From a notebook: On War and Peace, 1
A couple of years ago, Margot and I embarked on a tandem reading journey. Concerned that I was succumbing to digital distraction and losing the ability to concentrate, I prescribed myself Proust as a therapeutic measure: I would immerse myself in his imagination for ten pages a day until I had fully traversed the seven volumes of his search for lost time. I invited Margot along for company, and she willingly took up the challenge. Ten months later, when the music stopped on the author’s exquisitely choreographed concluding scene, we were out of breath, exhilarated. Buoyed by the success of that long haul, we took a quick sprint through The Count of Monte Cristo—a book a third as long as Proust’s masterpiece (only 1200-odd pages!), its prose and plot move so fleetly that we completed it in little more than a month—and continued on to The Ambassadors, Our Mutual Friend, Daniel Deronda, and a few other sizable tomes. Companionship is welcome over the long haul of a substantial work, for whenever one of us gets busy (or lazy) and falls behind, the other can call out with encouragement from a few chapters ahead.
Halfway on our journey through War and Peace, I read with interest a piece by Janet Malcolm on English renditions of the Russian classics; on the one hand, it was a frankly tetchy denigration of the critically acclaimed versions of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, and, on the other, a generous celebration of the industry and inspiration of Constance Garnett (1861-1946), whose Homeric feats of translation first introduced many of the major works of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Gogol, Turgenev, and Chekhov to an English-language audience. Malcolm’s eye, or better, ear, is focused on the niceties of Garnett’s Victorian style (which is nice indeed, and clearly shaped, as Malcolm suggests, by the standards of Dickens, Trollope, and George Eliot), as compared to what she calls the “flat, awkward English” of Pevear and Volokhonsky. The latter pair would, no doubt, demur, and, rightly or wrongly, attribute the character of their prose to greater fidelity to the particular energy of Tolstoy’s mode of expression than Garnett exhibits. In fact, here’s a relevant exchange from an interview I did with Pevear and Volokhonsky when their edition of War and Peace was published in 2007:
James Mustich: I’m struck by the connection between the role of the historian or the novelist trying to impose a false order on things and the role of the translator who may well impose a false order, or style, on the work. Comparing your translations of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy to earlier versions, it seems to me that there is an implicit critique of previous translations, in that your fidelity to the “happening” of the language, to the line-by-line happening of the words, takes precedence to the ideal of some smoother style, some more homogenous style that might be more reader-friendly. Or even more editor-friendly, as you discovered when you first submitted your Anna Karenina. (Editor’s Note: When Pevear and Volokhonsky turned in the manuscript for this to their London publishers, they were told it was “unreadable.” As Pevear exclaimed to David Remnick in The New Yorker: “They told us it had to be more ‘reader-friendly.’ But Tolstoy himself is not reader-friendly!” Aided by the imprimatur of Oprah’s Book Club, it proceeded–friendly or not—to make its way into the libraries of some several hundred thousand readers.) It seems like what Tolstoy is saying about historians and novelists, you are implicitly saying about translating these works—that you can’t impose that false order, that it’s in the language as it happens that the story is really told.
Richard Pevear: That’s exactly right. Especially imposing an order from outside. Because as an experimental writer, Tolstoy’s language, his seeking in words is also experimental. He worked very hard at how to arrive at, as he says, the effect that he intended. But certainly, it’s not as if there is simply an event which has to be recounted to the reader, because it’s also a way of experiencing that event. A writer only has words to render the quality of the experience, and so the quality of his language is essential to the work. The translator has to follow that, or he loses that specific artistic quality, which is what you’re trying to translate.
Except for its just appreciation of Garnett’s achievement, which all readers should celebrate, Malcolm’s argument is not terribly convincing based on the evidence she supplies in her essay. And I’m not sure that even if it was convincing it would matter much: the content of War and Peace can take care of itself, because Tolstoy’s multifaceted conception insinuates itself into a reader’s mind as its own reality, both vast and intimate. (Margot and I were, as it turns out, reading the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation, and I can’t say that I noticed it much one way or the other.) Virginia Woolf, who no doubt read Garnett, put it well in A Room of One’s Own:
The whole structure, it is obvious, thinking back on any famous novel, is one of infinite complexity, because it is thus made up of so many different judgements, of so many different kinds of emotion. The wonder is that any book so composed holds together for more than a year or two, or can possibly mean to the English reader what it means for the Russian or the Chinese. And what holds them together in these rare instances of survival (I was thinking of War and Peace) is something that one calls integrity, though it has nothing to do with paying one’s bills or behaving honorably in an emergency. What one means by integrity, in the case of the novelist, is the conviction that he gives one that this is the truth. . . . One holds every phrase, every scene to the light as one reads—for Nature seems, very oddly, to have provided us with an inner light by which to judge of the novelist’s integrity or disintegrity. Or perhaps it is rather that Nature, in her most irrational mood, has traced in invisible ink on the walls of the mind a premonition which these great artists confirm; a sketch which only needs to be held to the fire of genius to become visible. When one so exposes it and sees it come to life one exclaims in rapture, But this is what I have always felt and known and desired! And one boils over with excitement, and, shutting the book even with a kind of reverence as if it were something very precious, a stand-by to return to as long as one lives, one puts it back on the shelf, I said, taking War and Peace and putting it back in its place.
In an essay in the online magazine Guernica about her labor executing her magnificent translation of Don Quixote, Edith Grossman wrote: “looming in the background of all literary endeavor, establishing a gloomy, compelling counterpoint to the utopian model, is Flaubert’s melancholy observation: ‘Language is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time we long to move the stars to pity.’”
Dancing bears, stars, pity—the author of War and Peace would no doubt greet that imagery with a knowing nod. “If the world could write by itself, it would write like Tolstoy,” said Isaac Babel.