Monday, December 13, 2010

Leo Tolstoy's War & Peace

Currently I am reading the Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky translation of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. In the introduction they write that theirs’ is the most accurate translation to date. Tolstoy would often use the same word over and over in one paragraph. Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky retained all the repetitions, unlike most of their predecessors.

Many years ago I read the Constance Garnett translation. She pretty much set the standard for translating Russian authors into English. Of her translations I read Anna Karenina, Crime and Punishment, Notes from Underground and The Brothers Karamazov. When I heard about this much praised translation I went out and bought a copy. Re-reading Tolstoy after so long is a pleasant surprise. His style is very readable. It can get confusing with all the characters, but there is a glossary of the major players in the front of the book, to which I constantly refer. The best way to keep track of who is who is to remember which family people are in.

The novel has several plot lines, going back and forth between, obviously enough, war and peace. It is the period of the Napoleonic wars, between the years 1806 and 1812. There are lots of epic scenes of battle, but also lovingly described nights at dances and balls with all the beautiful gowns, the glittering lights, the men in uniform, the perfume in the air described to the littlest detail. One of the most evocative scenes for me is a sleigh ride at night through a landscape covered with snow under a full moon. The people are in costumes to entertain the children at another estate. The bells are jingling, the people are laughing and the horses snort thick clouds from their wide nostrils. It was, as they say, magical.

Long books can be intimidating but War and Peace is broken down into small chapters of just a few pages, so there are lots of places to break off reading. I am reading just a few pages a night before going to bed. It’s taking me a long time to get through it but, as John Barrymore once said: It may take longer, but I don’t begrudge the time.