Tagged: War and Peace

A Prize Muzhik Shirt: A Non-Native Speaker’s Review of a Russian Classic

I look at a photograph of Tolstoy in a peasant’s shirt, beard down to his lap. The author was once a young rake, once moved in and out of upper-class social circles, once married. Then he became a mystical folk guru hidden behind that beard.

Years ago, a Russian bought me the old Constance Garnett translation of War and Peace. Though she supported my endeavor to learn Russian, she bought me War and Peace not Война и мир. My goal was to come closer to the Russian language, to the direct source. I fetishized the language uttered by Tolstoy – not to mention Pushkin, Lermontov, Dostoyevsky, Gogol, Bulgakov, Babel, Akhmatova, et al. I wanted to hear the literal sharpness of the Russian.

This was not easy: one version I acquired included an introduction by “Tolstoy” that seemed easier than the Russian I’d read so far. It was a parody version – I’d read the library catalog too fast. In the introduction to the fake, “Tolstoy” claimed to hate poor people and so wrote solely about aristocrats. On its back cover were such advertisements as “Without all the philosophical tangents!” and “Prince Andrei doesn’t die!” When I showed a Russian friend, she literally wouldn’t touch the book, declaring it was poison.

Of course it’s unfair to say that Tolstoy was only interested in aristocratic people. He used his characters to make a critique of history. One of what the parody version called “tangents” was what the last week of my reading included. The final epilogue has abandoned the characters and story and become a historiographical treatise. Would contemporary publishers and their marketing departments let a novelist get away with this? Often greater episodes of the book begin with a chapter or two criticizing the historians both of France and Russia, only returning to the story and the characters in a third or later chapter. One famous writer, whose favorite book is War and Peace, remarked how the philosophical tangents are “sloppy.” But contemporaries of Tolstoy must have welcomed his words of wisdom. One can imagine readers took the epic novel as an alternative but real history.

Tolstoy read history, but he wanted to write the artistic truth (the made-up truth, incidentally). As the novelist Anton Shammas has suggested, in the personal lies the universal[1] – even more so than in historical, nonfictional texts. And Tolstoy’s idea of history – that it’s a consequence not of the actions of a few powerful (white) men but the actions in part of every soldier who participates – still has its relevance today. This isn’t because Tolstoy saw into the future. We appear to be stuck in or even to have regressed to a 19th century method of thinking about history – or at least about war, according to Tim O’Brien[2], a contemporary writer who has cited Tolstoy’s influence.

My unscholarly, sloppy, tangential, off-and-on reading began with a Soviet edition from the 1950s, printed on newsprint paper that flaked away at the touch. After a week gingerly turning the dying pages, I obsessively searched for the epic novel in the pair of Russian book stores I knew in Boston. Война и мир? No one carried it. I had to special-order. I acquired an edition published by Ėksmo.

I’ve read it on a computer screen, an e-reader, even on a smart phone once on a bus in San Francisco next to one of the many derelict doppelgängers of old, bearded Tolstoy. I’ve referred to three different English translations. The only consistency of my reading has been Tolstoy’s original, mostly Russian text. Those first words, even though they were in French, tantalized me. My first foreign language was French in high school, the last time I’d seriously engaged that language. I more comfortably read the Russian translations provided in the footnotes. The language is clear, deliberate, dynamic, always precise and almost always standard (almost except for some stream-of-consciousness passages within characters’ perspectives). The non-native reader wonders whether Tolstoy intended his epic novel for him, for a non-native, international audience (and not just for Russian aristocrats, as the parody version claims). Why the multilingualism of War and Peace?

In the author’s Moscow residence, a keeper of the house explained that he spoke several languages. She played a recording of Tolstoy speaking to a group of children. He articulated clearly enough for my five year-old Russian ears to understand. He corresponded with Adin Ballou, the New England abolitionist. Much of Война и мир is in French, and a large part of the generals’ correspondence is even in crisp, military German. In the Russian edition’s afterword (excluded from Constance Garnett’s translation) the author admits some of the French was unnecessary. Perhaps some of Tolstoy’s unconscious motivation was not just to write a Russian novel but to write an epic novel that spoke its own language – or, the language of Central and Eastern Europe at the start of the 19th century. It is accurate that Russian aristocrats spoke French. It is accurate how they switched languages depending on the subject matter – Russians who speak English do so today. And it is accurate how difficult it was for many Russian aristocrats to speak Russian alone once nationalistic sentiment demanded it.

There is such a thing as what Comparative Literature scholars call an “international literacy.” This involves more than just reading an English translation. An internationally literate reader should be aware of the language in which the author wrote the work, to understand not just the context of the work’s content but of the author’s surroundings as well. One obstacle overcome by reading the Russian original was Constance Garnett’s Anglo-Puritanical translation, such as when she used the noun “condition” – as in “her condition” – to translate Tolstoy’s Russian adjective “беременная” (simply, “pregnant”). A Russian poet explained to me that she believed this was uncommon for Tolstoy’s era, that usually the Russian words “her condition” (“её положение”) would be used as well. Tolstoy wrote “pregnant,” and he meant pregnant.

Not to say that all readers of Tolstoy have to learn Russian, but I’m not just writing a book report of War and Peace. I’m writing about Война и мир in English. A transformation took place for my Russian tongue while reading this novel. Not nineteenth-century Russian, this text was plain Russian for me, and I was reading it as if it were written today. It was refreshing to step into the Russian text and think the Russian thoughts that it stirred in me. Because it was unfamiliar, I have a different reading of this novel with its nearly Biblical significance in the literary world.

This speaks to one of Tolstoy’s many literary techniques – defamiliarization. The term was coined by the Soviet scholar Viktor Shklovsky, using a Tolstoy story “Kholstomer” as example[3]. Famous later scenes – such as Raymond Carver’s deft portrayal of the death of Anton Chekhov in “Errand” – must take inspiration from Pierre Bezuhov’s experience of his father’s death. Here unfamiliar details, often distracting the characters, simultaneously increase drama and deflate sentimentality in the story. Pierre’s near execution at the hands of the French is defamiliarized with a beautiful emphasis on the faces of all the men involved, prisoners and executioners. The death of old Prince Nikolai is the ultimate defamiliarization: how could such a strict, austere old man ever die? Like an old general, he could only fade away. But Tolstoy assigns the role of the old prince’s truest heir to the blessed soul Countess Marya, whose bleeding heart contrasts with her father’s stringency so much that their relationship is one of the most touching in the epic novel.

This is a paradigm shift in the literary tradition and a technique which contemporary writers still use. A reader, especially a slow non-native reader of the Russian text, lives with these characters for a long enough time to know their extent. But they aren’t mere ideas about humanity personified. Another Russian friend said she considers Pierre a person who exists in literature, as if Tolstoy wrote him by accident. In the strangeness (in Russian “defamiliarization” is “остранение,” that which is “made strange”) we find something more like our own lives.

At the end this mode of defamiliarizing through particularities has come full-circle. The war’s over, Pierre has married Natasha, everyone is living close by in near happiness – Tolstoy won’t have it. He gives details that break up any clots of sentimentality languishing in the brightly lit corners of those concluding domestic scenes. Natasha has sacrificed her coquettish character to become a stressed-out mama. Pierre is still stirring up rows about politics, though he’s now more confident and gentlemanly than he was in the early salon scenes. Tolstoy won’t let them be happy. Here, the epic novel teeters on the brink of self-consciousness, even self-parody. He even introduces a completely new character right in these closing pages, the heir to the dignity of the Bolkonskys. Having appeared before as only a relatively voiceless child, Nikolushka the young adult can’t sleep, charged up by thoughts of the father he knew so little.

Perhaps because of the threat of sentimentality, Tolstoy decided to end the story here. The drama fostered by war and romantic intrigue may have ended, but these characters’ lives go on without happy endings or easy morals. Those kinds of endings only result from shortcomings of details – where the devil lies. Or, perhaps it’s too difficult to narrate true happiness. Tolstoy’s afterword hints at a lack of satisfaction, referring to his mistakes and errors in judgment. Zadie Smith’s final rule of writing reads: “Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand – but tell it. Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never being satisfied.”[4]

However, at the end I did feel like I earned some prize – a muzhik’s shirt like Tolstoy wore – finishing this epic novel that took only five years to write. I felt like I earned the respect of old Prince Nikolai. Russian is hard to please, reluctant to praise, often inscrutable in its Old World idiom. Five years with my Russian tongue have brought me only pleasure, even when taking pains to read.


[1]              “But you always end up in these kinds of books talking about Arabs and Jews, plural. I wanted to speak of this Arab or this Jew. I think if you want to be ambitious, universal, you have to be specific, write what you know.” Quoted from: Marzorati, Gerald. “An Arab Voice in Israel.” The New York Times. 18 September 1988.

[2]              “They look at war as an aspect of glory, of finding honor [… ] it’s almost an old-fashioned, Victorian way of looking at war.” Quoted from: Bumiller, Elisabeth. “A Well-Written War, Told in the First Person.” The New York Times. 7 February 2010.

[3]              Шкловский В. Б. «Искусство как прием». О теории прозы. Москва: Круг, 1925. 7-20.

Shklovsky, Viktor. “Art as Technique” in Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays. Eds. Lee T. Lemon and Marion J. Reiss. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1965. 3-24.

[4]              “Zadie Smith’s Rules for Writers.” The Guardian. 22 February 2010.