Tuesday, November 20, 2007

James Wood on the new W&P

James Wood is my favorite critic working today. He has his limits - what great critic does not - but he always offers original insights. The New Yorker wisely hired him this summer. What took them so long?

His latest piece is on the new War and Peace translation, a subject I will soon be sick of. Wood is typically excellent on Tolstoy's voice, a complicated subject in War and Peace due to the inset essays about the meaning and nature of history. There, Tolstoy could hardly be more obtrusive, while in the narrative sections he often comes close to vanishing. The narrative sometimes seems to contradict the essays. To which Tolstoy should the reader listen?

I suppose a new reader of War and Peace should save this piece for later. Wood discusses books seriously - he assumes that you're not reading the book for the soap opera.

Wood says that Tolstoy first envisioned the book as a domestic saga in the manner of Trollope, set in 1856, called All's Well That Ends Well. Great leaps of rethinking led to the final product. To understand 1856, one must understand the Decemberist conspiracy of 1825. To understand 1825, one must understand Napoleon and 1812. And so on. The puzzle is how Tolstoy put a stop to this retogression and actually wrote a novel.

I'm going to try to post a version of this at the Russian Reading Challenge as well.

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