Do I Have a Crystal Ball? The Tolstoy Renaissance

War and Peace in my bike helmet on a summer’s ride.

There is a Tolstoy Renaissance this summer.

How do I know? Hundreds of (probably idle) internet surfers and (possibly)  Tolstoy fans have visited my posts on Anna Karenina and War and Peace.

I’m not surprised.  Tolstoy is the consummate entertainer.  He is to some of us what Jane Austen is to the hundreds of thousands of readers who participated in  the death bicentenary Lollapalooza.  I fall into Tolstoy’s novels as if I am listening to a  Grateful Dead song.  His books are absorbing Oscar-winning movies or popcorn reads. I come up for air hundreds of pages later,  concerned about Nicholas Rostov”s military exploits,  or Marya Bolkonsky’s attempts to  persuade her servants to move her beyond Moscow as Napoleon approaches.

My husband holds Tolstoy responsible for my back problems.  “Have you considered the e-book?” he asks when I sit down every New Year’s Day for my annual rereading of War and Peace.

“I’m reading the first hundred pages in the Constance Garnett, the second hundred in the Pevear and Volokhonsky, the third in the Anthony Briggs, the fourth in the Rosemary Edmonds, and the rest in the Maude.”

And so every year you will find me wilting under the weight of my huge Penguins, Oxfords, Modern Library editions, Yale, Folio Society, Vintage classics, and Heritage Press editions.

A recent addition to my Anna K collection, the Vintage Russian Classics Series edition (Maude translation)

Mind you, I don’t criticize Tolstoy at my posts. I don’t even summarize (the blogger’s curse: it’s easy, so we do it).   No, I like to keep it light: my most popular Tolstoy posts this summer are (1)  “Translations of Anna Karenina: Constance Garnett, Maude, or Pevear & Volokhonsky?” and (2) “The War and Peace Collection.’

And I must admit these enthusiastic posts make me laugh!

From the pop AK post:

I collect editions of Anna Karenina the way a friend collects Bakelite bracelets. At the moment I have five, one of them a glitzy Folio Society edition. I have four different translations, but my favorite is Aylmer and Louise Maude’s, the translation approved by Tolstoy–and get it while you can, because Everyman and Dover are now its only print publishers, I think. (You can also find the Maude in a used Oxford World Classics edition, but beware, the 2016 paperback has a new translation by Rosamund Bartlett.)

Frontispiece of the Folio Society edition, 1997 reprint of Edmonds translation

My most popular W&P post is exuberant.

I reread War and Peace every year.

I started reading it again on New Year’s Day and just finished it a few hours ago.

And now I’m ready to start again.

No, Kat, you cannot!

But War and Peace says everything, no?  Why read anything else?  The translator Rosemary Edmonds wrote,  “War and Peace is a hymn to life.  It is the Iliad and the Odyssey of Russia.  Its message is that the only fundamental obligation of man is to be in tune with life.”

The Maude translation.

Last January, during my annual rereading of W&P,  I claimed the translation by Louise and Alymer Maude is my favorite. (It is by far the most graceful.)  In another post I chat about the virtues of the Anthony Briggs translation.  (Also very good.)

In my favorite W&P post, “Not Quite Writing about War and Peace,” I admit that I used to identify with Pierre.

When I first read WAP many years ago, I identified with Pierre, because as a young woman I talked very seriously at parties. When I read the first chapter, where poor Anna Pavlovna Scherer, a maid of honour of the empress, tries to interrupt Pierre in his earnest conversations and  get  him to chat more lightly with the groups, I had to laugh.

And then I explain why Princess Marya Bolkonsky is now my favorite character.

These days I am a little weary of Pierre, especially during the Freemason scenes.  And so this reading, for the first time ever, I identify with Princess Marya Bolkonsky, who was based on Tolstoy’s mother.  It’s not that she and I are alike, because that isn’t quite how fiction readers identify:  it’s more that I understand why she is the way she is, and why I am the way I am.  She is not socially graceful, like Tolstoy’s more sympathetic heroine, Natasha, who sings, dances, and chatters happily until she goes though a love-related depression.

Marya grows up in a serious household of intellectual men, and doesn’t think about marriage, living in the country as she does.  Her raging father makes her do math and practice piano every day.  He intimidates her, though she loves and respects him.  She is deeply religious, almost Zen (well, Christian!) in her refusal to judge others, and is also very kind to the hangers-on who live with them, like her companion, Mlle. Bourrienne.

The good news:  I never met a translation of Tolstoy I didn’t like.   Warning:  you will not understand W&P unless your edition has notes.

The best translator?  I agree with Mona Simpson, who said in her review of Anthony Briggs’ translation in 2006 at The Atlantic that Briggs manages to do something new but she still prefers the Maude.

And yet, if it is a bilingual novel (it certainly is a novel about a bilingual culture), the previous translations don’t convey that as definitely and easily as this one does. Briggs has developed a swingy, natural way of describing how characters go from French to Russian, depending on the circumstances, and he comments on the tone of their French, using the quality of their language as another way of suggesting qualities of character.

That being said, I still prefer the Maudes’ translation. But either way, Tolstoy is one of the most translation-proof writers, because his originality lies not in language (at least not for the reader in English; in all the available translations it’s fairly standard), nor in theme (he sticks to the big-ticket eternals: Life, Death, Love), but in character and in the intricacy and contrapuntal symmetry of his plots.

Are you reading Tolstoy this summer?  Is it going well?  Any speed bumps?

18 thoughts on “Do I Have a Crystal Ball? The Tolstoy Renaissance

  1. My mother bought me that Signet edition when I was a teenager! I still have it. It has a red carnation pressed in it from my Sweet Sixteen.

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  2. Who doesn’t love Tolstoy? Actually, I have a complicated relationship with him :). Interesting to hear about the Briggs translation, and of course Tolstoy, like other 19th-century Russian writers, brings up the issue of what language was he writing in anyway. By his time Russian probably could be considered his native language, but most of his characters were really thinking and writing in French.

    I recently read the P&V translation of WAP, which I also have a complicated relationship with, and which has come under fire, so I’d be interested in other people’s impressions. It’s not “smooth,” but it is very much like reading it in the original.

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    • Elena, thank God! Someone who knows Russian!
      I always like P&V, but Janet Malcolm seems to think they are barely heeding the laws of syntax. I’m not sure they needed to keep every line of French on the page–I only read the translations in the footnotes– but I like the idea of it. Fascinating that they ARE close to the Russian.
      Briggs translates ALL the French. He is a good writer, but not elegant.
      Mona Simpson and I probably grew up reading the Maude, so nothing else seems quite right…

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      • I actually like P&V’s translations. They tend to stick extremely close to the original, and while reading W&P the English text was so close that I could often back-translate back into the Russian. Lots of people criticize them for that, though, and argue that they’re just translating word-for-word without conveying the “flavor” of the text. That opens up a whole argument about what the “flavor” of the text is, but anyway…I have to admit I also find the French to be pretty heavy going, and jumping back and forth between the main text and the footnotes was a drag.

        My other issue with the P&V version that I just read–and this has nothing to do with them–was that it was all in one volume. I actually strained a muscle in my chest holding it up! A multi-volume set is much easier to deal with as a physical object.

        Totally agree about the first version you encounter being the one that “sounds right.” And in general I often enjoy the older translations, especially Constance Garnett’s. She’s also a controversial translator, but I tend to like how natural her translations sound.

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        • Oh, I know what you mean about the one-volume big books! They are very pretty, but the mega-trade paperbacks are meant for people who sit up straight at the dining room table while reading. The Briggs in the Penguin Deluxe edition may even be more enormous than the P&V. In fact, I finally gave it away, even though I liked it.

          I am fascinated by the many details you consider about the translations. When you know a language, the experience is so very, very different. Many translations of the Latin poetry I read have so little relation to the original that I despair, but I could not do better!

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          • I had an excellent teacher for my graduate seminar in translation, who made us go through the humbling experience of critiquing other people’s translations and then attempting our own. As he told us repeatedly, it’s easy to play gotcha, but it’s a lot harder to do a good job yourself! For example, I also loathe the idea of translating Prince Andrei as Andrew, but people always whine about Russian names. I’m unsympathetic (of COURSE it’s obvious that Sasha, Sanya, Shura, and Shurik are all the same person as Aleksandr Aleksandrovich, also known as Sidorov)–until I try dealing, say, Japanese names. If you’re not familiar with a language’s naming system, keeping track of people is a major hassle, and something the translator has to think about.

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            • I have to laugh about the names! I do make lists, and am grateful for character lists in Russian novels. Was fascinated by this translation talk, because reading in the original of the language is always a different experience.

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  3. I’m getting on well so far – loving the Edmonds translation and *very* tempted by the picture of your Folio edition. I would have loved the Maudes too, if I’d been able to live with the concept of Prince Andrew…. But I agree that it’s the plot and the characters and the actions that keep us going. And I see what you mean about Pierre – the Freemason stuff I’ve come across so far is a bit silly and he’s so impractical that it annoys me!

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  4. I’m so much wishing to pick up my new P&V translation of War and Peace, but my arms are still suffering from holding up The Forsyte Saga. I did read some Tolstoy short stories this summer, including The Death of Ivan Ilych.

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  5. What surprises me most is all those discussions about the best translation. Ok, so I read most of Russian literature in Dutch, where there is not much choice, but all the major writers are expertly translated and beautifully published by the same book publisher. But it seems to me sometimes that the English / American reader is so spoiled for choice that they forget about the beautiful story that they’re reading and get lost in silly details. Of course the old Maude translation reads differently than the modern P&V translation. Stop fussing and get reading, people, like Kat says, all translations have their merits! 😊

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    • I We seem to have a Tolstoy industry in the U.S. and UK. I like all the translations and am so Tolstoy-crazy that I have collected many editions (some with illustrations. Really, You’re right: a person only needs one! Even the critics often ask if we need so many, many translations of AK &WP.

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