SURVIVOR: anna karenina (leo tolstoy)*
CHALLENGER: war and peace (leo tolstoy)

reading war and peace is the THUNDERTOME equivalent, i think, of occasioning and blogging a birth story; i'll skip over most of the grand-guignol and/or fairly obvious implications of that analogy and say that strangers were terribly kind to me on the subway for the last few months and i'd think twice about doing it again without drugs.

bearing in mind that i don't speak much russian, you probably don't, either, and discussing the relative merits of various translations can make it awfully difficult to operate heavy machinery, i'll open with a few words about the edition i chose. i went with aylmer and louise maude, the same husband-and-wife team that tackled my edition of anna karenina; both maudes were friends of tolstoy's, aylmer visited his estate several times and eventually became his biographer, and count leo is said to have said that "better translators...could not be invented." the maudes certainly have a leg up on other translators when it comes to biographical footnotes: aylmer pops up all over the place to point out where characters' opinions overlap with tolstoy's own, and where those characters themselves might have counterparts in his family (old count rostov, for example, is ilya andreyevich tolstoy, leo's paternal grandfather). they're also helpful as a general proposition: i myself hadn't noticed that (the fictional) napoleon takes snuff whenever he's upset. cheers, maudes!

there are two big issues with this translation, depending on where you're sitting. as james wood puts it in his admiring new yorker review of richard pevear and larissa volokhonsky's translation of war and peace,
Literary translators tend to divide into what one could call originalists and activists. The former honor the original text’s quiddities, and strive to reproduce them as accurately as possible in the translated language; the latter are less concerned with literal accuracy than with the transposed musical appeal of the new work. Any decent translator must be a bit of both.
wood puts pevear and volokhonsky in the first category and compares them favorably with the maudes, whose activism, he argues, strips tolstoy's language of much of its urgency (that he used the same descriptors over and over is part of his vitality and charm, and so on). at the other end of the spectrum, the australian's peter craven argues that the maudes' activist translation gives their texts a "flow and purr" which glides across the "hideous infelicities" of, you know, translating a crazy language such as russian (no matter whose grammar is on the table, really) into english. he also notes that david foster wallace, for what it's worth, found pevear/volokhonsky "somewhat starchy."** me? i love a good russian quiddity; one of my favorite things about gogol's dead souls, for example, is how the omniscient narrator participates in the story by saving long expository paragraphs for real-time lulls (such as a character descending a staircase). that said, i needed all the help i could get with my first slog through war and peace, and i'm comfortable with the idea that some of tolstoy's language was pre-chewed for me.

the second issue with the maude war and peace is both more superficial and infinitely more serious: the summarizing chapter subtitles spoiled every last plot point. twelve hundred pages of napoleonic wars and narcissistic russian tweens are no joke, team; when a chapter begins with
20. Pierre at the Rostovs'. Natasha again takes up her singing. Sonya reads Alexander's manifesto. Petya declares he will enter the army. Natasha realizes that Pierre loves her. He decides to cease going to the Rostovs'
what's left? i appreciated knowing when to brace myself for a torrent of tolstoy's amateur historiography, but jesus. if you're able to find a maude edition without the spoilers, then, i think it's a solid choice; if not, first-time reader, get thee a patient friend with a fat black marker or find another translation.

right, then. plot! a wise fellow reader*** noted that war and peace is full of "frat boys, man," and it is indeed; the first few books are rampant with overfunded st. petersburg man-boys who get drunk and dangle out of windows, tie a policeman to a bear and dump them in a canal, and so on. the year is 1805, napoleon is charging east, and many of these underoccupied rascals become underoccupied officers in emperor alexander's army. the man-boy pierre bezukhov (the portly, illegitimate son of a fantastically wealthy count) inherits his father's fortune, decides to skip the war, and is instead married to a slippery society woman; he then pursues fraternity of another sort and becomes a freemason (tolstoy's laborious descriptions of the russian masons' initiation ceremonies are war and peace's equivalent of the intricate voting procedures in anna karenina, with masks and swords taking the place of lockboxes and ping pong balls). as napoleon's men near and occupy the towns en route to moscow (and, eventually, moscow itself), pierre wanders among the russian troops and straight through battlefields; though tolstoy starts in on battle scenes at the beginning of the book, it isn't until pierre witnesses the execution of russian prisoners toward its end that we're able to appreciate what's at stake. i admit that i found those chaotic early scenes deeply annoying, but tolstoy knows what he's about; as wood puts it, he's estranging us from what we know of war ("again and again, he reverses the martial tapestry and shoves the clumsy, illegible tufts of thread at us"). the final, intimate bits of violence at the end of the novel, offered from a perspective that's been essentially childlike for a thousand pages or so, made me shiver.

war and peace is also the story of two families. one is the bolkonskis of bald hills, an abusively moody old widower and his sober son (andrew; there's that activist translation for you) and daughter (mary; ditto); according to aylmer maude, prince andrew voices many of tolstoy's feelings about war. he's one of the few officers who seems emotionally invested in the conflict, he delivers a number of nihilistic speeches in the last third of the book as whistling mortars rearrange the scenery he chews, and he appears to be mostly indestructible. in the city, in turn, we meet the rostovs, a good-natured, messily self-indulgent crew on their way out of the upper class thanks to a patriarch and eldest son who can't keep their wallets in their pants. young natasha rostova is probably representative of something irrepressible and joyous about the russian spirit; she's also the humanoid equivalent of total request live, and she terrifies and repulses me (i strongly suspect one of her love interests dies to escape her). war and peace's families heave about much as various families do in anna karenina; tolstoy streamlines their interactions and paces their intrigues more naturally in the latter, however. most of war and peace's domestic plot development takes place in an inelegant rush at the end of the novel, and i was left with the distinct feeling that ol' leo was tossing out a handful of awkward fifth-act marriages to wrap things up and set the stage for his lethal concluding nonfictional discourse on conflicts and history.

on that discourse, i'm aware that looking to tolstoy for coherent historiography is a bit like looking to malcolm gladwell for a bodice-ripper, but ah, my foes, and oh, my friends, its torpid mediocrity is still a shock. quoth wood,
[T]he epilogue concludes not with the fictional narrative but with a final, dragonish blast from the flaming, irritable, essay-writing Tolstoy, eager to put us right about freedom and predestination. “War and Peace” is “not a novel” but a frequently essayistic national epic...
were i a patriotic man of letters with a strong interest in shaping the way future generations understood my century's big-ticket verbs and a fondness for the rhetoric of repetition, i could imagine wanting to describe war in a thousand slightly different ways. as i am but a youngish editor who blogs for personal amusement and is keenly aware that most of her handful of readers feel at the end of THUNDERTOME that they've run a marathon in ice skates, i'll ignore the epilogue and give you a brief moment with napoleon instead.
"Our fire is mowing them down by rows, but still they hold on," said the adjutant.
"They want more!..." said Napoleon in a hoarse voice.
"Sire?" asked the adjutant who had not heard the remark.
"They want more!" croaked Napoleon frowning. "Let them have it!"
Even before he gave that order the thing he did not desire, and for which he gave the order only because he thought it was expected of him, was being done. And he fell back into that artificial realm of imaginary greatness, and again - as a horse walking a treadmill thinks it is doing something for itself - he submissively fulfilled the sad, gloomy, and inhuman role predestined for him.
that's the leo i know and love.

VICTOR: anna karenina. tolstoy had smoother moves once war and peace was under his belt; napoleon in the guts of a novel about families is as unwieldy as the little prince's elephant in a snake. indeed, why is it that big people always need explanations?

imaginary reading group discussion questions

01 have you read war and peace? would you read it again?

02 activism v. originalism: pick a side.

03 have you ever felt you deserved a push present for finishing a book?

04 did you know nine inch nails' "dead souls" from the crow soundtrack was a remake of a joy division b-side? i sure didn't.

05 what would you use to tie a policeman to a bear? assuming you had a good reason for doing so, i mean.

06 why would one need to tie a policeman to a bear?

07 when was the last time a battle scene made you shiver?

08 anna karenina's kitty scherbatsky and war and peace's natasha rostov: which one has a friends-only facebook profile? (not a rhetorical question. they both have facebook profiles.)

09 okay, malcolm gladwell. what's your bodice-ripper called? (no, not the ripping point).

10 why do big people always need explanations?

*previous battle here.

**in "joseph frank's dostoevsky," from consider the lobster.

***if possible, have a wise fellow reader when attempting war and peace. not mine, mind you - i need her as a wing man when i read other things.


Aubergine said...

Q3 - yes, anyone that finishes War and Peace deserves a push present. Perhaps bourbon.

LPC said...

Confession, I find almost anything more accessible than the Russians. I think it's emotional, not language. For example, even Paradise Lost seems like a supermarket book, in comparison. Even Dante. Even Rabelais.

uncle paul said...

Someone I know (who?) said that s/he thought the book does clearly expect you to feel equal interest and affection for Andrei and Pierre as you follow them around; but s/he did get tired of Pierre after a while. How did you feel about Pierre's hapless adventures? I confess they mostly had me cracking up. Especially the numerology.

kidchamp said...

i think i find the french inaccessible for similar reasons; i can read about them (deirdre bair's anais nin biography is fantastic) all day, but reading them has yet to be very pleasurable. 

the russians i do love; my tiny college russian teacher (who always wore black dresses and had the big, satanic laugh of a seven-foot strongman) told fabulous stories of trying to buy levis in moscow and being told she was far too fat for them. also their absurdism is spectacular.

there was no room for this passage in my post, but it was another of my favorites from war and peace:

A Frenchman is self-assured because he regards himself personally, both in mind and body, as irresistibly attractive to men and women. An Englishman is self-assured, as being a citizen of the best-organized state in the world, and therefore as an Englishman always knows what he should do and knows that all he does as an Englishman is undoubtedly correct. An Italian is self-assured because he is excitable and easily forgets himself and other people. A Russian is self-assured just because he knows nothing and does not want to know anything, since he does not believe that anything can be known. The German's self-assurance is worst of all, stronger and more repulsive than any other, because he imagines that he knows the truth--science--which he himself has invented but which is for him the absolute truth.

kidchamp said...

i vacillated between them; pierre's "courtship" of helene was an awful lot like napoleon's horse-on-a-treadmill scene, and i was actually kind of moved. he got kind of candide-y there for awhile, but i did like the way he rolled through borodino (he reminded me of a german friend's blithe teen daughter who stayed with us at some point in the late '90s and strolled about, as my dad noted, as though she were trying to carry a single frozen pea between her butt cheeks). the numerology was one of my favorite parts, too; my name doesn't add up to anything spectacular (yet), but i'm making much of the rapture tomorrow. i hope to make kirk cameron and debbie harry prayer candles at some point today.

i think i'd have liked andrew far more if he'd died for good the first time he was hit; he had a few lovely speeches later on, but he got awfully screechy and then chilling at the end.

Amanda said...

01 Oh yes. Not today.
02 Originalism
03 God, no.
04 No, though I can report that MDF sported duelling NIN and The Crow shirts about 15 years ago, around the time he tried to woo me by noting that he had for some time carried an ACTUAL nine-inch nail around in his backpack.
05 A red ribbon (grosgrain)
06 Lifesize paper dolls (in full color!)
07 Tuesday
08 That's a dirty trick question, Lau. Who the hell has a public Facebook profile?
09 What the Dog Saw, of course.
10 I cannot tell you.

Milkmaid's dumb friend said...

02: Extreme activism, like Calista Flockhart’s translation of Calvino’s The Baron in the Trees. 03: I’m on this whole other thing where I give high-fives to guys with vasectomies. 04: Unbelievable, for you seem so dependably authoritative on issues pertaining to music.  On the other hand I’ve just discovered “Ghost Rider” was written by Suicide and not Rollins Band.  A little sad-making.  (I should be relieved, right?) 05-06: I like how reasonable dumping them in a canal feels in the progression of events. 07: A is correct- Tuesdays with Morrie is harrowing. 09: What the Dog Saw, of cour… aw Aaaaaaaay, I wanted to make that joke! Uh… Bl-kinkOut-layers?  The Stripping Point?  Or how about The New-Boy Network, you know, from What the Dog Saw?  …I give up. 10: Keep riding!  Never Stop Riding!  AAAAND… Don’t forget to burn!  Burn… WITH - FIRE! 0?: I don’t know what to say w/r/t that nail… I do know that nowadays the only shirt I’m rockin’ is my homemade Thundertome™ shirt, and I do it all over the three-oh-three. (B/t/w, will any official Kidchamp gear be available anytime soon? I keep looking for a link…)

kidchamp said...

the joy division thing is humbling; i want to surrender my doom journals.

kidchamp said...

just got an email from amazon asking if i wanted to sell back my copy of war and peace. what are you trying to say, amazon?