The recent 150th anniversary of Tolstoy’s monumental novel, War and Peace has sparked all kinds of celebrations. Although rather heavily anglicised, I loved watching the BBC’s recent adaptation. In Russia, a live, non-stop reading of the entire novel, featuring all kinds of celebrities, eminent scholars, students, actors, Prime Minister Medvedyev, a cosmonaut on the International Space Station, and many other volunteers, was quite an undertaking, and particularly impressive. So, almost thirty years after I first read this book, I found myself turning back to the original text, setting myself the challenge of translating a small extract from this vast work of literature.
There are already plenty of excellent English translations of the novel, from Constance Garnet and Aylmer and Louise Maude, to Pevear and Volokhonsky or Andrew Bromfield in more recent times, to name but a few. My personal favourite is the 1957 version by Rosemary Edmonds, which I read one summer whilst studying Russian in an idyllic forest setting not far from Moscow. Although I would not dare to compare my humble efforts to these pillars of the translation world, there is much personal pleasure to be found in working on even just a small sample of such a wonderful text, and a lot to be learned in the process.
An abridged version of this particular chapter was printed in the July/August 2015 edition of Russian Life (an excellent magazine which I heartily recommend) and it led me to seek out the full text. Thus, I began to read it again, in the way that only a translator does, picking apart every word, and peering between the lines and into the spaces to see what I could find…
Since that morning, Natasha had not had a minute’s freedom to think about what might lie ahead for her.
In the damp, cold air, and in the cramped semi-darkness of the jolting carriage, she imagined vividly, for the first time, what would be waiting for her there, at the ball, in those brightly-lit halls – music, flowers, dancing, the Sovereign, and all the brilliant young people of St Petersburg. What lay in store for her was so wonderful that she could hardly believe it was true: it was so incongruous with the cold, dark confines of the carriage. She only realised all that awaited her when she stepped across the red carpet in the doorway, went into the entrance hall, took off her fur coat, and walked beside Sonya and ahead of her mother, between the flowers on the illuminated staircase. Only then did she remember how she was supposed to behave at a ball, and attempted to adopt the majestic airs which she considered essential for a girl at such an occasion. Fortunately for her, though, she was completely dazzled: she could not see anything clearly, her pulse was racing at a hundred beats per minute, and her blood began to pound in her head. She could not assume those airs which would have made her seem ridiculous, and she walked about, overcome with excitement but trying her hardest not to show it. But this manner suited her best of all. Guests were entering ahead of them and behind them, conversing in the same hushed tones and wearing the same ball gowns. The mirrors along the staircase reflected ladies in white, blue and pink dresses with diamonds and pearls on their exposed arms and necks.
Natasha looked in the mirrors and could not tell her own reflection from the others. Everything merged into one brilliant procession. Upon entering the first hall, Natasha was deafened by the constant noise of voices, footsteps and greetings, and the light and brilliance blinded her all the more. The host and hostess had been standing at the entrance door for half an hour already, repeating the same words to people as they came in: “Charmé de vous voir.” They greeted the Rostovs and Mrs Peronskaya in likewise fashion.
The two girls in white dresses, with identical roses in their black hair, curtsied in exactly the same way, but the gaze of the hostess lingered involuntarily on the slender Natasha, giving her alone a special smile over and above the usual welcoming one. As she glanced at the girl, perhaps the hostess was recalling her own golden, irretrievable girlhood and her own first ball. The host also followed Natasha with his eyes and asked the count which one was his daughter.
“Charmante,” he said, kissing the tips of his fingers.
The guests gathered in the hall, crowding in front of the door, as they waited for the Sovereign. The Countess took up her position at the front of the throng. Natasha heard several voices asking about her and sensed that she was being watched. She realised that those who were paying attention to her found her pleasing, and this observation calmed her slightly.
“There are some who are just like us, and there are others who are not so nice,” she thought.
Mrs Peronskaya told the countess the names of the most important personalities at the ball.
“That grey-haired man you see over there is the Dutch ambassador,” said Mrs Peronskaya, pointing to an old man with a silver mop of curly hair, who was surrounded by ladies who were laughing at something he was telling them.
“And she is the Queen of St Petersburg, the Countess Bezukhova,” she said, pointing to Hélène as she walked in.
“How lovely! She could rival Maria Antonovna; see how the old and young flock around her. She is both beautiful and clever. They say that the prince is… mad about her. And as for those two, they may not be so pretty but they have even more people around them.”
She pointed to a woman who was walking across the room with her plain daughter.
“She is a millionaire bride,” said Mrs Peronskaya. “And those are her suitors.”
“That is Countess Bezukhova’s brother, Anatole Kuragin,” she said, gesturing towards a handsome cavalry guard as he passed by, his head held high and looking beyond them. “He is so fine, is he not? They say he is to be married to the rich girl. Your cousin Drubetskoy is also very attracted to her, too. It is said that she has millions of admirers. And that that is the French ambassador himself,” she said, as the countess enquired about Caulaincourt. “Look at him – he’s like some kind of king. But still, the French are so very nice. There is no-one nicer in society. Ah, there she is. No, our Maria Antonovna is the best of all! And she is so simply dressed. Delightful!”
“And as for that plump gentleman in the glasses – the worldly freemason,” said Mrs Peronskaya, pointing to Bezukhov, “if you stand him next to his wife he is such a laughing stock.”
As Pierre walked along, waddling under the weight of his amply proportioned body, he parted the crowd, nodding to right and left so nonchalantly and good-naturedly, as if he was wandering through a busy market. He was clearly looking for someone as he made his way through the mass of people.
Natasha was pleased to see the familiar face of Pierre, the ‘laughing-stock’ as Mrs Peronskaya called him, and knew that he was looking for them, and in particular for her. Pierre had promised her he would be at the ball and introduce her to the young men.
Before he reached them, though, he stopped next to a very handsome, dark-haired man of medium height, wearing a white uniform, who was standing by the window and chatting with a tall gentleman with stars and a ribbon on his uniform. Natasha immediately recognised the young man of medium height, in the white uniform: it was Bolkonsky, who seemed to have become younger, happier and finer.
“We already know Bolkonsky over there. Do you see him, Mama?” Natasha said, pointing to Prince Andrei. “Do you remember, he stayed overnight at our house in Otradnoye?”
“Oh, do you know him?” asked Mrs Peronskaya. “I cannot bear him. Il fait a present la pluie et le beau temps. His pride knows no bounds! He takes after his father. The person he is talking to is Speransky – they are working on some kind of project together. See how he behaves towards women! That one is talking to him, but he has turned away,” she said, pointing at him. “I would give him a piece of my mind if he treated me like that.”