Thursday, November 15, 2012

Leo Tolstoy's "War + Peace" Kindle Book Review

I chose the public domain version on Project Gutenberg. Earlier reviewers had mentioned a free Kindle version. While as of this writing, it is not available on Amazon, you can find the Maude 1922 translation to download directly as a Kindle file ( @ 5.2 mb) from the Project Gutenberg site. (This lack of direct access via Amazon happened to me for Joyce's "Portrait" and suddenly for "Ulysses,", as well as Melville's "Redburn," for example.)

One problem is that Amazon lumps all the reviews for different media and versions and translations if it's a public domain title (this happens for "War and Peace," "Huck Finn," "Don Quixote" and "Ulysses," too), to my discouragement. This lack of finesse can confound those of us trying to evaluate one against another. Audiobooks, e-books, Kindle texts and print all jostle for attention. For instance, the version above is what I enter this under, and apparently despite the credit, it's not Constance Garnett's translation as the Kindle version!

I sampled the first chapters of a few e-book versions. Xanzoc's 1-16-11 review set out the first lines of some translations to contrast; I found that entry and Patrick Crabtree's Listmania one after I had done my own sampling to find what Kindle offered. I wondered how the free version stood up against later contenders.

Constance Garnett (1904) is common, alongside the Maude. These two in word choice did differ more than other versions, resembling more each other, and for me, the Maudes get the nod. Garnett apparently left out some nuance in a quick version that nonetheless tried to keep Tolstoy's voice. I thought I'd favor the Pevear-Volokhonsky (2007), promoted vigorously as faithful to Tolstoy's syntax and repetition, but as with their "Brothers Karamazov," somehow its stiffer if more scholarly pace paled. I compared sections in tandem (troika?) with the Maudes' version and frankly, there's often less difference. Sometimes a more contemporary verve enters, but I'd contend the Maudes' century-old take holds its own. (I review P-V on Kindle version under that translation as catalogued separately on Amazon, 8/24/12. Despite the unwieldiness inherent in footnotes, French + German as is to navigate, and the trickiness of using an e-book to go back and forth from notes to text, they do offer in their edition many annotations and maps.) I had read "Brothers" in college in Garnett's version and recalled it being faster paced and more engaging then. Similarly, the pair's take on "War and Peace" appeared to slow a bit, perhaps for those wanting to sense the Russian itself?

Rosemary Edmonds' 1957 translation in an affordable Penguin e-book felt respectable, and this may be a choice for those not enamored with P-V. I confess the different translations seemed more subtly distinguishable than I anticipated. For a bound version, I favor the Penguin 2005 edition by Anthony Briggs (it has maps and notes too, and I like the translation's brisk but slightly theatrical feel a lot). Neither Briggs nor the Maudes keep the French but for a phrase here and there; P-V keep it but translate in the footnotes Tolstoy composed about 2% of his text in French. Without the French blocks of text, both move steadily, if with a British ambiance. Aylmer and Louise Maude worked with Tolstoy on their version, at least for awhile. Americans may not like either version as it puts the lower classes into a register closer to an English/ stage dialect than whatever we'd "hear" from those with broken or lower-class speech.

I wish Briggs' rendering was electronically available. As it is not, I decided for my Kindle given the P-V challenges to stick with the Maude style, which is not as stolid as we nearly a hundred years later may suppose. Of course, a free version lacks the guidance you'll need. I cannot give the public domain version fewer stars for its more venerable idiom, or its lack of editorial additions, as those volunteers labor to give us the best they can out of their own good will.

I read a chapter in Maude. I check in Briggs for endnotes and assistance, as any reader of Tolstoy needs this. But, for a portable e-book, I find myself moving along to my surprise, into a narrative not as difficult as I expected from its monumental reputation. If you read a few chapters past the initial conversations, as with Shakespeare, you will get the hang of the diction and mood. I admired "Anna Karenina" (Garnett) when that too was assigned in college. For both classics, Tolstoy's evocations of dialogue and character merit their acclaim.

(7-24-12 to Amazon US; see my Pevear-Volokhonsky review for more on its comparisons and contrasts via Kindle. Cover image, not "W+P," but Tolstoy's "The Three Bears," Russian still, Yiddish too, CCCP in fact, by "M. Glukhov," which I liked better. #53 of 65 bear images via VintagePrintable)

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