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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.
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.[ ... ]
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.
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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