrified at such violence, but the result was four slim, portable volumes that allowed me to immerse myself night and day in the work. And I was every bit as absorbed this time as I had been in my youthful reading. Those who are daunted by this massive work should take heart: War and Peace reads smoothly and easily, the characters’ lives are irresistibly flawed, and the long descriptive passages lead the twenty-first century reader effortlessly into the world of the Napoleonic wars and Russian high society. People fall in and out of love, quarrel with their parents, are prey to their desires and foolish instincts, and generally display all the human frailties we look for in fictional worlds.
On this reading, I persevered with the battle scenes, admiring Tolstoy’s ability to conjure up the blood and gore of the battlefield while laying bare the hubris of soldierly heroism. Aging, one-eyed Kutuzov, the world-weary general of the Russian forces, has seen it all before. Prince Andrei contemplates the beauty of the sky as he lies injured on the battlefield, and the two Rostov brothers fling themselves naively into the fray with all the wrong-headed ardour of the young.
But, once again, it was the soap opera of the various love stories that really gripped me. Knowing that Pierre, Andrei or Nikolai would slip almost unnoticed into one of the battle scenes and remind us of one of their romances kept me going through those long passages. What would happen to these men? Would their various amorous longings bring them happiness? Who would be left undamaged by the unrelenting turmoil, and who would be crushed beneath its weight? The interweaving of these personal tales with the larger canvas of historical momentum is what drives the novel forward and makes it so appealing. And just as they did before, the main characters sprang off the pages, making me feel that they were as alive as my own friends and family.
Of course, War and Peace is not without its weaknesses. Tolstoy’s heroes ponder big questions, musing on freedom and necessity, life and death, good and evil. But Tolstoy himself seems unable to resist the urge to hold forth too. His long digressions on freemasonry, the causes of historical events, and much else, left me wishing that the great man had been subjected to some clear-eyed editing. While I was engrossed by the lengthy passages given over to the exodus from Moscow, to a wolf-hunting party, and even to the goriest battle scenes, I was utterly defeated by Part II of the Epilogue with its forty pages of portentous pronouncements.
Then there is the thorny problem of Tolstoy’s women characters. Modern feminists, steeped in the notion that literature must provide fully rounded, strong female protagonists, can only blanch in horror upon reading that a “real woman” does not listen “intelligently” to her man’s pronouncements. No, she listens with rapt attention in order to reflect his wisdom back at him. She is a slave to his every need, anticipating his desires and ensuring they are fulfilled in order to leave him free to think and work. Nikolai and Pierre, quite credibly, find fulfilment in their family lives and their occupations. But the female characters, colourful as they are – and especially reading about them with forty more years’ life experience under my belt – are much less convincing. The beautiful and manipulative Hélène – a cardboard cut-out femme fatale – devotes her life to ensnaring innocent men in her web of deception and cruelty. Natasha, the naive beauty courted by an unending stream of captivated males, irritated me on both readings. By the end of the tale, (spoiler alert here!) she has become a voluptuous earth mother, content to suckle her babes and minister to her man. And then there are the doormats: poor Sonya, pushed aside and condemned to be a drudge in the family of the man she loved so devotedly in her youth; Lise, the “little princess”, ill treated by her husband and conveniently despatched in childbirth; and pious Princess Marya, who manages quite miraculously to find love while simultaneously bailing out the impoverished Rostov family.
But we can surely forgive Tolstoy his paternalistic attitudes. For all his visionary strivings, he was, after all, a man of his times. He devoted five years of “ceaseless and exclusive labour” to writing War and Peace; and his translators too have laboured long and hard. And my two weeks of immersion in the great work have left me in no doubt about its undimmed rhetorical power and of its capacity to move, enrage and enlighten.
Reviewed by Aneesa Abbas Higgins
War and Peace
Written by Leo Tolstoy
Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky
Published by Vintage Books
A version of this review can be read on Aneesa Abbas Higgins’s website.
Read more on Russian literature in The Riveter. Edition Two – Riveting Russian Writing.
Aneesa Abbas Higgins is a literary translator and former teacher. Born in London, she has lived in Britain, France and the USA and holds degrees from Sussex University and the University of London. She translates from French and has studied several other languages, including Russian.
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