A family affair. Robert Winder reads a new translation of Tolstoy's masterpiece, the first for 40 years, and wonders what happened to the flash and glitter of the book he loved

Anna Karenina

Leo Tolstoy, translated and edited by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokonsky <em>Alle

The opening sentence of Anna Karenina - "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way" (in Constance Garnett's version, published in 1901) - is one of the most famous lines in all literature. It is squirted casually, usually with approval, into the super-candid appraisals of domestic life that fill the pages of our newspapers and magazines - so much so, it almost has the status of an absolute truth. Perhaps it is because of this crushing ubiquity that I, for one, have never much liked it. The sentiment seems surprisingly glib and unTolstoyan. A happy family is a rare enough beast: the suggestion that they are ten-a-penny seems trite and unimaginative (indeed, if we are honest, most family tragedies follow grimly predictable lines). As for the idea that unhappy families are somehow aesthetically superior, more dramatic, more passionate - well, isn't that a mite too easy a Bohemian pose? I'd be the last person to dispute Tolstoy's genius, but I suspect that all he really meant was that happy families are a fat lot of good to a man planning an 800-page novel.

Anyway, it's an intimidating first line for a translator - a bit like "To be or not to be" for an actor. Almost 20 years after Garnett, Aylmer and Louise Maude came up with: "All happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." This is the version that has lived on in the dictionaries of quotations, so Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokonsky must have tussled with both the desire to make a big splash and the fear that they might trip at the first fence. In the end, they combine tact with precision, giving the slightly sloppy efforts of Garnett and Maude a gentle buffing-up. "All happy families are alike," they write; "each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." There we are: nothing to it. They have preserved the improved balance provided by "all . . . each", rather than "all . . . every", steered clear of the muddy vagueness of "all alike" and restored the grand symmetry of the equation by losing that pseudo-conversational "but". It seems exemplary; they have neither fiddled with so classic a sentence, nor flinched from giving it a fresh lick of paint.

It is enough to persuade us of the value of their endeavour. A translation, after all, can hardly be definitive - there seems every reason to applaud fresh assaults on famous peaks. When Jorge Luis Borges said of a story that "the original was unfaithful to the translation", he indicated that new interpretations can surpass, if not exactly reproduce, the works that inspired them. So why shouldn't great books, like symphonies, be granted the dignity of the occasional new performance?

This is all very well, in theory. But I couldn't help feeling, as I read this new Anna Karenina, that it was a little muted and drained of life. Where was the flash and glitter of the book I remembered (in Garnett's century-old translation)? It took only a few quick comparisons to see what had happened. Here, for instance, is the moment at the end of the ball where Anna and Vronsky first connect. He asks her if she really is leaving the next day.

"'Yes, I suppose so,' answered Anna, as if she were wondering at the boldness of his question; but the irrepressible, quivering brilliance of her eyes and her smile set him on fire as she said it."

That is how Garnett put it. Here's the new translation:

"'Yes, I think so,' replied Anna, as if surprised at the boldness of his question; but the irrepressible tremulous light in her eyes and smile burned him as she said it."

Almost every alteration here is for the worse. "I suppose so" is far more dramatic than "I think so" (with its bizarre suggestion that Anna is not sure whether she is leaving or not); and the original also carries a spike of obligation and regret on which Vronsky can hang his hopes. As for the "tremulous light" in her eyes (not to mention the light in her smile), it is a muddy comedown from the "quivering brilliance" with which Anna's eyes once sparkled so temptingly. I winced to see her being no more than "surprised" by Vronsky's boldness - it was so much more eager and ardent of her to be "wondering". Finally, is "burned" a crisper metaphor than "set on fire"? No offence but, in the Harry Potter era, we can almost take it literally.

This steady subtraction of the upper register in favour of a more understated prose saturates the entire book. Garnett liked loud colours, and was happy to let vigorous overstatements collide and ignite; Pevear and Volokonsky settle for a calmer colour scheme. At the same ball, Kitty looks (or used to look) at the bewitching Anna and feels there to be "something uncanny, devilish and fascinating in her". Now she merely observes "something alien, demonic and enchanting". After her encounter with Vronsky on the train, Anna feels "both frightened and happy", where she used to feel "panic-stricken and blissful". And when confronted by her husband, she shines with "the terrible glow of a fire on a dark night" - which is mysterious in itself, given that fires on dark nights usually seem warm or welcoming rather than "terrible" - in place of her original fiery resemblance to "the fearful glow of a conflagration in the midst of a dark night". In all these moments, and in hundreds of others, Anna is shooed away from Garnett's vigorous physical descriptions towards a more abstract depiction. Her heart seems to beat less pulsatingly in exact proportion.

I suppose I resemble a typical reader of the book in having no Russian to refer to, so all of this might be an ignorant response. The new version may well be a more exact rendition of Tolstoy's tone. But it does feel as if a superb Russian mansion has been refurbished by Swedes: it is very clean and neat, but it lacks passion - which is ironic, given that this is more or less the subject of the book. In filtering away what might seem like the period excesses of Garnett's version, the novel has been robbed of a certain historical frisson that even the 100-year-old English version possessed. And faithfulness to the original is all very well, but not if it means taking the trouble to translate enfant terrible without taking the trouble to come up with something better than "terrible child". If this is what fidelity leads to, then Anna Karenina had it about right.

Robert Winder's reviews appear monthly in the NS

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis