Last April, the UK imprint Fourth Estate published War and Peace: The Original Version by Leo Tolstoy, translated by Andrew Bromfield. Ecco will publish this version in the US in September (coinciding with a new Knopf translation--as noted by PW). In the months preceding its release, Mitzi Angel, editorial director of Fourth Estate, wrote an essay detailing the historical relation of this draft to the 1,300 page juggernaut that many of us first encountered as undergraduates. She kindly allowed me to reproduce the essay here. As you'll see, it's an interesting story.
War & Peace
The Original Version
By Leo Tolstoy
Translated by Andrew Bromfield
By Mitzi Angel
In September 1865 Dostoevsky, wrote a letter to a publisher in Moscow outlining his plans for the story of Crime and Punishment, suggesting that the monthly journal Russkii Vestnik publish his prospective novel in installments. It is perhaps the most famous pitch in literary history. ‘This will be a psychological study of a crime,’ he wrote; ‘It will be a novel of contemporary life and the action takes place this year.’ It so happened that Katkov, the publisher, was in a position to be able to accept – new installments of Leo Tolstoy’s 1805, later War and Peace, were slow to appear, and he was grateful for some new material. Dostoevsky, paralyzed by gambling debts, having lost the money that Turgenev had lent him, close to starvation and unable to pay his hotel bill in Wiesbaden, had begun his work on the novel. ‘Later I found out’, Dostoevsky wrote of Katkov’s purchase of the serial rights (the money incidentally was not enough to keep his creditors away) ‘that he was only too glad to accept my offer because he had nothing else for that year. Turgenev has not written anything and he has quarreled with Lev Tolstoy.’
So it is that one journal, in one year, nurtured the messy beginnings of two masterpieces whose lives were to extend well beyond their monthly incarnations. The first part of Crime and Punishment was published in January. It was then followed by some more installments of Tolstoy’s 1805, published in February, March and April of that year. More of Crime and Punishment then appeared. Tolstoy wrote a letter to his friend, the poet Afanasij Vet, and explained that he was thinking of a new title for this work in progress – All’s Well That Ends Well. That year he also began to explore the possibility – urged on by his wife Sofya Andreyevna – of publishing the novel in volume form, which was to cause consternation for the journal’s publisher, who was by now well aware of the public’s enthusiastic response, and reluctant to see the work appear in any other form.
There were other reasons for the strain in the relationship between Tolstoy and Katkov, his publisher. The fact is that whatever this novel was finally to be called, it was still work in progress. Despite publication of the initial sections in February 1865, he had begun extensive revisions to the book. From April to November, he had temporarily withdrawn his involvement with the journal and was busy reworking vast swathes of it, unresponsive to the journal’s demands. Life too, and history with it, provided its own interruptions. In 1866, there was a birth – of his son, Ilya – and a death. The death was that of a young soldier whom Tolstoy had agreed to defend against being court-martialled and executed for slapping a bullying battalion commander. His attempt, which he later looked back on with regret and embarrassment, failed, and the boy was sent to the firing squad. He visited the battlefield at Borodino, and no doubt had cause to reflect on one of his greatest themes in the novel; the ordinary confusion of human affairs and its complicated and problematic relationship to the making of history. This was to culminate in one of Tolstoy’s greatest scenes in War and Peace; Pierre Bezukhov wandering about on the field, looking futilely amongst the chaos for a scene which might capture history in the making.
And just as pinning down history in the making proves so elusive, so perhaps is the genesis of War and Peace. More than any other writer before or since, Tolstoy was living through the novel as it developed, adapting and changing it as his ideas matured, the book undergoing transformation for a period of 6 years, until it was finally published in 1869, in a four-volume set. What had originally been envisioned as a book about the Decembrists, the members of the nobility who had staged a revolt on the death of Alexander 1 in 1825, evolved over time into the historical epic we know. War now demanded more attention; the half-centenary of Borodino in 1862 had given rise to debate among the Russian intelligentsia about the nature of history. Tolstoy, a man thoroughly engaged with the ideas of his time, was by the late 60s struggling to reconcile a sense of historical purpose with the simultaneous conviction that the truth was likely to be found in haphazard and untidy human behaviour. The book arose from ceaseless questioning; a restless mind grappling with problems which were gaining in urgency for Tolstoy as the years went by and as the Napoleonic wars were being replayed and endlessly discussed in Russian society.
What then, in the face of the incessant transformations in the novel’s designs are we to make of this ‘Original Version’ which, as the back cover of the Russian edition proudly and boldly declares is ‘half as long and twice as interesting’? Given the complex genesis and evolution of the novel is there such a thing as an ‘early version’ of War and Peace? Just as Tolstoy, in the novel itself, follows people’s lives through marriage to middle old age, with no sense of artificially imposed beginnings or endings, the novel seems to have arisen organically, already living and breathing even as it was being developed and extended. It seems to close reluctantly, with epilogues and postscripts, as though the energy needed to set that seething mass of humanity into motion has not yet been expended. It is tempting to feel there could never be a ‘definitive’ version of War and Peace, let alone an ‘original’ one. Can one say, as the publisher of the 2000 Russian edition confidently expressed himself in the St Petersburg Times, that this early conception of the novel ‘is authentic Tolstoy’?
The story of the ‘Original Version’ begins in 1918, when a Tolstoy Museum Researcher named Evelina Zaidenshnur, began trawling through some of the earlier drafts of the novel to establish what it was Tolstoy had written before he began the extensive revisions which were to take him from 1865 to 1869. This draft was believed to be the ‘Zero-Variant’; one which Tolstoy for some time considered to be the first completed text of his novel. But it was no easy task to recover – Tolstoy revised his original manuscript by working on the page. Bent over a desk, Zaidenshnur spent her days deciphering handwriting, comparing different ink colours, in order to work out which words had been used in the earliest incarnation of the novel. It took her fifty years; more than half a lifetime. Her work of crippling dedication was designed for Tolstoy scholars eager to grapple with the implications of the differing texts. It was eventually published in 1983 by the Soviet Academy of Sciences, and they called the book an ‘early version…restored for the first time.’ In this version, Prince Andrei Bolkonsky and Petya Rostov stay alive, the long, involved meditations on the nature of history and on Napoleon no longer feature and, there is ‘more peace, less war.’
It was this labour of love that the publisher Igor Zakharov published in February 2000, after having himself worked on the manuscript in order to make it accessible to a wider readership. His words on the subject, reported in the St Petersburg Times, are at first sight alarmingly cavalier: ‘I took out all the brackets, cleaned it up…took out all the French – and here it is! There is not a single word by Zacharov here!’ One can hear the Tolstoy scholars turning in their graves, but as it happens the publisher himself is also an academic and a philologist, so his words suggest more of a laissez-faire attitude than is in fact evident from the care he took with the material. Zacharov continues in the same, exuberant tone: ‘I will never say that this is the only book [War and Peace] one should read…It is, if you wish, like one’s first and second husband. Of course, the second husband is better, but that first one – he is also part of one’s life.’
Of course, the bold claims on the book jacket were bound to stir up controversy. People worried that the confusion caused by this new version might lead people to mistake the new, shorter version for the final version. What was to happen in school examinations if pupils were to abandon the lengthy War and Peace for a quick and easy version? After all, it’s well known that many readers struggle through the lengthy historical disquisitions. Flaubert was reported to have vented his frustration with the novel – ‘Il se repete! Et il philosophise!’ – and if he hadn’t the patience to sit through all 1,500 pages, then what about the schoolchildren burdened with their homework? What would happen to their understanding of their literary heritage? Russian newspapers, magazines and television reported the appearance of the new book in detail; the merits of the new edition was put on trial in a televised debate.
Fourth Estate will publish Andrew Bromfield’s translation of the ‘Original Version’ in April 2006. I cannot imagine that Tolstoy would have used trial and error in his approach to writing War and Peace, and given that he was working through the material, engaging with problems as he progressed, it is difficult to see how one could define this as a ‘first draft’. Equally, the scientific term ‘zero-variant’ sits awkwardly with a novel so much on the move; it was reissued eleven times during Tolstoy’s lifetime, some of those editions featuring the French dialogues (spoken by the Russian nobility); some of them translated by Tolstoy – although apparently rather inaccurately – into Russian. But Zacharov’s flippancy again disguises some truth. This version, published for the first time in this country, is undoubtedly an insight into the departure points for the novel we know. Andrew Bromfield’s beautiful translation also reveals much more about Tolstoy as a stylist than previous editions have done – his wife’s editing for the later versions was extensive and she rewrote much of his prose. This reveals, in Andrew Bromfield’s words, his natural style, his ‘elegant klutchiness.’ And, quite simply, this War and Peace is shorter. Isn’t that something to celebrate? Don’t most of us share Boris Johnson’s bedside reading thoughts from the Sunday Times: ‘Reading Tolstoy is like trying to invade Russia itself’?
Like all great works of literature, War and Peace has been renewed, repackaged and reimagined. One of the editions I found on my shelf was a tired-looking TV tie-in paperback from the seventies, with a technicolour image of Andrei staring defiantly across the battlefield. There is a very short paragraph of biographical information on Tolstoy. The last sentence, tantalising for those who might not know the story, is somehow poignant for its lack of information: ‘He died in 1910, in the course of a dramatic flight from home, at the small railway station of Astapovo.’