Yes, I’m really truly urging you to read 1,200 pages, because War and Peace is absolutely one of the greatest works of fiction ever, and yes, I’m strongly recommending you read the new translation by Pevear and Volokhonsky, because this couple are simply terrific at their job.
Tolstoy wrote War and Peace because he wanted to write a novel about a revolutionary Decembrist, who, having been sent to Siberia in 1825 for his seditious acts, returns to the Russia of Tolstoy’s present in the 1860s. But Tolstoy wanted to begin this novel when his hero was a child. He then realized that the story would make no sense to his readers unless he first wrote about Napoleon’s invasion and occupation of Moscow in 1812, and he couldn’t write about that unless he wrote about 1805, when Russia first met Napoleon in battle. So War and Peace begins at with the now-famous soirée of Anna Pavlovna Scherer in Petersburg in 1805 and ends in 1819, with Tolstoy’s future Decembrist, 13-year-old Nikolai Bolkonsky, swearing he will do something to make his dead father proud of him. Well, actually the book ends with yet another Tolstoyan lecture, but plot-wise it ends with the boy.
Packed in between the years 1805 and 1819 are a multitude of stories, the most important being about members of the rigid, yet honorable Bolkonsky family, located on their country estate of Bald Hills, the immensely warmhearted, but financially irresponsible Rostov family of Moscow, and huge, naïve, good-natured Pierre Bezukhov, the illegitimate son of an enormously wealthy count in Petersburg. Much of the early drama centers around Pierre’s surprise inheritance of his father’s estate and the schemes of distant relatives to take control of him or it. Meanwhile, the moral drama contrasts the superficial, hypocritical, spiritually empty world of Petersburg and the substantive, genuine world of Moscow.
War is declared; many of the male characters fight, some are wounded, some killed. The young people—Pierre, Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, his wife Lisa, his browbeaten sister Princess Marya, bold bright Natasha and Nikolai Rostov, and their cousin Sonya, cosmically beautiful but vile Helene, villainous Dolokhov, and brave Denisov fall in love, have duels, and struggle to learn how to live. Some marry well, some badly; some have babies, some die. Nikolai and Natasha go on probably the most famous wolf hunt in literature, a paean to hunting, the Russia countryside, sibling and familial love, and Russianness.
By page 600 we’ve arrived at the year 1812, and the rest of the book except for a brief epilogue in 1819 carries Napoleon from the borders of Russia to the nation’s emotional heart, Moscow, where, after a month’s occupation, he retreats along his burnt-over invasion route, his army savaged by Russian partisans and the legendary Russian winter. The characters we’ve come to know and care about get on with their loves and tragedies, but Tolstoy the author now stops the action frequently to discourse on why all these events happened and what they mean. Even when his ideas are interesting, most readers become irritated, because they wish instead that he’d just continue folding his preaching cleverly into his depictions of self-promoting bureaucrats, arguing commanders, dimwitted courtiers, and the simple folk stuck on the front lines.
War and Peace is an extraordinary book, the pinnacle of Tolstoy’s writing, however much he came to hate it in his later life. He realizes all his characters through dead-on accuracy of detail, such as old countess Rostov accepting the gift of a miniature of her beloved dead husband indifferently “because she did not feel like weeping now.” At the same time he orchestrates an enormous cast of characters in a complicated dance of authentic life that takes your breath away.
Pevear and Volokhonsky bring something fresh and strong to their translation. Because Tolstoy has always seemed more European than, say, Dostoevsky, I didn’t think it would matter as much who translated him. Even I was able to translate Tolstoy at one time. But Pevear and Volokhonsky approach as exactly as they can the way Tolstoy expresses himself. First, they capture the specificity that makes his observations so convincing: “Zherkov touched his horse with his spurs; it shifted its footing three times excitedly, not knowing which leg to start with, worked it out, and galloped off . . . .”
They never try, as others do, to “smooth over” some of Tolstoy’s stylistic ticks, especially his repetition of the same word over and over in the same sentence or paragraph: “Vera’s observation was correct, as were all her observations; but, like most of her observations, this one made everyone feel awkward . . . .” In contrast, the fine Maude translation has: “Vera’s remark was correct, as her remarks always were, but, like most of her observations, they made everyone feel uncomfortable . . . “
Pevear and Volokhonsky use short sentences and short Anglo-Saxon-root words to capture certain scenes precisely: “Drops dripped. Quiet talk went on. Horses neighed and scuffled. Someone snored.” But when Count Rastopchin crazily switches from one directive to another as he tries to figure out how to govern Moscow as Napoleon approaches, Tolstoy’s final sentence goes on for over a page: “But Count Rastopchin, who now shamed those who were leaving, now evacuated government offices, now distributed . . . , now took up, . . . now forbade . . . , now confiscated . . ., now transported . . ., now hinted . . ., now told. . . , now assumed . . . [etc.]” Most translators divide this into several sentences, losing the cumulative desperation of the single sentence.
Much more could be and has been said, both about this book and this translation. But what you you need to do is simple: read this new War and Peace.
Reviewed by Margaret Black. War and Peace. By Leo Tolstoy. New York: Knopf, 2007. Translated by Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky. 1273 pages. $37.00.
This review first appeared in 2009. We think it’s just as insightful and pertinent now as it was some years ago; hence, the encore