Sunday, September 13, 2015

Reading Tolstoy

An acquaintance, the friend of friends, has decided to reread War and Peace with an on-line group. He was willing to have me join. Last month, I stopped at Kramerbooks to pick up the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation the group will use. I had read War and Peace before, but in Anne Dunnigan's translation.

The most obvious difference is the new translation's way of rendering French and German passages untranslated, with the English in footnotes. Dunnigan was content to give one the occasional "Eh bien, mon prince." In this edition, on the pages 92 through 96, the correspondence of Julie Kuragin and Marya Bolkonsky, there are about fifteen lines of English main text. One could argue that the sensibility of the former at least is better revealed in the original language. On the other hand, I don't know what the tactical dispositions for Austerlitz gain by remaining in German.

One thing that struck me at once is the inverse correlation between beauty and fortune in the young women introduced early in the book. Lise Bolkonsky and Elena Kuragin, the beauties of opening reception, will die miserably. The beautiful Vera Rostov will marry Berg, a pedant and bore. Natalya Rostov, at thirteen plain with a big mouth and broad neck, will fare much better than her prettier cousin Sonya. Marya Bolkonsky, plain at best, will marry well. Her prettier friend Julie Karagin will marry Boris Trubetskoy, climber and dud.

I have also noticed that the problem is less finding time to read War and Peace than it is finding the will to set the book aside. I have encountered few incidents that I didn't remember at all--some of the Rostovs' relations with Dolokhov had slipped my mind--yet it is hard to reach the end of one chapter and not continue on. I did have to take a break for vacation. The book would be excellent for long trips by airplane or train, but is too heavy, combined with everything else, to haul through airports and railroad stations.


  1. The only bit of War & Peace I object to is when Napoleon appears. The book is fiction & I find the introduction of a real person disturbing. Given your intellect, incidentally, I'm sure you could learn Russian in a trice - and Tolstoy writes the easiest Russian to read of any writer I've come across, (don't try Dostoevsky; he is much more daunting)

    1. There is a good deal of precedent in the historical novel for bringing real persons on stage: Scott brings Rob Roy McGregor, Charles Stuart, and no doubt many others in. I will say that the Napoleon bits seem to me inferior: Napoleon and Lavrushka is thin stuff next to the preceding chapter and the death of the old Prince Nikolai Bolkonsky. Yet I wonder whether this isn't because Tolstoy's power is in inverse proportion to his contempt for a character.

      You are very kind. I would love to learn Russian well enough to read Tolstoy (and Pushkin), and as soon as the 48 hour day is invented I will dedicate four or five to Russian. Indeed, this week a friend, fluent in Russian and with (I think) an advanced degree of some sort in Russian literature was saying that Tolstoy's prose is very straightforward.

    2. It is worth it to read Eugene Onegin. I actually found it a less difficult language than German, but maybe that's because I had very good - and very fierce - teachers for Russian