Well, Prince, so Genoa and Lucca are now just family estates of the Buonapartes. But I warn you, if you don’t tell me that this means war, if you still try to defend the infamies and horrors perpetrated by that Antichrist—I really believe he’s the Antichrist—I will have nothing more to do with you and you are no longer my friend, no longer my ‘faithful slave,’ as you call yourself.
—War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy, as translated by Louise and Aylmer Maude
And, thus, from the opening paragraph, we are flung headlong into the subject matter of War and Peace. How many classic novels throw you right into a conversation like this? I’d love to know of other examples because it seems shocking to me, especially given the aggressive nature of the speech. In any case, it’s certainly a great way to grab the reader’s attention. More on that opening in a moment.
While ostensibly about the peace part of the equation (these twenty-five chapters are basically a series of house parties and visits in St. Petersburg and Moscow), in fact, the entire First Book of Volume I is all about position, strategy, and conquest. The characters seem to be constantly negotiating for something—love, money, rank—and tensions run high throughout. While all the different names and relationships can be difficult to follow, the characters are so vividly drawn that I was immediately interested in what they were doing and planning to do.
But it’s not all metaphor in these drawing rooms. It’s 1805 and war permeates almost all discussions. Which makes these social maneuverings all the more intriguing. You know the war is coming and you can’t help but wonder about everyone’s fate.
It’s no wonder that talk of Napoleon opens the novel.
Which leads me back to that opening paragraph, because, what Tolstoy actually writes is this:
Eh bien, mon prince, Gênes and Lucques ne sont plus que des apanages, des поместья, de la famille Buonaparte. Non, je vous préviens, que si vous ne me dites pas que nous avons la guerre, si vous vous permettez encore de pallier toutes les infamies, toutes les atrocités de cet Antichrist (ma parole, j’y crois)—je ne vous connais plus, vous n’êtes plus mon ami, vous n’êtes plus мой верный раб, comme vous dites.
—War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy
That’s right, almost the entire first paragraph of this Russian classic is in French. In fact, fully two percent of the novel is French. I think this linguistic distinction is an important one, as it represents an important cultural distinction at the time. It also lends a certain irony to the whole novel, as Russia is about to be invaded by France, and the fact that many aristocrats barely speak Russian is certainly an interesting commentary on Russian nationalism. However, reading either of the two classic translations, the Maudes cited above or Constance Garnett, one is not even aware where and when Tolstoy makes this distinction. Yes, they both use a smattering of French phrases, but one reason I chose the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation (despite controversy over their methods) is that they are the only ones to my knowledge who leave the French fully intact.
Obviously, the excessive footnoting that results might prove annoying if you don’t read French, so keep that in mind if you are considering translations. French aside, I am enjoying this translation so far in comparison with Garnett. I’d love to hear from people if they have a favorite translation of this classic to recommend.
I haven’t yet caught up to where I left off two years ago, so I know I have a bit of war ahead of me, which I remember being a bit bored by last time around. I only hope I can power through to the other side and finally arrive at Volume II.