Two new translations of Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace came out last fall. It seems everyone agrees that the 460,000-word novel is a masterpiece, but does anyone actually read it? Newsweek's Malcolm Jones says it's worth your time.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Since September, not one but two new translations of Leo Tolstoy's sprawling epic War and Peace were published, inciting raging debate in the world of letters. The first, by Andrew Bromfield, is the version originally serialized in a Russian journal, before Tolstoy tinkered with it, adding some 400 pages.
The second, by the husband and wife team of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, is the complete version. And if the Amazon.com sales rankings are any indication, that's the one thereafter the people are buying.
Newsweek called War and Peace the Everest of literature. Marilyn Monroe, it's said, lugged it onto a Hollywood set to demonstrate her intellectual chops.
But the question remains - how many of us have actually read it? Surely here in New York, the publishing capital of the world where the literati abound, there must be plenty. MAN: I have not read War and Peace. WOMAN: War and Peace. Ah, it sounds like it would be the most phenomenal book in the universe. But I'm telling you, the size of it is a little daunting. MAN: I've considered it but it's way too long to read. WOMAN: I guess I haven't read it because I haven't had a need to read it. MAN: Maybe when I find some time during retirement, [LAUGHS] or a large stretch of time to go through it. MAN: I think after this [LAUGHING] conversation I might actually consider reading it. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Wait! We found one! WOMAN: The character development is really good, but I can't really say what it was, what it really was about. I mean, war - and peace. [LAUGHS] But otherwise - BOB GARFIELD: Well, maybe we asked the wrong people. Last month, The New York Times launched Reading Room, a blog that functions more or less as a book club, and chose for its first selection - you guessed it War and Peace.
In his final post, Times executive editor Bill Keller wrote, quote, "Like my fellow panelists, I felt wistful coming to the end. But to say you want more is not to say the book ended before its time. The characters had grown up before my eyes, becoming real and complicated and, mostly, better. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Keller wasn't the only journalist who made War and Peace his pet project this year. We caught up with Newsweek arts editor Malcolm Jones, who finished the long version - thank you very much - earlier this fall.
So what do you want, a merit badge? MALCOLM JONES: There ought to be a merit badge just for having done it, although that makes it sound so much more unpleasant than it is because it's not an unpleasant book. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, what is it then? MALCOLM JONES: It's a book that doesn't fit easily into the way we live now because we're so used to speed, and this is a very long, leisurely book.
Now, what makes it so much of a pleasure to read is that after you get through about 100 pages, it clicks in. I mean, you've done all the work pretty much until then, trying to keep everybody straight.
And at that point, Tolstoy just takes over, and after that you just can't stop. And you've still got 1,100 pages to go. BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] And you had the classic experience of reading War and Peace over the summer, which you did for the first time. And you've been reading classic literature your whole life. You've made a career, in part, as a book critic. MALCOLM JONES: And hiding this dark dirty secret from everyone. BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] So before we go any further, I should confess that although I'm fairly comfortable with Russian literature, I never read War and Peace. So could you tell me, and whatever listeners out there are in my boat, briefly what it's about? MALCOLM JONES: It's about a group of nobles and their families and their rising and falling fortunes during the Napoleonic wars. There's a huge battle scene about 200 pages in, and then there's the siege of Moscow and the Battle of Borodino. After you've gotten another five- or six-hundred pages, you have more battle.
You know, the whole idea that these people only exist within the confines of this book is something that you just don't even think about. They seem like people that you know as well as you know your neighbors or your relatives.
One of the most memorable scenes is when, for example, a young girl first falls in love. And, you know, you're thinking, here's a man in the middle of the 19th century writing about basically a teenage girl, and she is a complete figure on the page. I mean, there's something about the way he writes that just convinces you that, yes, this is exactly how it is. BROOKE GLADSTONE: If somebody asked why must I read this book, would those be the reasons, or would you add some more? MALCOLM JONES: One I know I would add would be out of the context of the book it sounds like Tolstoy's preaching, which, when you're reading the book, it doesn't feel like that. But you definitely get the idea that he's making a point about war.
He attacks the idea that there is such a thing as a great general. He is very much against the great man or great person theory of history. He thinks that events collide and coincide and people do strange things, and for want of a shoe the battle was lost kind of thing. It's much more chaotic on a battlefield than people are willing to admit. And, you know, the people I know who have been in battle all confirm this.
And Tolstoy himself had been in battle, so, you know, he was a soldier himself and knew what it was like. It's not a point you see very much, so this is a very unique aspect of this book. BROOKE GLADSTONE: You've said that War and Peace continues to find readers almost in spite of its translators. [LAUGHTER] So do you think that a native Russian would suggest that what we read in translation isn't really War and Peace at all? MALCOLM JONES: Well, famous Russians have insisted this. BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] MALCOLM JONES: I mean, Nabokov said more or less that, and Joseph Brodsky has said more or less that, you know, that what we read in English is very flat and doesn't really capture the Russian. I would say that the one by the couple, Pevear and Volokhonsky, the newer one, is the one that would ring the truest to me. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Even though most of us might not have read War and Peace, it certainly seems to have permeated the pop culture. There's a reference to it in Seinfeld when Elaine says that the original title was War, What's it Good For? It was referenced in Goodbye Columbus as the book that one character always sets out to read every single summer. Can you think of more? MALCOLM JONES: [LAUGHS] There's a very famous episode of Cheers where Diane wins a bet with Sam and the result of losing the bet is that Sam has to read War and Peace. BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] MALCOLM JONES: And at the very end of the show, he's in his office lying in a couch. He's just completely exhausted. And Diane is across the room, like, nattering on about something, and in the course [LAUGHS] of talking about, you know, extolling War and Peace. And he just -[LAUGHS] you know, she says something about the movie, and he just, he pops off the sofa like somebody out of a jack-in-the box, and he says, there's a movie? [LAUGHS] BROOKE GLADSTONE: Malcolm, thank you very much. MALCOLM JONES: Thank you. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Malcolm Jones is a longtime book critic and arts editor at Newsweek.com. [CLIP] MAN: Oh, yeah. Well, they say the first 800 pages are a little bit slow, but it shoots right off after that. SAM: Whoa, whoa, whoa, wait a second! [LAUGHTER] What are we talking about? I got five days. How long is this book? MAN: Well, I've delivered a few for the book clubs, and it's - oh - about three-and-a-half pounds paperback. [LAUGHTER] MAN: Forget it, Sam. Nobody can read four ounces a day. [LAUGHTER] [END CLIP] [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]