Monday, October 29, 2007

A fresh look at Tolstoy

  • Michael Dirda reviews Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky's new translation of War and Peace in The Washington Post.
At some point in their lives, Some day, nearly all serious readers say to themselves, I really should sit down and start War and Peace. For many of us, though, that day never quite comes. After all, the book is enormously long: Some editions take up two, three or even four volumes. Those confined to one, like this new Knopf translation, possess the heft and appearance of small cinder blocks: With the right mortar, you could lay foundations with them. What's more, the book's extensive action embraces multiple storylines, three generations, and half of Europe; and, as the pages mount up, Tolstoy repeatedly theorizes at tedious length about the nature of history. Even the characters names can be confusing--at one point a man named Kuragin courts a young woman named Karagin. Still, for many readers the book's most off-putting element is probably its reputation: It's not just a novel, it's, well, it's . . . War and Peace.

But 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.

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