It’s War & Peace. I am about two hundred pages to the end. Tolstoy has analyzed and reanalysed the crucial battle in War of 1812 between the French and Russians in Borodino. He has come up with two excellent metaphors, one of which is likening the two sides to duelists, which makes you sigh with pleasure for there had been such a duel between two men a thousand pages earlier.
It is a hefty, gorgeous book. In the new translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, pages of French conversation spoken by the Russian elite are left intact, translated in footnotes at the bottom of the page. Other notes are in the back of the book. Having spent a good deal of the summer watching Scandinavian TV in subtitles, I found if I skipped right to the translation, I got nearly everything except when I had to return to the original for the English. Here is my metaphor: it was like playing table-tennis, running from the translated English to the subtitled (footnoted) English several times on any one page. If one knew French well enough to read (which I do not, nor in fact, know it well enough to speak) one could understand the way Tolstoy satirized a people so enamoured of France whom they would be shortly at war by their misspeaking the language.
So, that was an aspect that I would not have the pleasure of enjoying. But that left me quite a deal to enjoy. I am reading War and Peace because the last time I read it, in college, intrigued by the Audrey Hepburn movie, I had skipped right over the war to learn all about Natasha at home. For years, I thought I had read at least half of the book, when to my chagrin, this summer I discovered if I read it at all, I retained very little. So when the plot twists arrive, and they do, in translated English with ferocity, I was caught unaware.
I began early July, a few pages every night and in the afternoon, asking a Russian-American friend about this history I had never learned in school at one point. Knowing how I had obsessively googled information about The Tudors while watching all thirty-eight episodes of that glittery, tawdry, engrossing fantasy, I did not want to do the same about Napoleon or Tolstoy. Well, I did google a bit about the royal Russian family, and Napoleon will soon be researched. (It was Josephine, “The real wife,” as Tolstoy put it, who brought so many roses to France. That history is refered to in Chasing the Rose by Andrea Di Robilant.) But back to War and Peace.
Three hundred pages from the end, not being able to take it any longer, I sneaked a peek at the ending to find out what did happen to some of the characters. Readers, I did not fling the book away. I went right back in, still surprised as the plot turned, as Tolstoy brings back characters I had forgotten about, evoking a supreme sadness about the arrogance that takes lives. War is arrogance, after all, a need to fight and prove which side is better, which side is best. No matter the victor, no one is convinced in the matter. The sun was in everyone’s eyes.
If Anna Karenina is the best novel to read in the winter, then War and Peace works very well in sultry summer, where the battles take place in winter, and Christmas can be read about in July.