Joshua Treviño's Reviews > War and Peace

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
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Aug 14, 08

Read in August, 2008

It is difficult, in reviewing classics, to say things about them that have not been said before. It is especially difficult when those classics are part of the literary canon; and even more difficult when those classics are not mere novels, but purposeful epics. It is in this light that reviewing Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace is a challenge. The massive book — ranging from 900 to 1,500 pages, depending upon the edition — is a cornerstone of anyone’s list of all-time great literature. Strangely, few have actually read it; and few reviewers of new editions do more than assess relative merits of the latest translation.

Therefore: the one thing the reader ought to know about the new translation of War and Peace from Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky is that it is worth reading, both in itself (the book is a classic in any translation) and in this particular form (this translation is superb). As with every other review of this edition, this one must start with what is new about it: the translation.

The husband-and-wife team of Pevear and Volokhonsky have built a long and successful career on translating Russian works into English. (I still recommend their translation of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, which kept me company in my Army days, as the best around.) They are ideally suited to the task, not merely by virtue of their marital compatibility — a translating team spends nearly as much time together as a married couple, and probably communicates better — but by virtue of their birth. Volokhonsky, as might be guessed, is a native Russophone, and Pevear’s first language is English. In a column in the New York Times on October 14th, 2007, Pevear described the method of their collaboration:

---We work separately at first. Larissa produces a complete draft, following the original almost word by word, with many marginal comments and observations. From that, plus the original Russian, I make my own complete draft. Then we work closely together to arrive at a third draft, on which we make our “final” revisions.---

This is, of course, the idealized process. The actual work of conveying literature, with its poetry and rhetoric more or less intact, from one language to another is necessarily slow and inexact. Douglas Hofstadter, the author and professor of computer and cognitive science at Indiana University at Bloomington, addressed this problem at length in his book Le Ton beau de Marot. In this, a rather simple little poem by the 16th-century French poet Clément Marot — "A une damoyselle malade," or "To an ill girl" — is shown to have a surprising number of possible translations from French into English, with none of them quite right. There are dozens of variations in Hofstadter’s book. The necessary tradeoffs, even in Marot’s simple verse, are swiftly evident. Literal accuracy, or rhetorical beauty? Rhyme structure, or metric consistency? Cultural fidelity, or cultural comprehensibility? These are the issues with which translators must contend. The perverse, like Vladimir Nabokov in translating his rigid and un-lovely Eugene Onegin, simply give the reader their ideal of literal exactitude. The more well meaning will often give the reader their idea of comprehensibility in both the rhetorical and cultural spheres. Thus, Constance Garnett, who translated the great works of 19th-century Russian literature into Edwardian-era English, not only rendered prose as would an English novelist of her era: she also “translated” cultural concepts into familiar objects of reference for her intended readers. As a pseudonymous Amazon reviewer of the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation of War and Peace notes, in previous translations, “we often get ‘holy images,’ attended ‘Mass,’ ‘the Virgin Mary,’ etc., instead of ‘icon,’ ‘attended Liturgy,’ or ‘the Theotokos.’” It is pleasing to report that though the occasional clunky passage survives in its over twelve hundred pages, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky have done well by War and Peace. And well they should have: as Pevear notes, in translating, they each read the massive work five times.

Beyond the translation, there is the great work itself, which presumes to take on the very topics of its title. The grand sweep of its epic, to say nothing of the welter of Russian names and perhaps-unfamiliar places, is daunting to many readers. (Who knows where Mozhaisk is, or why it matters?) They should not feel ashamed of this: the very first sentence of the book presupposes a grasp of European politics and Russian society circa 1805, and the inferences and references never let up. It is a peculiarly Russian work, of course — the French invasion of 1812 was to Tolstoy’s generation what the Civil War was to our grandfathers’ — but it is nonetheless comprehensible to Europeans grounded in their own history. For an American, War and Peace is something else: not an artifact of our own heritage, but a work we read to sustain and deepen our connection to the West at large. Its themes of sacrifice, patriotism, and humanity are universal.

Leo Tolstoy was not, it must be said, the master of the human condition that many of the other literary greats were — Shakespeare, for example, or even his contemporary Dostoevsky — and this shows through even in the superlative Pevear/Volokhonsky translation. In life, the great author was keenly interested in developing his own thesis of Christianity, which veered into that curious territory where extreme altruism and profound selfishness intersect. A rare Russian aristocrat who cared for his peasants, he treated his devoted wife with often shocking neglect; he was excommunicated from the Orthodox Church; and he ended up dying at a train station while essentially running away from home as an old man. War and Peace, with its long internal essays on history, fate, and morality, gives us a glimpse into the mind of this troubled and brilliant figure, as his plot and his characters bend to his ideas of life and meaning.

Tolstoy was a contemporary of the men whom the philosopher Karl Popper called the historicists — that is, those who believed in the superiority of historical “laws” and inevitability to God-given free will and volition — and he shared much of their thesis. He did not, as some of them did, deny the possibility or relevance of human goodness and choice; but he did believe that those choices only affected a limited context, and mostly concerned one’s internal state toward himself and God. War and Peace, then, is to a large extent a historical exposition on why the individual does not matter to history, even as he does matter to his Creator. A central character of the work, Pierre Bezukhov, undergoes a transformation throughout from dissolute if well-meaning youth, to solid paterfamilias with an assured sense of God and self — and the transformative event is a death march in French captivity, in which he realizes that all is for naught in this world. Similarly, the wartime mistakes of the Russian generalissimo Kutuzov are excused as historical inevitabilities which Kutuzov had the wisdom to accept.

Tolstoy’s view here is wholly alien to the American character, and its relation to the Christian view is dubious (certainly the Orthodox Church saw little good in it). It does not follow from this that the Christian should not read it. To the contrary, it is a work so very rich, despite its flaws, that it is endlessly rewarding to those who persevere and allow themselves to become happily entangled in its endless narrative. Is it the best Russian novel? Is it the best Tolstoy novel? Is it the best 19th-century novel? It is none of these things: Tolstoy himself wrote better novels, Anna Karenina chief among them; Zola’s La Debacle is a far superior exposition of battle; and nearly everything is shorter. But we ought to read War and Peace nonetheless. We read it because, like Everest, it is there; we read it to join Prince Andrei on the field at Austerlitz; we read it to enter the mind of the young Natasha, insane with what she believes is love; and we read it because in it, as in all great art, we find something of ourselves.

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Comments (showing 1-9 of 9) (9 new)

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Joshua Treviño "Transparent sounds." P&V aren't perfect, but they have an ear for the music of Russian that most translators fail to convey. If you take joy in words, you should pick this up!


midnightfaerie I really liked ur review. I've been trying to figure out why I had such a hard time getting into it and I think ur comment about tolstoy not being as good a writer for the human condition hit the nail on the head. I might try and read this again later in life, but first have to make myself read anna...already read death of ivan ilyitch...and again has issues with tolstoys writing... when i come across a classic i don't like or at least can't appreciate...i always wish there's a class i could take on it. i think there's gotta be something about this that makes it wonderful that i'm missing...guess that's how i felt about this one as well. good review.


message 3: by Nicole (new) - added it

Nicole I disagree with both the reader above and your comment Tolstoy was not a master of the human condition. While he certainly has his own agenda that he is fairly shameless in promoting, I think he captures people perfectly. He has that gift of presenting simultaneously how the person thinks they are and how everyone else sees them within the space of a few words. Think less Shakespeare and more Austen; just because it is shown more through societal interaction than inner pathos does not make it any less relevant. The Princess Marya is a great example of this--heartbreaking in her piety and self-delusion even as she finds herself continuing the cycle of abuse her father started when trying to teach her nephew. Tolstoy is a brilliant psychologist in his own right, though I will admit Anna Karenina was a bit stronger in this suit than War and Peace.


midnightfaerie Interesting thought, Nicole. I think I'll focus more on his depiction of the human condition when I tackle Anna Karenina instead of plot and what he was trying to portray like I did in his other books. I never like it when I find a classic that's so idolized by fans and I can't at least appreciate the beloved sentiment they have for the book.


Nicholas I enjoyed your review. I will be starting this book today. Are you fluent in Russian?


blake Your review was very well-written and offered much deeper insights than had occurred to me. I appreciate it!


message 7: by Joshua (new)

Joshua Nice review. Well written. Yes, it's worth reading. I agree.


message 8: by Scarlet (new) - added it

Scarlet (Stands and applauds)

Wow!!!

Bravo!

Bravo!

Great review!


Kristin Stauffer We


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