Tolstoy's Real Hero ...
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Volume 54, Number 18 · November 22, 2007
Tolstoy's Real Hero
By Orlando Figes
War and Peace
by Leo Tolstoy,translated from the Russian by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky
Knopf, 1,273 pp., $37.00
In his Lectures on Russian Literature Vladimir Nabokov maintains that "the third, and worst, degree of turpitude" in literary translation, after "obvious errors" and skipping over awkward passages,
is reached when a masterpiece is planished and patted into such a shape, vilely beautified in such a fashion as to conform to the notions and prejudices of a given public. This is a crime, to be punished by the stocks as plagiarists were in the shoebuckle days.
Whether one agrees or not with Nabokov—whose own translation into English of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin sacrificed poetic rhythm, rhyme, and readability for literal word-by-word equivalence—there is no doubt that the practice of translation is strongly influenced by the literary tastes and sensibilities of the receiving culture.
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The Russians were not so impressed. Nabokov called her Gogol translations "dry and flat, and always unbearably demure." Kornei Chukovsky accused her of smoothing out the idiosyncrasies of writers' styles so that "Dostoevsky comes in some strange way to resemble Turgenev":
In reading the original [of Notes from Underground], who does not feel the convulsions, the nervous trembling of Dostoevsky's style? It is expressed in convulsions of syntax, in a frenzied and somehow piercing diction where malicious irony is mixed with sorrow and despair. But with Constance Garnett it becomes a safe blandscript: not a volcano, but a smooth lawn mowed in the English manner—which is to say a complete distortion of the original.
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Nabokov saw something typically "Tolstoyan" in these repetitions:
One peculiar feature of Tolstoy's style is what I shall term the "groping purist." In describing a meditation, emotion, or tangible object, Tolstoy follows the contours of the thought, the emotion, or the object until he is perfectly satisfied with his re-creation, his rendering. This involves what we might call creative repetitions, a compact series of repetitive statements, coming one immediately after the other, each more expressive, each closer to Tolstoy's meaning. He gropes, he unwraps the verbal parcel for its inner sense, he peels the apple of the phrase, he tries to say it one way, then a better way, he gropes, he stalls, he toys, he Tolstoys with words.
In War and Peace there are countless passages that illustrate this point— "sentences piled one on top of another" (as Chekhov described them)— perhaps none more memorable or famous than the last enormous sentence (258 Russian words) of Volume 3, Part 3, Chapter 5, describing the futile efforts of Count Rastopchin, the governor of Moscow, to maintain order and avert catastrophe just before the fall of the ancient capital to the French troops.
But Nabokov's quotation suggests more than verbosity. It gets us to the heart of Tolstoy's view of art, which was to search, to grope, for truth. What Tolstoy wrote in the final (typically Tolstoyan) sentence of his second "Sebastopol Sketch" (1855) could serve equally as a statement of his motives in writing War and Peace:
No, the hero of my story, whom I love with all my heart and soul, whom I have attempted to portray in all his beauty and who has always been, is now and will always be supremely supremely magnificent, is truth.
There is no division between Tolstoy's art and his philosophy, just as there is no way to separate the fiction from the discussions about history in War and Peace. As Tolstoy himself famously declared, War and Peace was "not a novel" and "still less a historical chronicle," but "what the author wanted and was able to express, in the form in which it is expressed." Without a unifying theme, without a plot or clear ending, War and Peace was a calculated challenge to the genre of the novel and to narrative in history. Tolstoy groped toward a different truth—one that would capture the totality of history, as it was experienced, and teach people how to live.
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