September 11th, 2009

In which the author bosses you around (kind of) about Tolstoy

My friend Geoff mentioned in an email that he had never read Tolstoy, and wanted to know where to begin. ("At the beginning," the King of Hearts tells us, "and when you get to the end, stop."):

"For Tolstoy, I think you would do very well to start with Anna Karenina. I recommend the Constance Garnett translation (and I especially recommend the Modern Library edition of the Constance Garnett translation, found readily in any Barnes & Noble, because it has a gorgeous essay by Mona Simpson). Tolstoy isn't necessarily one for lovely sentences; like Steinbeck, he's a story teller more than any sort of sentence-crafter. And actually, more than a story teller, Tolstoy just has the most compassionate eye of any writer I've ever met. He's also very generous with his writing. There's a wonderful moment in War & Peace where he describes a dinner party, and the frustrations of a German tutor who is passed over during one of the wine courses*. The German tutor won't be mentioned again at all; he's in no way integral to the story; and yet his heartbreak at missing one of the wines, and not being able to send home a complete account of this spectacle ofa dinner party, is funny and moving and necessarily unnecessary. That's the kind of writer Tolstoy is."

[* "The German tutor was trying to learn by heart a list of all the kinds of dishes, desserts, and wines, in order to write a detailed description of them to the folks at home in Germany, and greatly mortified that the butler with the bottle in the napkin passed him over. The German knitted his brows, and tried to look as though he would not have cared to take that wine, but he was mortified because no one would understand that he had not wanted the wine to quench his thirst, or through greed, but from a conscious desire for knowledge."

The above is from the Constance Garnett translation -- the best translation, in my opinion. Here is how Aylmer Maude translates the same passage:

The German tutor was trying to remember all the dishes, wines, and kinds of dessert, in order to send a full description of the dinner to his people in Germany; and he felt greatly offended when the butler with a bottle wrapped in a napkin passed him by. He frowned, trying to appear as if he did not want any of that wine, but was mortified because no one would understand that it was not to quench his thirst or from greediness that he wanted it, but simply from a conscientious desire for knowledge.
"Learn by heart" is much more descriptive than "remember" -- and goes more towards creating a full-formed character. We see the German tutor, possibly muttering details under his breath in a sort of repetitious incantation, the ultimate outcome of which is hoped to be memory. "Detailed description," I think, is also much richer than "full description." It's more expressive of what the German wants to accomplish. It's likely he comes from a family of limited means; it's likely his family has never had a variety of wines at table, not to mention courses, soups, desserts, and silver. He can't feed his family from this disgustingly voluptuous table, but he can feed their imaginations. "Knitted his brows" is in a league of its own over "frowned." I also don't think he's frowning necessarily. His expression is complicated the way knitting is complicated, with knits and purls, and dropped stitches. I could go on -- but I'll close by saying that Garnett understands the scene better than Maude may understand the Russian (and that's an argument used against Garnett -- that she mistranslates the Russian; that she's a Victorian prude). And for a translation, I think that's more important.]