Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” in 2010

Peaver and Volokhonsky translation published October 2007

It’s time to fess up to that which I’ve ignored or procrastinated this past year and make a literary New Year’s resolution.

The first day of a new year presents a blank page for a fresh start. As all writers know, though, you can begin the same story over and over again on a blank  new page, but continuing it onto the second page and beyond is the hardest part. April 1st, the Fool’s Day, should be designated as the official checkpoint for the status of New Year’s resolutions. We’ll see on that day where I stand with my resolution to read Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace in 2010.

In the summer of 2008, I bought the highly praised Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky translation of this Russian classic intending to dig in for the long haul of reading.  What sets the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation apart is their absolute fidelity to Tolstoy’s use of language, including syntax and his tendency to repeat words.  Other translators have edited Tolstoy’s repetitiveness. Pevear and Volokhonsky preserve it. 

Also,  Tolstoy wrote some of the story in French. Pevear and Volokhonsky are the first and only translators to keep intact all the French passages, according to Orlando Figes in The New York Review of Books (11.22.07).  Figes writes, “Overall, about 2 percent of the book is in French — itself almost enough to make up a short novel — about ten French words for every page. In the original (1868 – 1869) edition Tolstoy translated the foreign passages into Russian in footnotes, but in the revised 1873 edition he cut out all the French (‘I think it is better without it,’ he wrote to the critic Nikolai Strakhov), only to restore it in the later editions.”

All in all, reading Peaver and Volokhonosky means reading an edition that’s as close as one can get to Tolstoy’s original Russian creation, but I barely dented the 1,500 pages before putting their translation aside.  The problem was the French. Even though I studied French for 10 years in high school and college, and off and on in my adult life with a tutor, the passages became interruptions to the story’s flow.  I decided to read the Louise and Aylmer Maude translation, written in the 1920s and still considered to be one of the best.  (No long French passages. More comfortable translation.)  I looked for The Maude in used bookstores and finally found it in the spring of 2009. I promised myself I’d read it this past summer, but I didn’t keep that promise.  Let’s see if I keep it in 2010.

3 thoughts on “Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” in 2010

  1. Kassie
    I read War and Peace years ago and guess what? I don’t remember a thing about it. What little I know of the plot I get from Prokofiev’s opera of the same title but for all I call Anna Karenina my desert island book, W/P made no impression. My problem obviously. I’m tempted to join you in this new year’s resolution. I’d probably be okay with the French-though it might get on my nerves. I’ve been reading “Daniel Deronda” slowly but steadily each morning on the Precor at the gym and I’m almost there! Not skinnier but damned well read.
    I’m working on our Jan show and will have the date for you, I think Jan 29-soon. Merry Happy. CP


  2. That would be great if you joined me. BTW, it all started with Eric French, who mentioned to me he was going to read War and Peace and I said I’d join him! He was going to read 50 pages a night, and then he bailed before me. We can chat about W/P on the show. I, too, love Anna Karenina.


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