Musing on the Classics & the Mystery of the Lapsed Subscription

My collection of copies of Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.”

I love rereading the classics. Not occasionally, but constantly.  My shabby copies of nineteenth-century novels fall open to favorite scenes. What ho!  Is it War and Peace time? (That’s on New Year’s Day.)  And I am once again spellbound by the kindness and simplicity of my favorite character,  Marya Bolokonsky, when she forgives Mademoiselle Bourienne, her  shallow French companion, “with her ribbons and pretty face,” for making out with Marya’s imbecilic suitor.   

Every year I reread four of my best-loved books, War and Peace,  Daniel Deronda, Villette, and Bleak House.  They are brilliant, witty, intense,  and gorgeously-written.   These are the most perfect books I have ever read.

Occasionally, when I feel almost too well-acquainted with one of them,  I read another by the same author.  For example, Anna Karenina is my Tolstoy alternate.  Yet I also know this book extremely well.  Oh, yes, I love this scene, I thought, smiling, during a recent rereading of Anna Karenina.

And who could not be charmed by Levin’s comic perturbation when he is late for his wedding because of a wardrobe mix-up?  His servant forgot to provide a fresh shirt, and he can’t wear yesterday’s crumpled shirt with his new stylish waist-coat and coat.  Levin’s other shirts are packed in a trunk at his fiancee’s house.

The dialogue charms and perfectly depicts the personalities of Levin and his friend Oblonsky.

‘Was ever a man in such a terribly idiotic position?’ he demanded.

‘Yes, it is stupid,’ Oblonsky concurred with a soothing smile. ‘But don’t worry, it will be here in a minute.’

‘Oh, how can I help it?’ said Levin with suppressed fury. ‘And these idiotic open waistcoats—it’s impossible!’ He glanced at his crumpled shirt-front. ‘And suppose the things have already gone to the station!’ he exclaimed in despair. ‘

‘Then you’ll have to wear mine.’

Tolstoy weaves a web of happy and unhappy families.  The wedding of Levin and Kitty occurs in the middle of this masterpiece, which centers on three marriages, two disrupted by adultery. Anna Karenina leaves her husband Karenin for Vronsky, and virtually ruins Karenin’s career as well as her reputation;  her brother Stiva Oblonsky cheats on his wife Dolly, but Dolly forgives him, ironically because of Anna’s intervention. (Does Tolstoy think adultery runs in families?)

Tolstoy descrbes the marriage of the innocents Levin and Kitty optimistically, though no marriage is romantic or ideal.   

Tolstoy’s books are nimble, well-plotted, fast-paced, vibrant, and the characters jump off the page.  As for translations, my favorite is the Maude.

THE MYSTERY OF THE LAPSED SUBSCRIPTION.  I do not read enough of the TLS to justify a subscription, but I enjoy the N.B. column, and you can’t go wrong with Mary Beard as classics editor. Over the years I have bought way, way too many books because of the fascinating reviews.  (That aspect of a subscripiton is not good.)

A few days ago, when I was mysteriously “shut out” of the website, I wondered, What the hell…?   So I wrote to the helpline, in India or China or wherever, and was told that my subscription was canceled last March.  I know I resubscribed later;  how otherwise could I have accessed all the articles until this January?  But they say they have no record…

I’ll resubscribe after I’ve read all the books I’ve bought!

Are You a Russian Lit Geek? Rereading Goncharov’s “Oblomov” and Tolstoy’s “The Cossacks”

Are you a Russian lit geek?  I love Russian classics.  I even saved my adorable notes from a long-ago Russian Literature in Translation class.  And I  recently reread two 19th-century Russian novels, Ivan Goncharov’s comic masterpiece, Oblomov, and Tolstoy’s short novel, The Cossacks.

I have never read a funnier novel than  Oblomov. The enchantingly slothful hero, Ilya Ilyich Oblomov, prefers sleep to action.  He naps and lazes all day in his dusty apartment, where his servant Zakhar does as little as possible.  In the opening chapter, the two quarrel about the housekeeping.  Zakhar claims he can’t dust or sweep the cobwebs unless Oblomov goes out for a day.  The prospect horrifies Oblomov. “Good lord! what next?  Go out indeed!  You’d better go back to your room.”

Nothing can wake up Oblomov:  neither his bailiff’s cheating him of money,  nor  the landlord’s eviction notice.    But when his energetic half-German friend Stolz shows up, Oblomov reluctantly make the rounds of social visits. But he doesn’t truly wake up tills he falls in love with  Olga, a young woman determined to direct his life:  she  insists that he read books and  take long walks.  The romance  can’t last, of course.  Oblomov becomes sluggish in the fall.  And he  suffers from what he calls “Oblomovism.”

One of the most famous chapters is “Oblomov’s Dream,” the longest single scene in Russian literature, according to critic Richard Freeborn.  Oblomov dreams of his  idyllic childhood  and future with a wife and children on his beautiful country estate.  The power of Oblomov’s imagination radically changes our attitude toward his sleepy mode of living.  Critics in the 19th century interpreted “Oblomovism” as an illustration of the  Russian character flaw that prevented reform and revolution.  Stolz is successful only because he is half German.  But Goncharov also believed the artist must be a passive vehicle, “an artist of the eye” who relies on his subconscious. And Oblomov fits that description, I think on a third reading.  Yet such an interpretation is out of context.

I have read and loved David Magarshack’s translation of Oblomov (Penguin) and Natalie Duddington”s (Everyman’s Library).

Tolstoy wrote The Cossacks, a partly autobiographical novel, over 10 years.  He  traveled to the Caucasus in 1851 and in 1852 joined the army as a cadet.  Writing The Cossacks was Tolstoy’s attempt to deflate the romantic view of the Caucasus. It was published in 1863.

The Cossacks begins as the story of  Olenin, an upper-class young man who wonders “how to live.”  He leaves Moscow for the Caucasus, because he seeks a new kind of life.  In the Caucasus he is overwhelmed by the beauty of the mountains.  And he becomes infatuated with the simplicity and naturalness of the Cossacks.

The most interesting part of the book is a series of sketches of Cossack characters. The women farm and do the work; the men hunt, drink, and fight.   Tolstoy focuses on three characters:  Lukashka, a fearless Cossack soldier who does exactly what he wants, Maryanka, a gorgeous young woman who is understood to be engaged to Lukashka, and “Uncle” Yokashka, an old man who tells stories and drinks to excess.  Olenin falls in love with Maryanka. He wants to be a Cossack, but in the end realizes he will never fit in.

It is not my favorite Tolstoy, but he could not have written War and Peace if he had not written stories about the Caucasus and Crimea.

I have two good translations of this:  David McDuff’s (Penguin) and Aylmer and Louise Maude’s in Great Short Works of Leo Tolstoy. As so often, I preferred the Maude.

A Return to “War and Peace”

My “War and Peace” collection

I am rereading War and Peace, my favorite novel. (Well, it is tied with my other favorite, Charlotte Bronte’s Villette).  I have read Tolstoy’s classic 12 times since I was 18, when it changed my concept of the novel, and I’ve written  about it eight times at my old blog Mirabile Dictu.

Tolstoy’s masterpiece is more than a blockbuster novel:  it is a portal to 19th-century Russia, particularly to society in Moscow and Petersburg . And may I say the Rostov family and their awkward, fat friend Pierre seem as real to me as many people I know?  I am also fond of Nikolai Rostov’s military comrades in the Napoleonic Wars, especially the doppelgängers,  Denisov (lisping, comical noble, valiant ) and Dolokhov (valiant, a devoted son, but also nasty, jealous, and immoral). Both men fall in love with Rostov women, Denisov with Nikolai’s sister Natasha and  Dolokhov with Nikolai’s cousin Sonia.  (Is there a latent, transferred homosexuality here?)  When rejected, Denisov is embarrassed and knows he overstepped boundaries, but Dolokhov takes revenge by bankrupting Nikolai at cards.

My favorite character is Marya Bolokhonskaya, a plain young spinster who finds joy in doing good works, household duties, and religion.  We wonder, Will she ever escape her eccentric, often verbally abusive father?  Will any man ever see her inner beauty? But we admire her practicality in not living for silly flirtations and fashion.

I know something of the perils of translation, and so I was  fascinated by an essay I recently found by Michael R. Katz, “War and Peace in Our Time.” He muses on the coincidence of the publication of  three new translations of W&P in the first decade of this century.  In analyzing the reasons for the resurgence,  he traces the history of the English translations of W&P, beginning with the prolific  Clara Bell.  He considers the older translations by the English couple Louise and Aylmer Maude and the American translator Ann Dunnigan notable.  Of the new, he is  interested in the much-lauded translation by the famous couple Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky and that of the British translator Anthony Briggs.

The word “translation” comes from the Latin translatum, a past participle of the verb transfero, “carry across.” If you have ever attempted to “carry across” the literature of a foreign language into English writing, you will understand the difficulties.  Structures of languages are sometimes incompatible: English depends on word order, while inflected languages like Greek and Latin depend on word endings. The  flexible arrangement of words in inflected languages can’t quite be “transferred” to the English structure.

Since I have not read Ann Dunnigan’s translation, recommended by Michael R. Katz,  I decided to try it.   I popped the Signet paperback of the Dunnigan translation into my bike pannier for reading on the go. But here’s what I learned when I took a break at Starbucks:  War and Peace cannot be ideally read at a coffeehouse. Who knew?  Dunnigan’s translation is accessible and affecting, but not in a crowded cafe.

HERE ARE EXCERPTS FROM A POST I WROTE AT MIRABILE DICTU IN 2015, “The War and Peace Collection: Is Rosemary Edmonds’ Translation the Best?”

I reread War and Peace every year.

I started reading it again on New Year’s Day and just finished it a few hours ago.

And now I’m ready to start again.

 War and Peace says everything, no?  Why read anything else?  The translator Rosemary Edmonds wrote,  “War and Peace is a hymn to life.  It is the Iliad and the Odyssey of Russia.  Its message is that the only fundamental obligation of man is to be in tune with life.”

Tolstoy’s brilliant, entertaining chronicle of Russia during the Napoleonic wars is a pageturner.  Tolstoy said it was not a novel.  “It is not a novel, still less an epic poem, still less a historical chronicle. War and Peace is what the author wanted and was able to express, in the form in which it is expressed.”

I am loving Rosemary Edmonds’s superb translation of War and Peace.  This afternoon I was particularly moved by the pages describing Denisov’s grief over the senseless death of Petya Rostov.  The bleak contrast between the reactions of the unfeeling officer Dolokhov and the brave, kind, lisping officer Denisov made me cry.

When Dolohov notes Petya is “done for” and rides away from the corpse, expecting Denisov to follow,

Denisov did not reply.  He rode up to Petya, dismounted, and with trembling hands turned Petya’s blood-stained, mud-bespattered face–which had already gone white–towards himself.

“I always like sweet things. Wonderful raisins, take them all,” he recalled Petya’s words. And the Cossacks looked round in amazement at the sound, like the howl of a dog, which broke from Denisov as he quickly turned away, walked to the wattle fence and held on to it.

Which is your favorite translation of War and Peace? Constance Garnett?  The Maudes?  Anthony Briggs?  Pevear and Volokhonsky?