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.
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.)
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.”
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.