When War and Peace was first published, much of it was in French. Tolstoy virtually “translated” those passages into Russian for his 1873 edition. (That edition represented the book’s fourth life in print; it came out initially in installments, and in book form it was originally a thirty-eight-chapter work titled 1805.) In fact, French was used so widely in the first edition that a renowned Soviet linguist called it a bilingual work.
And yet, if it is a bilingual novel (it certainly is a novel about a bilingual culture), the previous translations don’t convey that as definitely and easily as this one does. Briggs has developed a swingy, natural way of describing how characters go from French to Russian, depending on the circumstances, and he comments on the tone of their French, using the quality of their language as another way of suggesting qualities of character.
That being said, I still prefer the Maudes’ translation. But either way, Tolstoy is one of the most translation-proof writers, because his originality lies not in language (at least not for the reader in English; in all the available translations it’s fairly standard), nor in theme (he sticks to the big-ticket eternals: Life, Death, Love), but in character and in the intricacy and contrapuntal symmetry of his plots.
Characters in fiction are said to be “real” and “life-like” when they contain many contradictory qualities but still cohere. Of course, most writers understand that the variety of contradictory detail in even a particularly boring human being, transposed to the page, would fail to be believable as that of one person. Like Austen (and unlike George Eliot or Proust), Tolstoy writes fairy tales, but his have jagged, realistic endings. His irony is fonder; he likes people more than Austen does. Girls whom Austen and Eliot would render as twits emerge in Tolstoy’s work as full, complex characters, even with the abundant evidence of their spoiled immaturity.
Consider the Countess Rostov, whose husband has, by no evil greater than living the big life they were each brought up to expect, run through his family fortune. Austen would have made the woman—who schemes for her son to marry an heiress—a doddering fool. Eliot would have done worse. But Tolstoy first shows us the countess (who has had twelve children) slipping money to her impoverished, widowed childhood friend.
Anna Mikhaylovna’s arms were round her. She was weeping, and the countess wept too. They wept for their friendship, their kindheartedness and the unfortunate need for lifelong friends to soil their hands with anything as sordid as money, and they wept also for their lost youth … But the tears of both women were sweet …
This is our introduction to the woman who later calls her niece, the girl her son loves, a “scheming hussy.” It is a lovely passage, not for any play of language but for its capacious empathy, the narrator’s description of the women’s sorrow skipping, like a well-thrown stone on the surface of a lake, from the emotional burden of charity between old friends to their tearful nostalgia for days gone by. Nabokov (who remembered his father stopping to shake hands with a man and then saying, That was Tolstoy”) ranked him as the greatest Russian writer of prose fiction, though he admitted that he could not really account for the hows and whys of the writer’s genius. “When you read Turgenev, you know you are reading Turgenev,” Nabokov wrote. “When you read Tolstoy, you read just because you cannot stop.”