War and Peace in Our Time

Michael Katz in New England Journal:

The main question for us to consider now is why there should suddenly be such a surge of interest in Tolstoy’s War and Peace, when there is certainly no shortage of translations of this famous work. Indeed, there have been at least ten previous English versions, the first translated (from the French) and published in 1886 by one Clara Bell, an enormously prolific professional translator; the second, in 1889, by Nathan Haskell Dole, an extraordinary character, writer, and journalist, whose apparent lack of skill in the enterprise was such that Tolstoy himself felt compelled to beg him to stop translating his works. The indefatigable Constance Garnett also undertook this demanding project, as did another husband-and-wife team, the highly reliable Louise and Aylmer Maude (who knew Tolstoy personally); the first Penguin edition (1957) was done by Rosemary Edmonds, followed a decade later by Ann Dunnigan’s in Signet Classics (1968). Of all these many previous versions, the two that have best stood the test of time and the stricter test of scholarly examination are those produced by the Maudes and Ann Dunnigan.

But why do we have three brand new translations now and why have they caused such a stir? Well, for one thing, as everyone knows, we are currently at war. A quick search of the internet with the two words “Tolstoy” and “Iraq” yields a wealth of articles with titles such as “Perhaps Saddam Read Tolstoy and Bush’s People Didn’t” (Ben Bagdikian, countercurrents.org, 2003) and “No Military Hope, So Send More Troops” (W. Patrick Lang and Ray McGovern, consortiumnews.com, 2006), not to mention the posts in various weblogs opining on the subject.

On July 17, 2007, in a New York Times op-ed column entitled “Heroes and History,” David Brooks observed:

Many will doubt this, but Bush is a smart and compelling presence in person, and only the whispering voice of Leo Tolstoy holds one back.

Tolstoy had a very different theory of history. Tolstoy believed great leaders are puffed-up popinjays. They think their public decisions shape history, but really it is the everyday experiences of millions of people which organically and chaotically shape the destiny of nations—from the bottom up.

If what is taken to be Bush’s theory of history is correct, the right security plan can lead to safety, the right political compromises to stability. But if Tolstoy is right, then the future of Iraq is beyond the reach of global summits, political benchmarks, and the understanding of any chief executive.