'War and Peace' Sparks a Literary Skirmish

Leo Tolstoy

Many literati agree that Leo Tolstoy's masterwork is history's single greatest novel. But two new versions raise the question: Which War and Peace are we talking about? Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images hide caption

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The opening paragraph of the Richard Pevear-Larissa Volokhonsky translation of War and Peace might take some readers by surprise: It's in French.

The translators left it that way, says Knopf editor LuAnn Walther, because that's the way Leo Tolstoy wrote it. Readers of this new translation will have to consult footnotes for the English versions of French passages.

Not so in another new translation by Andrew Bromfield — which is also some 400 pages shorter. The Bromfield translation may seem less daunting, says Walther, but readers should understand what they're getting.

"They wouldn't get War and Peace," she says. "They're two different books."

It was Walther who first said it was misleading to call the Bromfield translation the "original version," rather than a first draft that Tolstoy re-wrote many times.

"So much of what is great about War and Peace came in those rewrites," Walther says. "So it seemed important to me to clarify that one is a first draft, and one is the complete book that Tolstoy finished and was happy with."

But Daniel Halpern, the publisher at Ecco, which released the Bromfield translation, says it is the original version — the first version that Tolstoy wrote and signed "The End" to.

Halpern says the Bromfield translation is a publishing event: the only English translation of Tolstoy's original version of the book.

"The question might be, 'Do we need yet another translation by the Pevears, who translate every Russian novel, more than we need a look at something which is really unique and has never been seen by anyone, which is this original version?'" Halpern asks. "It's a very different take — it's got a different ending. The feeling of the book is different. Those 400 pages make the book go a lot faster. I can tell you, having read them."

Walther says that's just the point. The Bromfield translation is different, and can only give a reader a glimpse into the book that we have come to know as War and Peace.

To make her case, Walther points to two different versions of a passage that depicts the moment when the character Prince Andrei is shot in battle. It's a lot shorter in the Ecco edition.

As different as the two books may be, Tolstoy's original version is still worth a look, Halpern says.

"It is a literary curiosity," he says. "I think it deserves to be seen by people who care about War and Peace and Russian literature and Tolstoy. For the general reader, I don't know what they'll do."

Ideally, he says, people should read both versions of the book. Bromfield plans to translate the complete version, as well.

Whether anyone these days has enough time to read one version of War and Peace, much less two, is quite another matter.

Comparing the Two Versions

A whistle and a thud! Five paces from him a cannonball dug up the dry earth and disappeared. An involuntary chill ran down his spine. He glanced at the ranks again. Many had probably been taken out; a large crowd gathered by the second battalion.

"Mr. Adjutant!" he shouted, "order them not to crowd around." The adjutant, having carried out the order, was coming towards Prince Andrei. From the other side the battalion commander rode up.

"Look out!" came a soldier's frightened cry, and, like a little bird whistling over in quick flight and alighting on the ground, a shell dully plopped down within two paces of Prince Andrei, near the battalion commander's horse. The horse first of all, not asking whether it was good or bad to show fear, snorted, reared up, nearly throwing off the major, and leaped aside. The horse's terror communicated itself to the men.

"Get down!" cried the voice of the adjutant, throwing himself to the ground. Prince Andrei stood undecided. The shell was smoking, spinning like a top between him and the prone adjutant, on the border between the field and the meadow, near a bush of wormwood.

"Can this be death?" thought Prince Andrei, gazing with completely new, envious eyes at the grass, at the wormwood, and at the little stream of smoke curling up from the spinning black ball. "I can't, I don't want to die, I love life, I love this grass, the earth, the air ..." He was thinking all that and at the same time remembered that he was being looked at.

— from War and Peace, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, page 810

And at that moment he felt a blow above his nipple.

"That's nothing, damn it," he told himself in the first second after the blow. His spirits rose even higher, but suddenly his strength failed him and he fell.

"This is real death. This is the end," he told himself at that moment. "A shame. What now? There was still something, still something good. It's annoying, he thought. Some soldiers picked him up.

"Leave me, lads. Don't break ranks," said Prince Andrei, not knowing himself why he said it, but at the same time desperate to make them carry out his command. They disobeyed him and started carrying him.

"Yes, there was something I still had to do," he thought.

— from War and Peace, The Original Version, translated by Andrew Bromfield, page 840

Books Featured In This Story

War and Peace

by Richard Pevear, Larissa Volokhonsky and Leo Tolstoy

Hardcover, 1273 pages | purchase

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War and Peace

Original Version

by Leo Tolstoy, Andrew Bromfield and Nikolai Tolstoy

Hardcover, 884 pages | purchase

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