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?

Mimi on Tolstoy in Maureen Howard’s “The Rags of Time”

 Today, when I told my husband I was finishing up two books this month, he asked, “Is one of them War and Peace?”

I love Tolstoy so much that it is a family joke.  But, no, I haven’t been reading it.

I just finished Maureen Howard’s The Rags of Time, a kind of woman’s Ulysses, and the last in Howard’s quartet of novels on the seasons.  And there are a few references to War and Peace.

Howard’s double, Mimi, an 80-year-old writer who reflects on American history, personal history, and  the design of Central Park, recalls reading War and Peace as a girl one summer in her parents’ bedroom in Bridgeport, Connecticut. ( N.B.  This episode is also in Howard’s memoir, Facts of Life.)   And near the end of Rags, her husband picks up Mimi’s copy of War and Peace and reads the notes on her rereading . 

“She had read to page 733 in War and Peace, marking the confrontation between Napoleon and the Russian emissary as they moved ahead to their bloody war.  Girlish!!! in the margin next to the description of the emperor. . . a white waistcoat so long that it covered his round stomach, white doeskin breeches fitting tightly over the fat thighs of his stumpy legs, and Hessian boots.  His snuff box, his cologne!  Her notes, trailing down the side of the page, remarked upon the brilliant maneuvers of the scene, the slippery give-take of diplomacy, the rough talk of plain take.  He presumed she’d read the love story, though this time round, her second chance, notes in the margin revealed how closely she observed the lush setting of the Tsar’s palace, the slippery make-nice that preceded war.  Revise, reread, work ahead right up to the end.  He must tell her brother, who maintained that when she took up her post with the fat library book each long Summer day, then slept on a cot in his room–that she snored.”

The Rags of Time is a twenty-first century classic, in my view, but it is generally underappreciated (especially at Goodreads).  I wonder if women’s experimentations with literary form are still less acceptable than men’s.