Thursday, January 30, 2014

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

And once again Tolstoy blows me away with his writing. After reading and falling in love with Anna Karenina last year, I knew War and Peace was possible. It's too bad it gets such a bad rap for being "too hard" and "too long" because really, it isn't. The scope of the story is huge, yes, but the chapters are short, the settings are beautiful and the characters are interesting, personable, complex, real. Just start reading and see if you don't find yourself a hundred pages in and still going strong. Then two hundred, then five... It got to the point, towards the end, that I actually didn't want it to end because I felt part of the extended Rostov family and I wanted to continue being with them, being part of their activities and debates and evolution during such a time of change.

I have to admit, though, there were are couple of times I flagged. As interesting as Napoleon and his plans to take over Europe were, I couldn't keep up with all the political and military strategy and analysis, although I can certainly see how a reader with a military background might be enthralled. War and Peace is packed with history, both social and political, and would, could, should be part of every reading list, if not for the fully complete content then for the simple pleasure of reading such sublime writing. It is one of the few books where I wanted to go straight back to page one and start all over again.

I would love to be able to read the original Russian, but alas. The reading of War and Peace for me relies on English translations, of which, thankfully after being in print for over a century, there are many. I picked the newest translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky because they had done such a wonderful job with Anna Karenina, at least so I thought as it was the only copy I had on hand. I did a quick check online of opinions of this particular duo and it seems they are indeed quite popular, so I bought their version of War and Peace and didn't think of it again. Once I got into the story, though, I realized I needed to download the free e-book, the digital version of a 1923 translation by Louise and Aylmer Maude, for reading on my phone, all 4729 tiny pages. No matter, though. I was falling in love with this book and needed to have access to it at all times. I then came across a fat little 1991 paperback at a used book sale -translated by Ann Dunnigan- and had to have that one for beside my bed. So now I have three different versions of the same book -one upstairs, one downstairs and one in my purse. Since I was reading them all regularly it didn't take me long to realize that each one had its own . . . tone? feel? voice? I'm not even really sure what to call it, but I was gravitating more towards the old paperback and the e-book than I was to the new Pevear and Volokhonsky version. I can't think what else it could have been other than the translation. Their choice of words, interpretation and structure didn't touch me the way the others did. It's so fascinating that language can be so pliable. If Tolstoy's writing can still be so lovely translated untold number of times 140 years after he wrote it, what must it be like for native-speaking Russians to read it in Russian? For more on translations of War and Peace, check out the new blog Tolstoy Therapy. Lucy has yet another version of this most wonderful book and much more in depth to say about it.

War and Peace is such a fantastic reading experience, I can't recommend it highly enough. There's so much going on within these pages I could say, take your time, savor it, but if you're like me you'll want to keep reading and reading and never put it down.

(back cover)
War and Peace broadly focuses on Napoleon's invasion of Russia in 1812 and follows three of the most well-known character's in literature: Pierre Bezukhov, the illegitimate son of a count who is fighting for his inheritance and yearning for spiritual fulfillment; Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, who leaves his family behind to fight in the war against Napoleon; and Natasha Rostov, the beautiful young daughter of a nobleman who intrigues both men. As Napoleon's army invades, Tolstoy brilliantly follows characters from diverse backgrounds - peasant and nobility, civilians and soldiers - as they struggle with the problems unique to their era, their history, and their culture. And as the novel progresses, these characters transcend their specificity, becoming some of the most moving -and human- figures in world literature. 


Lucy Horner said...

This post is so interesting... especially as you had trouble with the P&V translation like I did! Translation is such a complex issue, and like you I often wish I could just read Russian.

War and Peace really is an incredible book though, and I can never recommend it highly enough. Thank you so much for the link to my blog too!

I think the world is a better place with books by Tolstoy in it ;)

Great blog!

Trish said...

Yes, I didn't want to believe it at first, but translation is so much more than just a mechanical switching of words.

You have such a wonderful blog, Lucy. I'm so glad to have it as a resource. I've added you to my 'Further Reading' links on my sidebar as well.

JoAnn said...

Translation is a such an interesting subject, and I enjoyed reading your thoughts on W&P. I have the P&V version on my shelf (because I loved their translation of Anna Karenina), but the idea of dipping in and out of several is intriguing!