More Furtive Gestures

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

War and Peace
Translated by Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky

It's hard to overstate the case for this translation as being essential. It is also hard to avoid hyperbole in its praise. While it might not be the easiest one to read, Pevear and Volokhonsky (P&V) have succeeded in a virtual recreation, in English, of Tolstoy's masterpiece on many apparent levels, and on some other very subtle ones. Abstruse as some of their resultant syntax might be on occasion, the beauty of this English prose and utter faithfulness to every aspect of Tolstoy's apparent intentions is remarkable and overwhelming. Viewing the work as a vast proem gives ample opportunity for P&V elucidation of the symmetrical structures in the work. From the use of alliterative micro-sentences like "Silence ensued." and "Drops Dripped." to the almost obsessive repetitions of phrases, we can begin to appreciate Toltoy not merely as a narrative genius, but a Miltonic architect and chiastic formalist. The choice of unusual, sometimes haunting words ties chapters together. For example, in the description of a sick, dysfunctional bee-hive, given a chapter's space by Tolstoy, bees are described as being "laden" or "unladen," ("empty") with pollen. When, in the next chapter, looters pillaging the ruined hulk of Moscow's carcass, are described using these identical adjectives, there can be no mistaking Tolstoy's metaphor.

Could it be accidental that the sardonic discussion of the numerological reduction of Napoleon's French title to the cabalistic value 666 (and Pierre's contortions to do the same with his moniker) appears on pages 665 and 666 of this edition?

The use of all the French seems to be a necessary obstacle; the effort to plough through beaucoup de mots français, might, in Tolstoy's Christian ethic, reflect Hopkins's injunction: "Sheer plod makes plow down sillion shine." Tolstoy apparently wanted the French, even if it occludes, as an essential element to his prose. Knowing who speaks French, and when, enhances one's knowledge of a character's rank in society, his or her's inclinations, and reveals much nuance of the dialog. P&V present all of the odd variations of a Russion/French mix: Russians trying to speak French (i.e. incompetently, or ironically), French trying to blunder through Russion; even Denisov's speech impediment is carried over in his occasional mutterings in "Fghrench." Being thorough about the French is also justified in the dramatic structure: When Pierre is captured, at the end of the devastation of Moscow, his humanity reaches out to his captors in French - captors who at their core are painted with sympathy. But, with the sudden scene switch to the comforts of soiree life in St. Petersburg, in a jarring apposition to the privations of Moscow, the casual French dialogue seems especially damning of the frivolity and shallowness of social creatures impervious to Moscow's sacrifice.

Having read both the Dunnigan and the Garnett translations concurrently while reading this one (for months!), I can't imagine not owning and re-reading P&V's definitive edition. Ideally, one can read Dunnigan's easy prose style in Signet's inexpensive book (with the teeny-tiny print), while enjoying the manifold literary dimensions of this breathtaking translation. БРАВО to Mr. Pevear and Ms. Volokhonsky!

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