Monday, February 22, 2016

Something Old

 Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.

 “WAR AND PEACE” by Leo Tolstoy (first published in 1869; many English language translations)

I’m a firm believer in the notion that the conditions in which you read a book greatly influence the way you respond to the book. And part of those conditions must be the edition of the book you read.
I have tackled Tolstoy’s War and Peace twice in my life, and both times in the same translation – indeed both times reading the same volumes that still sit on my shelf. They are a well-preserved three-volume Everyman’s Library edition which was, according to the publishing history on the reverse of the title page “last reprinted in 1949”. I bought it from a second-hand bookshop when I was a student, and that must have been quite a few years ago, as the pencilled price on the flyleaf tells me that I paid only $1:50 for all three volumes. I used to believe that this was the translation by Louise and Aylmer Maude, as it was their (1920s) translation that the Everyman’s people later used when they reissued the novel. In fact, looking closely at the introductory matter in the first volume, I discover that my three volumes are an anonymous translation made way back in 1886, but “revised” (also anonymously) in 1932, when some passages omitted by the 1886 translator were restored.
Now hereby hang many, many tales. As anyone who has read a translation of a canonical Great Book will know, there are always many competing translations and there are always scholarly quarrels at to which translation is the best, the least error-filled, the most euphonious, the most faithful to the original author’s style and intentions. Often these quarrels are advantageous to new translators, who are trying to promote their wares – but even so, I have often come to understand that the earliest translations into English are usually the most error-filled. This is very perturbing to me. I do not want to believe that the 1260 pages of the 1886 English text, which I have twice marched through, are a defective text. Indeed, I refuse to believe that I have not actually read Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Yet I am aware that this is a translation that rigorously Anglicises all proper names. Count Pyotr Bezukhov becomes Peter Bezukhow, Prince Andrei Bolkonsky is Andrew Bolkonsky, Countess Natalya Rostova is Natacha Rostow and her brother Count Nikolai Rostov is Nicholas Rostow. So I have twice read a novel about Peter, Andrew, Natacha and Nicholas rather than Pyotr, Andrei, Natalya and Nikolai. I suppose, cumulatively, it does alter the way one sees these Russian characters.
It would be rude, foolish and presumptuous of me to start giving you a plot-summary of this novel, especially as you have probably got the gist of it either from your own reading or from one of the many film and television versions that have been made from it. From 1804 to the 1820s, we follow the reactions of a select group of Russian characters to both personal and great public events – notably Napoleon’s invasion of Russia.
I will content myself with reproducing the hasty reaction I scribbled out in my reading diary after my second encounter with the novel.
I noted first the sheer skill of the novel as a piece of storytelling. The personal and the historical combine and become interdependent. I was interested to find, especially in the first volume, that many of the most memorable episodes were based on a savage and witty social comedy (or social satire?) that I had not expected in an author whose work is most often described as “epic”. There are the political twitterings in the drawing rooms of St Petersburg and Moscow in 1805 (their fatuity later contrasted with the disaster that overwhelms Russia). There are the unseemly scramblings over the old Count Bezukhow’s will; the manoeuvres of Prince Basil (i.e. Vassily) as he contrives to have Peter marry his daughter Helen; and Maria Bolkonsky’s failed courtship.
Then there are the historical events, where Tolstoy’s god-like omniscience is

contrasted with the limited knowledge that any character caught up in the novel’s events can possibly have. Thus we have both Andrew Bolkonsky and Nicholas Rostow at the Battle of Austerlitz only half understanding what is happening, and Andrew, in his brief vision of peace, realizing that ultimate truth must lie outside the conflicting reports of which all historical records are made. In the fiercely satirical scenes where the Peace of Tilsit is negotiated between the French and the Russians, there is Nicholas Rostow’s half-articulated desperation, and his confusion that the tsar can be so easily bested and compromised. [This prepares us for the heavily authoritarian views Nicholas holds by the end of the novel – he is a man who cannot live with uncertainties.] The most vivid use of the “partial view” – the limited view of one individual – comes in Peter Bezukhow’s view of the Battle of Borodino, where the cannonades and attacks become a swirling confusion. Similarly, Napoleon’s capture of Moscow is dramatized first in the absurd demands that Count Rostopchine makes upon the city’s inhabitants, and then in his own callous desertion of the city. In so many cases we follow momentous events through the eyes of someone we know has only a very limited view. Cumulatively, this reinforces Tolstoy’s philosophy of human beings as subject to historical necessity.
Some moments in this great novel I found murky – or simply uninteresting. Natacha’s abortive elopement with Anatole merely tells us what we already know – that she is at this stage an immature young woman. The attraction of Nicholas and Sonia seems without conviction. Only one episode in the novel, however, strikes me as melodrama. It is too neat and convenient that Peter’s wife Helen happens to die when she does – after Andrew is dead and at such a time that the scrupulous Peter is thus left free to marry Natacha. Oddly, I did not find one of the novel’s most iconic episodes melodramatic at all. After the Anatole episode, Natacha’s return to, and nursing of, the wounded Prince Andrew is well prepared-for with the confusions of the household trying to escape Moscow and with Sonia’s eagerness to reunite Natacha with Andrew.
It is one special strength of the novel that the lives of three separate families (and especially of Peter, Andrew and Nicholas) all assume equal interest and importance. There is never the irritating sense (as is sometimes the cases in Dickens) that one is being diverted away from the novel’s major concerns and into a “subplot”. Each of the three households is essential to the overall interest and design of the novel, even if Peter ultimately seems a more complex character than either Andrew or Nicholas. Perhaps it is for his structural control, rather than for his depiction of momentous events, that Tolstoy deserves the name of “epic” novelist. In the mass of characters who are introduced, the design of the novel is never lost. Nearly every character contributes a new and interesting perspective to the historical situation. For example young Petia Rostow’s dreams of military glory, and then his sudden death, are necessary to depict the initial naïve patriotic fervour of 1812; but they also counterpoint the life of Nicholas Rostow, whose military career starts with similar fervour but ends quite differently.
There is one matter which troubles me, however. Are Tolstoy’s women entirely believable? Certainly their husbands are men of firm character, but do Maria and Natacha have to so completely submit to their husbands’ wills in the novel’s denouement? Both seemed to have more independent spirit than they finally display. Or was this in tune with Tolstoy’s odd views on marriage?
We let a writer of genius have his eccentricities and peculiarities of style. I am not at all worried that Tolstoy has some favourite metaphors that he repeats often and often. He loves comparing human society with a beehive, and he frequently has variations on the image of a frustrated leader “raging like a child who beats his hand against the floor which has hurt him.” Somehow these repetitions, like the novels interlocking family concerns, make the novel’s rhetoric tough and forceful.
Now what of that matter which deters so many readers of War and Peace? Tolstoy interlaces his narrative with historical and philosophical lectures, delivered in direct address to the reader. This is especially true in the last volume and after the campaign of 1812 is underway. I am the sort of eccentric reader who actually enjoys the self-contained lectures, essays and homilies that appear in novels by George Eliot, Henry Fielding and (in chitter-chatter form) Thackeray. Tolstoy’s lectures therefore did not upset me. Indeed I find, looking back through my three volumes of War and Peace, that I have often marked the lectures marginally to highlight their importance.
In some respects Tolstoy’s expressed philosophy of history altered the views I had before I first read this novel. For the first time I saw Napoleon, Murat and the others as a real menace rather than as picturesque figures from the distant past. This is as much a matter of Tolstoy’s commentary as of the historical events that are depicted – the tragic account of the Grande Armee’s winter retreat and dispersal. As Tolstoy presents him, there is something fatuous in Napoleon, who cannot see that many of his own actions are sheer play-acting, and that he himself is not in control of the direction of history. This is particularly true in the novel’s episode of Napoleon displaying his nephew’s portrait as if this is a security of his dynasty’s future.
Yet there is another strain in this novel that I find harder to accept. Tolstoy does not gloss over the confusions and petty rivalries within the Russian camp (particularly at the beginning of Book 10), but he does ask us to admire Koutouzow’s military waiting game – the Fabian tactic – much more than I am inclined to do. At certain points, this novel is, after all, the great hymn to Russian national feeling, and this motif does become oppressive – perhaps because subsequent history tells us that Russia has never found a higher unifying ideal than national chauvinism.
There is another matter, too. Directing his spleen (justifiably) at Napoleon, Tolstoy sets out to damn the “Great Man” theory of history by showing us that the force that moves history is beyond any individual’s control. In the process, however, he also damns any “progressive” view of history. He is on the side of deep-rooted national feeling – not of schemes to better the lot of humanity. Now I could happily join in any discussion on the shortcomings of Western European “Enlightenment” thought, and its nonsensical ideas of human perfectibility. Even so, I do not think Tolstoy depicts such ideas accurately or gives them a fair hearing. In the character of Peter Bezukhov, we are given one who becomes disillusioned in romantic illusions, in the illusions of class and in the silly clannishness of Freemasonry – but Tolstoy appears to believe that these represent the sum of modern Western European thought. In this he was, of course, quite wrong.
And yet this is a novel filled with such a wealth of insight into human behaviour that it is probably blasphemous of me to raise these objections.
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There now. That is how I skewered War and Peace in my reading diaries after I had given the great novel two readings. It remains to add that I am obviously no expert on Tolstoy (1828-1910). Apart from War and Peace, I have read his odd religious novel Resurrection, the Master and Man parables and his tales of military life in Sevastopol. But (despite having seen Greta Garbo, Vivien Leigh and various other actresses performing in the role) I have never made my way through what is regarded as Tolstoy’s other great masterpiece, Anna Karenina. I began reading it some years ago, got sidetracked by other things, and never resumed it. For this I am occasionally rebuked by a very good woman I know who tells me that Anna Karenina is her favourite novel and that she re-reads it every year. I must get back to it some day, as it hangs over me accusingly like four or five other Great Canonical Novels that I have never cracked.
There is another point worth making. Probably like some readers of this blog, I had seen two detailed film versions of War and Peace, and one long TV serial version, before I ever read the novel itself. This does influence the way one reads a novel, no matter how much one tries to resist such influence. In some part of my brain Prince Andrew / Andrei will always be Mel Ferrer, and Natalya / /Natacha will always be Audrey Hepburn in King Vidor’s 1956 three-and-a-half-hour compression of the novel. As for Peter / Pyotr / Pierre, he can be either Henry Fonda in the 1956 movie, or the more meditative Anthony Hopkins in the BBC’s 1972 TV series. From King Vidor’s film, I particularly remember the scene of Henry Fonda standing on a hillside and shaking his rhetorical fist at the invading French armies, shouting “Damn you, Napoleon!” The implication is that this Russian intellectual thinks Napoleon has betrayed the liberal ideals of the French Revolution in becoming a dictator and conqueror. Perhaps this influenced my view that Peter / Pyotr / Pierre was intended to represent liberal Western European ideas facing their betrayal. This interpretation is not really sustained by the novel itself.
The other film version I saw was Sergei Bondarchuk’s mammoth 4-part, eight-and-a-half-hour-long Russian War and Peace, filmed in 1965-67 and the most expensive film ever made in Soviet Russia (huge contingents of the Red Army played the masses of French and Russian troops). This film – shown in separate parts both in Russia and internationally – is sometimes taken to be the definitive version. Certainly its spectacle is impressive, it was honoured with an Academy Award and it is not to be sneezed at. But (mea culpa!) I found much of it overblown and confusing, and its key characters not particularly memorable. There is an interesting backstory to this. King Vidor’s 1956 Italian-American co-production was actually released in the Soviet Union in 1959 and proved to be immensely popular with Russian audiences. The huge Bondarchuk version was consciously undertaken to show that Russia itself could do better at Tolstoy than Hollywood could. It too was immensely popular in Russia. But it’s a point of interest that many younger Russian critics said they preferred the King Vidor version. They said that real cinema requires dramatic compression and that three-and-a-half hours made for better cinema than an eight-and-a-half hour version which tried to film the novel literally. I think they were right. Though made for the cinema, Bondarchuk’s film has the ploddingness of a long TV adaptation.

Silly Francophile Footnote: By the way, for the honour of French literature, I feel bound to point out that Tolstoy’s view of Napoleon as a fatuous role-playing charlatan was anticipated by a French writer. In his Servitude et Grandeur Militaires, published in 1835 (over thirty years before War and Peace), Alfred de Vigny has his wrenching satirical chapter in which Pope Pius VII, imprisoned by Napoleon, has a private conversation with the emperor and quickly diagnoses him as histrionic, role-playing and an historical mountebank. Tolstoy goes no further.


  1. Have you discovered yet who did the 1886 translation?