Friday, 21 December 2007


My Christmas present to myself (and what else in this season of Joy matters?): Tolstoy's "War and Peace" in the new and unbeatably excellent translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.

Not often I stop reading something to laugh in sheer delight. I have even been tempted to sing, which is not a good thing for the world.

Constance Garnett translated many of the Russian classics - by the yard, at speed, with endless silly errors, leaving out passages that looked tricky in order to keep the pace up - into Polite Anglo-Novelese, which more or less wrecks them. For decades her works have been the standard editions.

So when I read War and Peace in the 70s I thought it was impressive in scope but dull as ditchwater, as dull as Dostoyevskii, Turgenev and Chekhov, who had been Garnetted in the same way. Josef Brodsky remarked that the "reason English-speaking readers can barely tell the difference between Tolstoy and Dostoevsky is that they aren't reading the prose of either one. They're reading Constance Garnett."

But this? It is pure delight.

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