Monday, November 1, 2010

Project: War and Peace - Post 1

by Conroy

Over the next few months I am embarking on my next major reading project, Leo Tolstoy's monumental War and Peace. I've done major reading projects before. I've read James Joyce's Ulysses twice, and was overawed and enriched by the experience both times (and I'm going to read it again in the coming years). The Man and I simultaneously read Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, a major disappointment.

I've been wanting to read War and Peace for a long time but been hesitant because, well, Tolstoy wrote in Russian, and I don't speak or read Russian. That means I have to read an English translation, which can be a dicey proposition. The power of a great literary work is a combination of character, plot, themes, style, and language. A good translator should be able to capture the first three, but the last two are far more difficult. A great writer is idiomatic, and his art cannot be separated from the particularities of his language. Only the most thoughtful and talented of translators can successfully convert style from one language to another. Moreover, the sound and flow of a work is inherently connected with the language in which it is written. I see no way that this aspect of a work can be fully realized in a translation.

That being said, there is a new (2007) translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky that has been highly praised. The translators have made a concerted effort to maintain the idiosyncrasies of Tolstoy's writing, staying as close as possible to his style, limiting the amount of interpretation, omissions, and substitutions (synonyms, colloquialisms, etc.). This new translation gives me hope that my reading experience in English will come close to reading in the original Russian.

Now my reading War and Peace is one thing, but why should I write about it? Well, I think many others are interested in Tolstoy's masterwork and perhaps my experience will be of interest. Few novels, maybe none, are as broad in scope and replete in developed, detailed characters. My goal in these posts will be to provide reactions to what I have read: story, character, themes, details, style. The book is divided into four volumes and an epilogue. I'll follow this structure and post after I've completed each volume and the entire work. As for now, I haven't read a page, so I have nothing more specific to say about the novel. However, a bit of background may be useful for me and my readers.

Leo Tolstoy
Tolstoy was a genius, hopefully in my reading I will discover his supposed unmatched eye for insightful detail. His ability to master a wide tapestry of characters, plot lines, and themes; his broad vantage point and inimical eye for detail; and perhaps above all, his ability to imbue his book with true humanity. As I read I must also consider the artist. As Paul Johnson's biting biographical sketch reveals, Tolstoy knew of his genius. He thought himself better than men, an equal of God in his art. War and Peace includes many characters, including historical personages (Napoleon, Marshal Kutuzov). Tolstoy may attempt to be true to life (and mostly to history), but a careful reader must be aware that a man who thinks himself god in his art may feel that he can distort and interpret as his right. A man who is better than the rest of mankind could stray into didacticism and abandon what Joyce identified as the key to true art, stasis, genuine objectivity that presents without prejudice. Still, Tolstoy claimed that he was most at peace when deep in his writing, so the best of the man and artist may have been put down on the pages of War and Peace. I shall learn from the first word.

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