A Return to “War and Peace”

My “War and Peace” collection

I am rereading War and Peace, my favorite novel. (Well, it is tied with my other favorite, Charlotte Bronte’s Villette).  I have read Tolstoy’s classic 12 times since I was 18, when it changed my concept of the novel, and I’ve written  about it eight times at my old blog Mirabile Dictu.

Tolstoy’s masterpiece is more than a blockbuster novel:  it is a portal to 19th-century Russia, particularly to society in Moscow and Petersburg . And may I say the Rostov family and their awkward, fat friend Pierre seem as real to me as many people I know?  I am also fond of Nikolai Rostov’s military comrades in the Napoleonic Wars, especially the doppelgängers,  Denisov (lisping, comical noble, valiant ) and Dolokhov (valiant, a devoted son, but also nasty, jealous, and immoral). Both men fall in love with Rostov women, Denisov with Nikolai’s sister Natasha and  Dolokhov with Nikolai’s cousin Sonia.  (Is there a latent, transferred homosexuality here?)  When rejected, Denisov is embarrassed and knows he overstepped boundaries, but Dolokhov takes revenge by bankrupting Nikolai at cards.

My favorite character is Marya Bolokhonskaya, a plain young spinster who finds joy in doing good works, household duties, and religion.  We wonder, Will she ever escape her eccentric, often verbally abusive father?  Will any man ever see her inner beauty? But we admire her practicality in not living for silly flirtations and fashion.

I know something of the perils of translation, and so I was  fascinated by an essay I recently found by Michael R. Katz, “War and Peace in Our Time.” He muses on the coincidence of the publication of  three new translations of W&P in the first decade of this century.  In analyzing the reasons for the resurgence,  he traces the history of the English translations of W&P, beginning with the prolific  Clara Bell.  He considers the older translations by the English couple Louise and Aylmer Maude and the American translator Ann Dunnigan notable.  Of the new, he is  interested in the much-lauded translation by the famous couple Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky and that of the British translator Anthony Briggs.

The word “translation” comes from the Latin translatum, a past participle of the verb transfero, “carry across.” If you have ever attempted to “carry across” the literature of a foreign language into English writing, you will understand the difficulties.  Structures of languages are sometimes incompatible: English depends on word order, while inflected languages like Greek and Latin depend on word endings. The  flexible arrangement of words in inflected languages can’t quite be “transferred” to the English structure.

Since I have not read Ann Dunnigan’s translation, recommended by Michael R. Katz,  I decided to try it.   I popped the Signet paperback of the Dunnigan translation into my bike pannier for reading on the go. But here’s what I learned when I took a break at Starbucks:  War and Peace cannot be ideally read at a coffeehouse. Who knew?  Dunnigan’s translation is accessible and affecting, but not in a crowded cafe.

HERE ARE EXCERPTS FROM A POST I WROTE AT MIRABILE DICTU IN 2015, “The War and Peace Collection: Is Rosemary Edmonds’ Translation the Best?”

I reread War and Peace every year.

I started reading it again on New Year’s Day and just finished it a few hours ago.

And now I’m ready to start again.

 War and Peace says everything, no?  Why read anything else?  The translator Rosemary Edmonds wrote,  “War and Peace is a hymn to life.  It is the Iliad and the Odyssey of Russia.  Its message is that the only fundamental obligation of man is to be in tune with life.”

Tolstoy’s brilliant, entertaining chronicle of Russia during the Napoleonic wars is a pageturner.  Tolstoy said it was not a novel.  “It is not a novel, still less an epic poem, still less a historical chronicle. War and Peace is what the author wanted and was able to express, in the form in which it is expressed.”

I am loving Rosemary Edmonds’s superb translation of War and Peace.  This afternoon I was particularly moved by the pages describing Denisov’s grief over the senseless death of Petya Rostov.  The bleak contrast between the reactions of the unfeeling officer Dolokhov and the brave, kind, lisping officer Denisov made me cry.

When Dolohov notes Petya is “done for” and rides away from the corpse, expecting Denisov to follow,

Denisov did not reply.  He rode up to Petya, dismounted, and with trembling hands turned Petya’s blood-stained, mud-bespattered face–which had already gone white–towards himself.

“I always like sweet things. Wonderful raisins, take them all,” he recalled Petya’s words. And the Cossacks looked round in amazement at the sound, like the howl of a dog, which broke from Denisov as he quickly turned away, walked to the wattle fence and held on to it.

Which is your favorite translation of War and Peace? Constance Garnett?  The Maudes?  Anthony Briggs?  Pevear and Volokhonsky?