Thursday, 12 May 2022

Rereading War and Peace: Vol.1, P.3 (switching translation)

1/ In the previous blog post, I said I was reading the Anthony Briggs translation (the same as the first time). As I’m not at all impulsive, I’ve now bought and switched to another version: translated by Aylmer and Louise Maude, and revised by Amy Mandelker.

It feels quite different.

Not knowing Russian, I can’t comment on accuracy, but I suppose it’s legitimate to say that the Briggs translation feels more modern. For example, look at the moment when Anna Pavlovna talks to Pierre about Hélène at one of her parties, some time after the Count’s death: 

“‘She is gorgeous, isn’t she?’ she said to Pierre, nodding after the majestic beauty as she floated away from them. ‘Look how she carries herself! For such a young girl, what sensitivity, what magnificent deportment! It comes from the heart, you know. It will be a happy man who wins her. A man with no social skills would occupy a brilliant place in society beside her, don’t you think? I just wanted to know what you think.’ And she let him go.

Pierre was speaking sincerely when he gave a positive response to her question about Hélène’s perfect deportment. If he ever gave a thought to Hélène it was to recall her beauty and that extraordinary way she had of maintaining an aloof and dignified silence in society.” (Vol.1, P.3, ch.1) 

This is the same passage in the version by the Maudes and Mandelker: 

“‘Isn’t she exquisite?’ she said to Pierre, pointing to the stately beauty as she glided away. ‘Et qu’elle tenue! For so young a girl, such tact, such masterly perfection of manner! It comes from her heart. Happy the man who wins her! With her the least worldly of men would occupy a most brilliant position in society. Don’t you think so? I only wanted to know your opinion,’ and Anna Pavlovna let Pierre go.

Pierre in reply sincerely agreed with her as to Hélène’s perfection of manner. If he ever thought of Hélène it was just of her beauty and her remarkable skill in appearing silently dignified in society.” 

You may have your own preferences. I enjoyed it when I was reading Briggs. But now when I place the two translations next to each other, “She is gorgeous” feels wrong and out of place. 

A few paragraphs later: 

“He half rose, meaning to go over, but the aunt passed him the snuff-box behind Hélène’s back. This caused Hélène to thrust forward to make room, and she looked round with another smile. She was wearing a fashionable evening dress cut very low at the front and back. Her bosom, which had always seemed like marble to Pierre, was so close to his short-sighted eyes that he could hardly miss the vibrant delights of her neck and shoulders, and so near his lips that he was only a few inches away from kissing it all. He could sense the warmth of her body, the aroma of her perfume, and he could hear the slight creaking of her corset as she breathed. What he saw was not marble beauty at one with her gown, what he saw and sensed was the sheer delight of her body, veiled from him only by her clothes.” (ibid.) 

That’s Anthony Briggs. Here’s the other translation: 

“He half rose, meaning to go round, but the aunt handed him the snuff-box, passing it across Hélène’s back. Hélène stooped forward to make room, and looked round with a smile. She was, as always at evening parties, wearing a dress such as was then fashionable, cut very low at front and back. Her bust, which had always seemed like marble to Pierre, was so close to him that his shortsighted eyes could not but perceive the living charm of her neck and shoulders, so near to his lips that he need only have bent his head a little to have touched them. He was conscious of the warmth of her body, the scent of perfume, and the creaking of her corset as she moved. He did not see her marble beauty forming a complete whole with her dress, but all the charm of her body only covered by her garments.” 

Judge for yourself. 

The Maude and Mandelker version also feels different because of the French passages. The various translations of Anna Karenina may not feel significantly different (for the first time, I read Aylmer and Louise Maude; for the second time, Rosamund Bartlett), but those of War and Peace do, because of what the translators decide to do with the French passages. Some of you may prefer the flow not to be interrupted, I myself enjoy seeing the French texts because they have meaning. Two things need to be said though: the Maude and Mandelker version is good to read in print but terrible for an e-reader, because of the constant jumps to the notes; and as expected, the physical copy of this one is thicker and heavier than the one by Briggs.

I’ve also read that Anthony Briggs adds contemporary colloquialisms and British idioms, and there are probably more marked differences in the army scenes, but I won’t talk about them for now. 

2/ In the scene discussed above, one simile jumps out at me.

“Pierre dropped his eyes, lifted them again, and wished once more to see her as a distant beauty far removed from him, as he had seen her every day until then, but he could no longer do it. He could not, any more than a man who has been looking at a tuft of steppe grass through the mist and taking it for a tree, can again take it for a tree after he has once recognized it to be a tuft of grass.” (ibid.) 

(translated by Aylmer and Louise Maude, revised by Amy Mandelker) 

Is it just me, or that’s so not sexy? For the first time Pierre is, to put it crudely, overwhelmed by Hélène’s tits, and can no longer see her the same way—yet Tolstoy compares that to trees and grass! 

That said, the whole sequence of Prince Vasili manoeuvring Pierre into marrying his daughter Hélène is brilliant. Look at the way the scheming Prince concludes the match for Pierre—who says Tolstoy isn’t funny? 

3/ Having successfully caught the rich Pierre, Prince Vasili then tries to get his son Anatole to marry the “rich and ugly heiress” Marya Bolkonskaya. This too is a brilliant sequence, as Tolstoy depicts many things at the same time: old Bolkonsky’s contempt for the Kuragins and annoyance at his daughter’s naïveté and foolishness; Prince Vasili’s affectation and confidence; Marya’s excitement, confusion, and low self-esteem; Mademoiselle Bourienne’s passion and daydreams; Lise’s gaiety after months of boredom and loneliness, her being away from her husband (Andrei) and away from society; and Anatole’s vanity, because of his power over the three women. Tolstoy especially captures very well the feeling of a young woman who is not attractive (Marya).

For those of you who haven’t read the novel, or who have read it but don’t remember, Mademoiselle Bourienne is Marya’s companion, and she is French. 

In this little scene, with a few strokes, Tolstoy depicts two things happening at the same time—the music-playing on the surface, and the flirting underneath—or three things, if you count the happenings in Marya’s mind:    

“After tea the company went into the sitting-room and Princess Marya was asked to play on the clavichord. Anatole laughing and in high spirits, came and leaned on his elbow, facing her and beside Mademoiselle Bourienne. Princess Marya felt his look with a painfully joyous emotion. Her favourite sonata bore her into a most intimately poetic world, and the look she felt upon her made that world still more poetic. But Anatole’s expression, though his eyes were fixed on her, referred not to her but to the movements of Mademoiselle Bourienne’s little foot, which he was then touching with his own under the clavichord. Mademoiselle Bourienne was also looking at Princess Marya, and in her lovely eyes there was a look of fearful joy and hope that was also new to the princess.

‘How she loves me!’ thought Princess Marya. ‘How happy I am now, and how happy I may be with such a friend and such a husband! Husband? Can it be possible?’ she thought, not daring to look at his face, but still feeling his eyes gazing at her.” (V.1, P.3, ch.4)

It’s a magnificent little scene. 

4/ The relationship between old Prince Bolkonsky and his daughter Marya reminds me of Dr Austin Sloper and Catherine in Washington Square, and Mr Osborne and Jane in Vanity Fair. I wrote a bit about the Osbornes in my blog post about “insignificant characters” in Vanity Fair and Tolstoy may have found some inspiration there, but that father-daughter relationship is not much developed. Thackeray sketches out their lives but doesn’t really let us know what Mr Osborne thinks about his spinster daughter—he writes more about her lonely, miserable life. 

The main difference between old Bolkonsky and the difficult father in Washington Square is that the old prince does genuinely love his daughter, even if he’s often cruel to her. Dr Sloper despises Catherine. 

Anatole Kuragin and his sister Hélène meanwhile make me think of Henry and Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park. They’re all attractive but shallow, selfish, and callous; the Crawfords, however, are more intelligent, more sensitive to goodness. 

5/ Under my previous blog post, I got a comment saying that the similes (I mentioned) were domestic. That’s true. Here’s a metaphor that is not domestic:  

“Anna Pavlovna arranged the different groups in her drawing-room with her habitual skill. The large group, in which were Prince Vasili and the generals, had the benefit of the diplomat. Another group was at the tea table. Pierre wished to join the former, but Anna Pavlovna—who was in the excited condition of a commander on a battlefield to whom thousands of new and brilliant ideas occur which there is hardly time to put in action—seeing Pierre touched his sleeve with her finger, saying…” (Vol.1, P.3, ch.1) 

That’s a War image in a Peace scene. 

This is a Peace image in a War chapter, when the generals are discussing their plan of attack: 

“When the monotonous sound of Weyrother’s voice ceased, Kutuzov opened his eye as a miller wakes up when the soporific drone of the mill-wheel is interrupted. He listened to what Langeron said, as if remarking, ‘So you are still at that silly business!’ quickly closed his eye again and let his head sink still lower.” (Vol.1, P.3, ch.12) 


“… ‘He has forty thousand men at most,’ replied Weyrother with the smile of a doctor to whom an old wife wishes to explain the treatment of a case.” (ibid.)

Generally speaking, Tolstoy’s metaphors are not striking and unusual like Flaubert’s or Proust’s—his metaphors are clear and straight to the point, not drawing attention to themselves. More important are the overall effects, but it’s hard to write about what Tolstoy does to create those effects. 

For example, this is a scene of Nikolai and some hussars going in the mist to find out what’s happening in the enemy’s camp: 

“He felt both frightened and pleased to be riding alone with three hussars into that mysterious and dangerous misty distance where no one had been before him. Bagration called to him from the hill not to go beyond the stream, but Rostov pretended not to hear him and did not stop but rode on and on, continually mistaking bushes for trees and gullies for men, and continually discovering his mistakes. Descending the hill at a trot he no longer saw either our own or the enemy’s fires, but heard the shouting of the French more loudly and distinctly. In the valley he saw before him something like a river, but when he reached it he found it was a road.” (Vol.1, P.3, ch.13)

The writing appears very simple, and yet Tolstoy conveys perfectly the mist and darkness, and the confusion. 

Later on, when they’re marching: 

“The fog had grown so dense that though it was growing light they could not see ten paces ahead. Bushes looked like gigantic trees and level ground like cliffs and slopes. Anywhere, on any side, one might encounter an enemy invisible ten paces off. But the columns advanced for a long time, always in the same fog, descending and ascending hills, avoiding gardens and enclosures, going over new and unknown ground, and nowhere encountering the enemy.” (Vol.1, P.3, ch.14) 

This is the beginning of the battle of Austerlitz. 

“… the troops marched gaily, as they always do when going into action, especially to an attack. But when they had marched for about an hour in the dense fog, the greater part of the men had to halt, and an unpleasant consciousness of some dislocation and blunder spread through the ranks. How such a consciousness is communicated is very difficult to define, but it certainly is communicated very surely, and flows rapidly, imperceptibly, and irresponsibly, as water does in a creek.” (ibid.) 

Again, the writing appears simple, but you can visualise the scene, you can see what the soldiers are seeing and experiencing. 

“The fog lay unbroken like a sea down below, but higher up at the village of Schlappanitz where Napoleon stood with his marshals around him, it was quite light. Above him was a clear blue sky, and the sun’s vast orb quivered like a huge, hollow, crimson float on the surface of that milky sea of mist.” (ibid.) 

That is a beautiful image. 

6/ The scene where Andrei is injured at Austerlitz and looking at the sky is sublime. It is one of the greatest scenes in literature. Tolstoy can convey that sense of transcendence that I don’t really see in (most) other writers. 

That moment is visionary. 

War and Peace is getting better and better. 


  1. I definitely prefer the old school translations. "Gorgeous" just doesn't fit.

    Russian friends have told me that in Russia, certain passages of War and Peace are so beautiful in the original Russian, students are assigned to memorize them like passages of poetry are in schools. The two scenes mentioned to me that are typically memorized were Prince Andrei wounded on the battlefield of Austerlitz, and Prince Andrei's contemplation of the old oak, later in the book. These sections are so beautiful even in translation. Amazing.

    Pierre's total befuddlement when faced with a sexually alluring woman is mirrored in Levin's total confusion at the sight of the decolletage of his friend's sister-in-law. In both cases, women are presented in an explicitly seductive manner by design, to attract (and entrap) the man. Pierre is so naive he does not realize he is the target; he's just thrown into complete paralysis by his own feelings. Levin, who is older and more mature than Pierre, DOES realize he's the target, and for that reason is painfully embarrassed by the whole setup. He can't even look in the direction of the woman without seeing her low neckline. I'm inferring from this that Tolstoy himself found attractive women in seductive clothing very agitating. Certainly he was somewhat of a prude in real life, notwithstanding the depth and insight of his writing about the personal romantic affairs of his characters.

    Old Prince Bolkonsky is superficially similar to the father in Washington Square -- but the fact that he loves Marya more than he loves himself, and is deeply attached to her, really does make them different. His pride, obduracy and difficulty as a person (traits both Andrei and Marya share in some measure and in different ways) cannot override this basic fact. I've often thought that one of things that makes Washington Square such a shocking and unusual novel is that the father truly hates his daughter -- even to the point where he seems on the verge of murder. Henry James writes very powerfully about strange people in strange relationships -- about unhappy families that are unhappy in their own ways, as Tolstoy would say.

    1. Yeah, after buying the Maude + Mandelker translation, I kinda went back and forth between two versions for a bit. At first, I thought the Briggs version flowed better, but then there were sentences like:
      "The prince cut him short with his weird laugh."
      It just stuck out like a sore thumb, I couldn't read it anymore.

      Agreed about Bolkonsky and Dr Sloper. I love Washington Square. I know The Portrait of a Lady is generally recognised as the greater novel, I just prefer Washington Square because of that father-daughter relationship and the battle of the minds in it. It's fascinating, and for some reason it just has a much stronger impact on me than the other novel by James. Or anything else by James that I've read, really.

  2. It's fun that Tolstoy compares her dinner party tactics to a 'commander on a battlefield'. War and Peace indeed!

    I also much prefer Washington Square to Portrait of a Lady.

    1. Have you seen the film The Heiress?

    2. I didn't even know of it. Sounds like I should find it. I liked the more recent film version well enough when it came out, but I find I don't remember it that well.

    3. Do you mean the 1997 Washington Square? I haven't heard of it.
      The Heiress is a classic. There are some changes, but it's excellent, especially Ralph Richardson and Olivia de Havilland. It's usually on my list of greatest films adapted from novels, so you must watch it.

    4. It is the 1997 one I mean. It's definitely worth seeing.


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