War and Peace

By Michael Dirda
Sunday, October 28, 2007


By Leo Tolstoy

Translated from the Russian

By Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

Knopf. 1,273 pp. $37

In sweep, grandeur and carnage, War and Peace calls to mind the greatest cinematic epics -- "Gone with the Wind," "Lawrence of Arabia," "Dr. Zhivago." The novel takes place against the backdrop of Napoleon's military operations in Europe between, roughly, 1805 and 1812. Tolstoy takes us onto the field at Austerlitz, through the battle of Borodino, to the burning of Moscow and, finally, into the midst of the retreating Grande Arm¿e, worn out by the Russian winter and increasingly picked at by Cossack commando raids. The descriptions of soldiers and battles should satisfy even the most strategic-minded student of Napoleon's campaigns. In these pages men march toward their death with faces "fearful and merry." 192

Still, the alternating scenes "back home" are even more true to the civilian experience of war: Life goes on largely unchanged -- until sons, brothers and lovers begin to be wounded or killed:

"The enemy could already be seen ahead. Suddenly, something lashed at the squadron as if with a broad besom. Rostov raised his sword, preparing to strike, but just then the soldier Nikitenko galloped past, leaving him behind, and Rostov felt, as in a dream, that he was still racing on with unnatural speed and at the same time was staying in place. . . .

" 'What is it? I'm not moving ahead! I've fallen. I've been killed. . . . ' Rostov asked and answered at the same moment. He was now alone in the middle of the field. Instead of moving horses and hussar's backs, he saw the immobile earth and stubble around him. There was warm blood under him. . ."

At some point in their lives, Some day, nearly all serious readers say to themselves, I really should sit down and start War and Peace. For many of us, though, that day never quite comes. After all, the book is enormously long: Some editions take up two, three or even four volumes. Those confined to one, like this new Knopf translation, possess the heft and appearance of small cinder blocks: With the right mortar, you could lay foundations with them. What's more, the book's extensive action embraces multiple storylines, three generations, and half of Europe; and, as the pages mount up, Tolstoy repeatedly theorizes at tedious length about the nature of history. Even the characters names can be confusing--at one point a man named Kuragin courts a young woman named Karagin. Still, for many readers the book's most off-putting element is probably its reputation: It's not just a novel, it's, well, it's . . . War and Peace.

But a fine new translation, especially one by the widely acclaimed team of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, offers an opportunity to see this great classic afresh, to approach it not as a monument (or mausoleum) but rather as a deeply touching story about our contradictory human hearts. 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 I n 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 fianc¿, the noble-minded Andrei Bolkonsky.

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