Michael Wood writes:
‘If the world could write by itself,’ Isaac Babel said, ‘it would write like Tolstoy.’ The remark is quoted at the head of Richard Pevear’s introduction to this handsome new translation of War and Peace. I should like to think Babel meant that if the world was given to intricate thematic contrasts and parallels among its materials, to careful cross-cutting between city and country, high society and hunting, the salon and the racetrack, home and abroad, it would have written War and Peace and Anna Karenina. But I’m afraid he meant something simpler and more familiar: he was making the old, strange claim that Tolstoy, more than any other writer of fiction, reproduces the world just as it really, unarguably is. He is the world’s best secretary, this argument goes, better at the task than Balzac and Zola, also supposedly eager contestants, and certainly better at it than Dostoevsky and Dickens, who never applied for the job at all.