Lev Nikolayevitch is everywhere at the moment. With a new television adaptation of War and Peace on the BBC, Andrew Davies has once again served a literary giant up on a plate in the form of a sumptuous and readily digestible feast. And this is a feast to which all are invited, from lifelong lovers of Tolstoy’s fiction to those looking merely for a replacement for the tedium of Downton Abbey. In my case, it spurred me on to my second reading of the great novel, some forty years since I last read my way through its 1200 plus pages. On that first reading, I revelled in the love stories and vivid portraits of its infuriating protagonists, skipped and skimmed through the battle sections and earnestly pondered Tolstoy’s philosophical musings. I remembered the arc of the relationships between the various lovers, but retained virtually no historical detail. Until a few weeks ago, I couldn’t have told you anything about the Battles of Austerlitz and Borodino and although I had never forgotten the burning of Atlanta in that other, somewhat less prestigious epic, the spectacle of Moscow burning had vanished from my head.
My first problem this time around was which version to go for. Last time there was little choice and I probably read the Constance Garnett version, unaware of the unorthodox nature of her translation methods: she was reputedly quite cavalier with the text, making it up or skipping passages when she didn’t understand and paraphrasing freely. Mind you, the great Scott-Moncrieff, translator of Proust, was similarly idiosyncratic, preferring to have passages read aloud to him while he listened with eyes closed before creating his own version of the text. This time I was spoiled for choice, but needed to have three conditions satisfied: the long French passages had to be intact, the Russian names, with their all their variations, had to be unadulterated, and the prose had to sing for me. I found all this in the impressive Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky translation, published in 2007 by Vintage books, a handsome but weighty volume of 1273 pages.
But now I was faced with the problem of how to manipulate this hefty tome. I’m a slatternly reader: the more I like a book, the more I maul and manhandle it. I read in bed, on the tube, on the bus. The book must be portable, but I simply could not entertain the notion of reading War and Peace on my e reader. I am wedded to the physicality of the book I’m reading, I need to flip backwards and forwards through the text and feel the object mould to my hands as I absorb its pages. The obvious solution was to cut the book into four. Book fetishists may howl and lament at the thought of such violence, but it was a simple and neat solution. A Stanley knife and a few judiciously placed strips of sellotape, with the addition of makeshift covers crafted from last year’s wall calendar (an image of a windswept Northumbrian landscape for Volume IV) gave me four slim portable volumes. I had also been tempted by the Maude translation, the “official BBC tie-in” for the current adaptation, but had rejected it for its lack of French passages. I downloaded it onto my reading device to use during those early morning waking hours when turning on the light was not an option.
And as for the great work itself, I was every bit absorbed this time as I had been in my youthful reading all those years ago. Those who are daunted by this massive novel should take heart. It reads smoothly and easily, the characters’ lives are irresistibly flawed, and the long descriptive passages lead the twenty-first century reader effortlessly into the world of Napoleonic wars and Russian high society. People fall in and out of love, quarrel with their parents, fall prey to their desires and foolish instincts and generally display all the human frailties one looks for in fictional worlds. This time around, I read most of the battle scenes, admiring Tolstoy’s ability to lay bare the hubris of soldierly heroism and to create on the page the kind of scenes we are so used to seeing conjured up for us on screens. Aging, one-eyed Kutuzov, the world-weary general of the Russian forces, has seen it all before. Napoleon appears frequently but remains a remote figure. Prince Andrei contemplates the beauty of the sky as he lies injured on the battlefield, and the two Rostov brothers both fling themselves naively into the fray, with all the wrong-headed ardour of the young.
But it is the soap opera of the various love stories that really gripped me and kept me going through the battle scenes, knowing that somewhere into one of those long passages, Pierre, Andrei or Nikolai would slip almost unnoticed and give a nudge to the stories I was really interested in. What would happen to them? Would their various amorous longings ever bring them happiness? What would be the fate of their families in all this turmoil? Who would weather the storms and who would be left irreparably damaged? The main characters sprang off the pages as they had before, and I felt for the time I was immersed in the novel that these people were as much alive as my own friends and family.
Of course, the great work is not without its weaknesses. Our heroes ponder the big questions, musing on freedom and necessity, life and death, good and evil. But Tolstoy must go further: he can’t resist the urge to hold forth. Long digressions on the causes of historical events, freemasonry, and much else left me feeling that the grand old man of Russian literature needed a good editor. I loved the lengthy passage given over to the exodus from Moscow, to a wolf-hunting party, and even to the gorier of the battle scenes, but I was utterly defeated by Part II of the Epilogue with its forty pages of portentous pronouncements. What a wretched ending for such a magnificent epic. Did Pevear and Volokhonsky leave it till last or did they tackle it early on to get it out of the way? Whenever they did it, I can’t imagine they found it much fun!
And then there is the thorny problem of Tolstoy’s women characters. Modern feminists, steeped in the notion that literature must provide fully-rounded, strong female protagonists, can only blanch in horror upon reading that a “real woman” does not listen “intelligently” to her man’s pronouncements. No, she listens with rapt attention in order to reflect his wisdom back at him. She is a slave to his every need, anticipating his desires and ensuring they are fulfilled in order to leave him free to think and work. Nikolai and Pierre, quite credibly find fulfilment in their family lives and their work. But the female characters, colourful as they are, are so much less convincing. The beautiful, manipulative Hélène is for me, a cartoon character, the archetypal femme fatale who devotes her life to ensnaring innocent men in her web of deception and cruelty. Natasha, the naïve beauty courted by an unending stream of captivated males, irritated me on both readings. By the end of the tale, (spoiler alert here!) she has become a voluptuous earth mother, content to suckle her babes and minister to her man. And then there are the doormats: poor Sonya, pushed aside and condemned to be a drudge in the family of the man she loved so devotedly in her youth; Lise, the “little princess”, ill-treated by her husband and conveniently despatched in childbirth; and pious Princess Marya who manages quite miraculously to find love while simultaneously bailing out the impoverished Rostov family. No wonder I loved Jane Eyre so much.
But this is mere carping. I’ll still be thinking about this world dreamed up by Lev Nikolayevitch for quite some time. Pevear, Volokhonsky and Andrew Davies have done us all a great favour. Tolstoy devoted five years of “ceaseless and exclusive labour” to writing War and Peace. I for one am glad he did.