One of the first things I noticed that people do when they discover you are reading War & Peace is to inquire which version it is. This seems to be a very important question because everyone has a favorite translation, and it would take the cannons of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture to blast them out of the stronghold of their opinion on which version is best. Having only read the Pevear and Volokhonsky (henceforth P & V), I must admit that I am not, at this time, qualified to give an opinion on the superiority of one translation over another. I am, however, going to give my opinion on the novel as a whole.
This was my first experience with Tolstoy, and I went into the reading with certain expectations. Perhaps those expectations, which were rather high, diminished the novel for me. I was excited at the prospect of reading a classic Russian author for the first time (an event which had been put off for over a year due to the relocation of the classic literature book group I attend), and even more thrilled to be reading the P & V translation per the recommendation of the book group facilitator. The P & V, if not the newest then at least among the newest Russian to English translations, had been hailed by one article in particular as trumping all that came before.
I’ve read many articles and blog posts since purchasing my P & V copy, and if they’re not touting the reasons why the translation they’ve put forward is best, they’re at least pointing out the best qualities of most of the versions out there. I’m tempted to read the Garnett, Maude, and Briggs translations, but after that I’ll call it quits. I liked War and Peace, but I did not love it.
Somewhere along the way I assumed that a work written by a Russian author would be marvelously passionate, full of brilliant prose, and replete with vivid description. I expected the author of said work to be akin to a male, Russian Jane Austen or Charlotte Brontë. That was not the case.
War and Peace was, as a friend described, an easy, accessible read, and while reading it, my attention remained focused on the story. However, as soon as I set it down to read another, more engaging book, War and Peace became easily forgettable. That did not mean I couldn’t pick it right back up where I left off, but there was no revisiting interesting portions, mulling over well-written passages, or enthusiastically detailing the novel over coffee with a friend. I told only a few people that I was reading the novel and did not comment on it unless a guest happened to notice it on my reading stack. In short, it was often bland to the point of boring.
I laughed aloud at several portions of the story and wondered if Tolstoy was writing a parody of Russian aristocracy. That would have been unexpected and interesting. As I progressed and continued to be underwhelmed, I pondered whether or not P & V’s translation was too literal, and if that was what rendered the story flat and the main characters dull. There was a small reprieve during the middle section where Tolstoy shined a little more light on his characters, but by then it became clear that he could not decide between writing a military history or historical fiction. It appears he chose to do both. The passages did not blend at all. They were patched together haphazardly not unlike when one used a Band-Aid when what he really needed was a sturdy piece of tape. The Band-Aid will hold but not very well.
For this reason, the fictional accounts succumbed to his overbearing and oft-repeated opinion that he alone knew exactly why the war transpired as it did. By the last third of the book, Tolstoy’s belief that more than any French or Russian historian he alone had it right, combined with the war itself, became its own character. As the book neared its conclusion, I gave up any hope that the predictable storylines would end with any satisfaction. In that respect, I was not disappointed.
Any interesting tidbit of writing was bestowed upon the peripheral characters such as Dolokhov, Kuragin, Denisov, Marya Demetrievna, and Mademoiselle Bourienne. Their dialog and actions roused interest in the story, and all too often they were discarded the moment their purpose had been served. For example, I truly thought Pierre would be the character to evoke a response in me. He was, after all, the illegitimate son who inherits everything right out from under those who believe they are more deserving. He should have been the scoundrel, the rogue, the one to upset Natasha and Andrei’s engagement. But no, that was Dolokhov who, although a villain, became the character I loved to hate whereas Pierre bumbled his way through his marriage, the war, and the story in general.
I know there are many people who love War and Peace—who believe it is one of the best works ever written—and to them I say, “God bless you.” I’m truly happy for these people. Unfortunately, many who adore War and Peace cannot say the same when they find out one does not absolutely love it as much as they.
I own two more books by Tolstoy which I do plan on reading. I’ll not allow one mediocre book to entirely sway my opinion against a writer nor will I let it keep me from reading other Russian authors. As with any book I read that has been called a classic, finding out exactly why the book earned this label is always of interest to me. In the case of War and Peace, I wondered if the strength of Tolstoy’s reputation as a writer carried the book into literary prestige.
Although I did not fall in love with War and Peace, I would not discourage anyone from reading it. This review is my opinion, and whether or not you agree with me is irrelevant. What is important is that you decide for yourself which books you will read, and then formulate your own opinion of them.