Monday, October 29, 2007

Tolstoy Revisited

Michael Dirda of The Washington Post discusses the new translation of Tolstoy's masterwork, War and Peace. It is a novel which I read in preparation to write Madame Royale, since the same era is covered. According to Anne Edwards' biography Sonya, Tolstoy's wife edited the work for him; she is responsible for pulling all the characters and events together. Dirda says:
Stressing that their War and Peace sticks more closely to the Russian text than any other, including Louise and Aylmer Maude's semi-canonical 1923 version, Pevear and Volokhonsky retain the considerable amount of French used by Tolstoy's counts and princesses, preserve the author's penchant for word repetition and aim to match his tidy syntactic conciseness. The result certainly reads smoothly, its English being neither egregiously contemporary nor inappropriately old-fashioned. In this respect, the Pevear-Volokhonsky War and Peace joins company with recent translations of The Tale of Genji, Don Quixote and In Search of Lost Time, these being among the few works of classic fiction equal to Tolstoy's in scope and richness. Given so capacious and generous a masterpiece, it's simply impossible to do more than offer -- with due humility at how much is being overlooked -- a few introductory propositions for the would-be reader.

Nearly every man and woman in War and Peace is deeply flawed, and will make at least one truly terrible mistake in his or her life. This may be an epic, but there are no larger-than-life heroes in it. The main character, Pierre Bezukhov, is illegitimate, clumsy, naive, absent-minded and fat. He has red hands and wears glasses. The exuberant, impulsive Natasha Rostov, the principal heroine, eventually settles down as Tolstoy's ideal woman, but not before her unnaturally repressed libido wrecks her own happiness and that of her fiance, the noble-minded Andrei Bolkonsky.

Minor characters tend to be unconsciously corrupt or simply depraved. Boris Drubetskoy starts off as a charming young man and turns into an ambitious, calculating trimmer, always looking out for his advancement. Though the Countess Helene Bezukhov is promiscuous and stupid, her beauty ensures that the world finds her profoundly witty. The gorgeous Helene knows that her smile can reduce all male arguments to nonsense. Salons and drawing rooms reveal the French-speaking Russian aristocracy as venal, unctuous and self-important.

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4 comments:

alaughland said...

Truly a masterpiece. When I was about 18 I decided that to be an educated person one had to read all the Russian literary masterworks. I found that they had a way of bringing all their characters to life in an unimpassioned way, yet the tension and passion in these characters boiled beneath the surface of the novel. They all seemed to have this in common.

elena maria vidal said...

Yes, people joke about it because it is so lengthy, but it is an enjoyable novel nevertheless....

elisa said...

I've read this book too. You do need a scorecard of people throughout the novel!
I'd like to see the movie and I understand it's long!

elena maria vidal said...

The film with Audrey Hepburn is good and not so long.