One can heartily recommend Bromfield’s translation to readers new to War and Peace, but for a fuller sense of Tolstoy’s...

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WAR AND PEACE

If you’re a mountain climber, it’s still Everest.  If you’re a baseball player, it’s the career home-run record.  If you translate from the Russian, sooner or later you’ll visit the Colossus:  Leo Tolstoy’s enormous masterpiece, whose composition absorbed a decade and whose godlike scope embraces “the intertwining of historical events with the private lives of two very different families of the Russian nobility.”

The words are those of Richard Pevear, who, with his wife Larissa Volokhonsky, has joined the intrepid army of translators including Victorian phenomenon Constance Garrett (who introduced War and Peace to the English-speaking world in 1904) and extending to her countryman Anthony Brigs, whose own new translation appeared to considerable acclaim in 2006.

The credentials Pevear and Volokhonsky bring to their task (lucid English-language versions of classic works of Dostoevsky, Gogol, and Chekhov; a vibrant Anna Karenina in 2001) might well have discouraged rival translators. But not Andrew Bromfield, an accomplished scholar-critic perhaps the best known for translating the fiction of contemporary Russian malcontent author Victor Pelevin.

What’s new about Bromfield’s War and Peace? It reproduces the 1866 text: a leaner version of the novel, written before Tolstoy had conceived the discursive chapters of historical argument that would swell the later full text to nearly 1,500 pages. Interestingly this “first” version was made available to Russian readers only as recently as 2000.

Pevear and Volokhonsky give us the whole animal, and claim for translation the distinction of reproducing fully Tolstoy’s use of foreign languages (particularly French – considered more “elegant” by the aristocracy, even, one infers, after Napoleon was threatening to incinerate their homeland). Inevitably, their version seems ampler, more scrupulously descriptive and analytical. But there are other, subtler differences: for example, in the following account of a wolf hunt, which is a metaphor for the approaching death throes of the old landed aristocracy:

“The wolf was already at the edge of the wood, he paused in his run, turned his grey head awkwardly towards the dogs, in the way someone sick with angina turns his head and, with the same gentle rolling movement, leapt once, then again, and the last thing they saw was his tail disappearing into the wood.” (Bromfield)

“The wolf slowed his flight, turned his big-browed head towards the dogs awkwardly, as if suffering from angina, and, swaying just as softly, leaped once, twice, and, with a wag of his tail, disappeared into the bushes.”(Pevear and Volokhonsky)

One can heartily recommend Bromfield’s translation to readers new to War and Peace, but for a fuller sense of Tolstoy’s comprehensive and commanding artistic mastery, Pevear and Volokhonsky remain unchallenged as the A-team of Russian translators.

Pub Date: Oct. 16, 2007

ISBN: 978-0-307-26693-4

Page Count: 1312

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2007

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Inspired by disclosures of a real-life Florida reform school’s long-standing corruption and abusive practices, Whitehead’s...

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THE NICKEL BOYS

The acclaimed author of The Underground Railroad (2016) follows up with a leaner, meaner saga of Deep South captivity set in the mid-20th century and fraught with horrors more chilling for being based on true-life atrocities.

Elwood Curtis is a law-abiding, teenage paragon of rectitude, an avid reader of encyclopedias and after-school worker diligently overcoming hardships that come from being abandoned by his parents and growing up black and poor in segregated Tallahassee, Florida. It’s the early 1960s, and Elwood can feel changes coming every time he listens to an LP of his hero Martin Luther King Jr. sermonizing about breaking down racial barriers. But while hitchhiking to his first day of classes at a nearby black college, Elwood accepts a ride in what turns out to be a stolen car and is sentenced to the Nickel Academy, a juvenile reformatory that looks somewhat like the campus he’d almost attended but turns out to be a monstrously racist institution whose students, white and black alike, are brutally beaten, sexually abused, and used by the school’s two-faced officials to steal food and supplies. At first, Elwood thinks he can work his way past the arbitrary punishments and sadistic treatment (“I am stuck here, but I’ll make the best of it…and I’ll make it brief”). He befriends another black inmate, a street-wise kid he knows only as Turner, who has a different take on withstanding Nickel: “The key to in here is the same as surviving out there—you got to see how people act, and then you got to figure out how to get around them like an obstacle course.” And if you defy them, Turner warns, you’ll get taken “out back” and are never seen or heard from again. Both Elwood’s idealism and Turner’s cynicism entwine into an alliance that compels drastic action—and a shared destiny. There's something a tad more melodramatic in this book's conception (and resolution) than one expects from Whitehead, giving it a drugstore-paperback glossiness that enhances its blunt-edged impact.

Inspired by disclosures of a real-life Florida reform school’s long-standing corruption and abusive practices, Whitehead’s novel displays its author’s facility with violent imagery and his skill at weaving narrative strands into an ingenious if disquieting whole.

Pub Date: July 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-385-53707-0

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Jan. 21, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2019

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The writing is merely serviceable, and one can’t help but wish the author had found a way to present her material as...

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THE TATTOOIST OF AUSCHWITZ

An unlikely love story set amid the horrors of a Nazi death camp.

Based on real people and events, this debut novel follows Lale Sokolov, a young Slovakian Jew sent to Auschwitz in 1942. There, he assumes the heinous task of tattooing incoming Jewish prisoners with the dehumanizing numbers their SS captors use to identify them. When the Tätowierer, as he is called, meets fellow prisoner Gita Furman, 17, he is immediately smitten. Eventually, the attraction becomes mutual. Lale proves himself an operator, at once cagey and courageous: As the Tätowierer, he is granted special privileges and manages to smuggle food to starving prisoners. Through female prisoners who catalog the belongings confiscated from fellow inmates, Lale gains access to jewels, which he trades to a pair of local villagers for chocolate, medicine, and other items. Meanwhile, despite overwhelming odds, Lale and Gita are able to meet privately from time to time and become lovers. In 1944, just ahead of the arrival of Russian troops, Lale and Gita separately leave the concentration camp and experience harrowingly close calls. Suffice it to say they both survive. To her credit, the author doesn’t flinch from describing the depravity of the SS in Auschwitz and the unimaginable suffering of their victims—no gauzy evasions here, as in Boy in the Striped Pajamas. She also manages to raise, if not really explore, some trickier issues—the guilt of those Jews, like the tattooist, who survived by doing the Nazis’ bidding, in a sense betraying their fellow Jews; and the complicity of those non-Jews, like the Slovaks in Lale’s hometown, who failed to come to the aid of their beleaguered countrymen.

The writing is merely serviceable, and one can’t help but wish the author had found a way to present her material as nonfiction. Still, this is a powerful, gut-wrenching tale that is hard to shake off.

Pub Date: Sept. 4, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-06-279715-5

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: July 17, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2018

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