Thursday, May 26, 2011

War and Peace

I am just finishing Tolstoy's massive War and Peace. I read it as a teenager, then in a course on the Russian novel about which I remember far too little. Then, both times, I believe it was in the classic Constance Garnett translation.

Now I've been reading the new translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. It's like reading a new novel. Of course, I am rather a different person from the teenager/college student, so that might have something to do with the novelty.

Two big themes are surfacing: one, that enormous historical events like the Napoleonic wars are not the product of one man. It's an anti-Romantic novel in that sense, against that Romantic sense that the genius (composer, poet, general, emperor) creates sublime outcomes. In this novel, the general/Emperor is at the mercy of chance, history, the crowd, geography. Napoleon took Moscow because his soldiers saw the chance to loot it. Not because it was part of his grand design.

The other theme: people actually do grow up; time and suffering changes people and they become tolerable human beings, even good ones. Three protagonists (if you're going to do a 1,000-page novel, you have room for that): Natasha Rostov, a young aristocrat; Pierre Bezuhov, a "seeker after truth"; Andrei Bolkonsky, a landowner/soldier. Two survive, one dies. They all do unpleasant things and yet we like, respect, understand them.

Is it long? well, I asked for it for Christmas two and half years ago and am now finishing it! Is it worth it? absolutely!

Here's a color photo of Tolstoy:

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Location:Edgemeer Pl,Oberlin,United States


Tammela said...

I loved the Constance Garnett translation off ANNA KARENINA that I read last summer. Now I'm tackling Goethe's FAUST (for shame I've never read it, as it informs so much 19th-century music). One day I'll read it in German.

Anonymous said...

Well, Dr. Jones (whom I knew at University School as "Nick"), I too finished "War and Peace" not long ago (in the Garnett translation) and concur with your judgment. I can't refrain from mentioning the digressions on the philosophy of history: Tolstoy overdoes it when he expatiates on his meta-historical ideas, and I doubt that I'm the only reader who was, eventually, bored.

DeanB said...

Love that Leo-nine beard in the photo