Karenina Tidbits.

The foreign prince whom Vronsky is forced to escort around Petersburg had hunted “гемз” in Switzerland; while trying to find out what that might be (it turns out to be a russified form of German Gemse ‘chamois’ [Old High German gamiza < Late Latin camox], for which the normal Russian word is серна), I happened on Aleksandr Khavchin’s Перечитывая «Анну Каренину» [Rereading Anna Karenina], a collection of observations he had made on the novel. I love that sort of thing, and I’ll send those who read Russian to the link to enjoy it; for the rest of you, I’ll translate a few tidbits. He mentions some examples of awkward constructions and says (the passage starts “Общеизвестно, что Толстой писал коряво” in the Russian):

It’s generally known that Tolstoy wrote clumsily and awkwardly on purpose: he tried to make sure the reader’s gaze would not glide along but stumble; he wanted to slow down the process of reading and make it more difficult. And up to the last minute, even in the final proofs he would “spoil” the style, adding “which” and “that,” burdening and muddling grammatical constructions. Bunin thought it useful, perhaps as a practice exercise, to go through Tolstoy’s works with a pencil, polishing and cleaning. […]

Childhood, Boyhood, Youth, and the Sebastopol Sketches are written in a more correct and clear style Anna Karenina. Might it be because at Sovremennik they weren’t afraid to correct a young author, whereas at Russkii vestnik they couldn’t bring themselves to correct a venerable, famous, great one? To correct a Tolstoy, you have to be a Bunin at the very least!

After giving examples of what they call “continuity errors” in movies (Kitty is wearing slippers at one point, shoes a bit later), he says (“Если уж сам Толстой”):

If Tolstoy himself committed errors, that means that:
– absolutely everybody needs an editor;
– we, mere mortals, have to be three times as vigilant, because we won’t be forgiven. Accuracy is that quality which even an untalented author is required to have.

He quotes some bits of direct speech which actors find extremely difficult to bring off when staged, and says (“В жизни люди так не говорят!”):

People don’t talk that way in real life! Ordinary people don’t talk in such cumbersome compound sentences! Those poor actors, forced to learn all that by heart!

I don’t mean to say that in Gogol, Ostrovsky, Turgenev, and Chekhov the heroes talk “like real people.” Of course the illusion of conversational language is constructed with the help of artificial techniques. But Tolstoy, like Dostoevsky, seems not to go to the trouble of creating simpler forms of speech for his characters, to distinguish them stylistically from authorial speech. In Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, there are parentheses within direct speech — even in school they told us to avoid that!

I did enjoy catching him in an error. He says only Stiva and Anna meet all the rest of the main characters — Levin and Kitty don’t meet Karenin [Левин и Кити не встречаются с Карениным]. Not true: both of them meet Karenin at Oblonsky’s dinner in IV:9!

I’m a little over halfway through, and (of course) I have a complaint. In general the novel is just as great as its reputation; I gobbled up the first three parts feeling I was in the hands of a master. But in Part 4, I started grumbling when (spoiler!) Levin finally wins Kitty’s heart. Up till then, Tolstoy’s handling of the thwarted relationship has been superb: the intrusion of Vronsky, the rejection of the awkward Levin (who’s stayed away for months), the letdown of the ball when she realizes Vronsky doesn’t love her after all, and Levin’s bitter renunciation, apparently forever. Now Tolstoy brings them together at last, and immediately falls into what feels to me like a combination of a romance novel and a young-adult story. Levin, a man in his thirties, suddenly starts acting like a schoolboy; well and good, that can happen. But (I quote Garnett’s translation):

They arrived at the meeting. Levin heard the secretary hesitatingly read the minutes which he obviously did not himself understand; but Levin saw from this secretary’s face what a good, nice, kind-hearted person he was. This was evident from his confusion and embarrassment in reading the minutes. Then the discussion began. They were disputing about the misappropriation of certain sums and the laying of certain pipes, and Sergey Ivanovitch was very cutting to two members, and said something at great length with an air of triumph; and another member, scribbling something on a bit of paper, began timidly at first, but afterwards answered him very viciously and delightfully. And then Sviazhsky (he was there too) said something too, very handsomely and nobly. Levin listened to them, and saw clearly that these missing sums and these pipes were not anything real, and that they were not at all angry, but were all the nicest, kindest people, and everything was as happy and charming as possible among them. They did no harm to anyone, and were all enjoying it. What struck Levin was that he could see through them all today, and from little, almost imperceptible signs knew the soul of each, and saw distinctly that they were all good at heart. And Levin himself in particular they were all extremely fond of that day. That was evident from the way they spoke to him, from the friendly, affectionate way even those he did not know looked at him. […]

Levin went out onto the steps. The sledge-drivers clearly knew all about it. They crowded round Levin with happy faces, quarreling among themselves, and offering their services. Trying not to offend the other sledge drivers, and promising to drive with them too, Levin took one and told him to drive to the Shtcherbatskys’. The sledge-driver was splendid in a white shirt-collar sticking out over his overcoat and into his strong, full-blooded red neck. The sledge was high and comfortable, and altogether such a one as Levin never drove in after, and the horse was a good one, and tried to gallop but didn’t seem to move. The driver knew the Shtcherbatskys’ house, and drew up at the entrance with a curve of his arm and a “Wo!” especially indicative of respect for his fare. The Shtcherbatskys’ hall-porter certainly knew all about it. This was evident from the smile in his eyes and the way he said:

“Well, it’s a long while since you’ve been to see us, Konstantin Dmitrievitch!”

Not only he knew all about it, but he was unmistakably delighted and making efforts to conceal his joy. Looking into his kindly old eyes, Levin realized even something new in his happiness. […]

And at the confectioner’s, and at Fomin’s, and at Foulde’s he saw that he was expected; that they were pleased to see him, and prided themselves on his happiness, just as everyone whom he had to do with during those days. What was extraordinary was that everyone not only liked him, but even people previously unsympathetic, cold, and callous, were enthusiastic over him, gave way to him in everything, treated his feeling with tenderness and delicacy, and shared his conviction that he was the happiest man in the world because his betrothed was beyond perfection. […]

This goes on for chapters! I started writing irritated comments in the margins. I was reminded of Brichot’s etymologies: once you’ve made your point, you don’t need to beat it into the ground and jump on top of it for hours. And that is not even to mention the absurd business with the abbreviations in ch. 13:

“Here,” he said; and he wrote the initial letters, w, y, t, m, i, c, n, b, d, t, m, n, o, t. These letters meant, “When you told me it could never be, did that mean never, or then?” There seemed no likelihood that she could make out this complicated sentence; but he looked at her as though his life depended on her understanding the words. She glanced at him seriously, then leaned her puckered brow on her hands and began to read. Once or twice she stole a look at him, as though asking him, “Is it what I think?”

“I understand,” she said, flushing a little.

“What is this word?” he said, pointing to the n that stood for never.

“It means never,” she said; “but that’s not true!”

He quickly rubbed out what he had written, gave her the chalk, and stood up. She wrote, t, i, c, n, a, d.

Dolly was completely comforted in the depression caused by her conversation with Alexey Alexandrovitch when she caught sight of the two figures: Kitty with the chalk in her hand, with a shy and happy smile looking upwards at Levin, and his handsome figure bending over the table with glowing eyes fastened one minute on the table and the next on her. He was suddenly radiant: he had understood. It meant, “Then I could not answer differently.”

He glanced at her questioningly, timidly.

“Only then?”

“Yes,” her smile answered.

“And n… and now?” he asked.

“Well, read this. I’ll tell you what I should like—should like so much!” she wrote the initial letters, i, y, c, f, a, f, w, h. This meant, “If you could forget and forgive what happened.”

He snatched the chalk with nervous, trembling fingers, and breaking it, wrote the initial letters of the following phrase, “I have nothing to forget and to forgive; I have never ceased to love you.”

She glanced at him with a smile that did not waver.

“I understand,” she said in a whisper.

He sat down and wrote a long phrase. She understood it all, and without asking him, “Is it this?” took the chalk and at once answered.

For a long while he could not understand what she had written, and often looked into her eyes. He was stupefied with happiness. He could not supply the word she had meant; but in her charming eyes, beaming with happiness, he saw all he needed to know. And he wrote three letters. But he had hardly finished writing when she read them over her arm, and herself finished and wrote the answer, “Yes.”

Come the fuck on. Yes, I know Tolstoy himself allegedly played the same game with Sonya before they got married, but I don’t believe that either — he may well have written some abbreviations down, but I’m sure he gave her substantial help in expanding them. I don’t believe in telepathy, and I don’t like being treated as an idiot by an author.

But that patch is over, and it’s back to being a great novel!

Comments

  1. Oh, come on! That initialisms game is one of the most memorable parts of the whole novel. Why do we need pedestrian realism? Who cares whether this is possible in real life exactly as written? It’s a nice and touching gentle romantic moment, yes, worthy of a young adult novel. But it’s good, that’s what counts. Ok, maybe they moved lips silently to help each other or made tentative guesses and looked for reinforcement, would it make this scene any better if we knew exactly how that was accomplished?

  2. BTW, Khavchin makes a contribution to the “Russian words for friend” debate.

    From Garnett’s translation: “As he was coming away, the doctor chanced to meet on the staircase an acquaintance [хорош[ий] знакомы[й] in the original] of his, Sludin, who was secretary of Alexey Alexandrovitch’s department. They had been comrades [товарищи] at the university, and though they rarely met, they thought highly of each other and were excellent friends [хорошие приятели]”

    Now, Khavchin asks “Who were those two, well-acquainted, comrades, or good friends?” What surprises me, is that I do not see any difficulty or contradiction with these three. they knew each other from the university (tovarischi), didn’t meet often, but enjoyed seeing each other once in a while.

  3. Stu Clayton says:

    # Dolly was completely comforted in the depression caused by her conversation with Alexey Alexandrovitch when she caught sight of the two figures #

    Does that mean “The sight of the two figures completely dispelled the depression Dolly had been in after her conversation with Alexey Alexandrovitch” ? If not, the sentence reads as if she caught sight of them while conversing with AA, and as a result fell into a comfortable depression.

    “Completely comforted in the depression” is a strange formulation. I’m assuming the translator was aiming at something like “cheered out of her depression by the sight of”. The entire sentence whiffs of ESL.

  4. The happy lover is in a fool’s paradise for the time being. Accordingly, the narration gets treacly and silly. Makes sense to me.

    On the other hand, Tolstoy is testing our patience with this happiness shtick.

  5. AJP Crown says:

    Oh, come on! That initialisms game is one of the most memorable parts,
    says “D.O.”

    Tolstoy could have written just ‘They bonded over their mutual enjoyment of crossword puzzles,’ so it’s clear he wanted readers to play too. Nowadays lovebirds whip out their iphones and message each other obscene pics of body parts (so I’m told). Readers cannot participate in that game.

  6. Oh, come on! That initialisms game is one of the most memorable parts of the whole novel. Why do we need pedestrian realism? Who cares whether this is possible in real life exactly as written? It’s a nice and touching gentle romantic moment, yes, worthy of a young adult novel. But it’s good, that’s what counts.

    I know that’s most people’s point of view, and I respect it, but it’s not mine. I don’t need “pedestrian realism” in general — I love The Master and Margarita as much as anyone — but I need it in Tolstoy; believability is a great part of his appeal. I don’t believe half the stuff I read in Dostoevsky, and I don’t care, because he’s not about that (although I sometimes have to choke a bit before swallowing the over-the-top melodrama), but the whole thing about Tolstoy is that (as somebody said) reading Turgenev you think “What a good Turgenev novel,” but reading Tolstoy you don’t feel you’re reading a novel at all, you’re just experiencing life. An absurd episode like that throws me out of the feeling of being immersed in life and forces me to see it as a novel, and a creaky one at this point.

  7. SFReader says:

    I think somewhere we discussed etymology of tovarisch (comrade).

    It comes from “tovar” (goods) and the word originally meant a business partner, co-owner of goods you are trying to sell in a perilous trip to the faraway city. Someone who is going to fight on your side to defend the goods from pirates and brigands.

    So someone who is really close (the list of people you are prepared to die for is surely limited), but at the same time not that emotionally intimate with you.

  8. David Eddyshaw says:

    Tolstoy could have written just ‘They bonded over their mutual enjoyment of crossword puzzles’

    That sounds exactly like my sort of love story …

  9. SFReader says:

    I can relate to that.

    When I was a student, there was this girl who used to partner me on assignments for the accounting course and we spent countless hours trying to balance the books. Fortunately the course ended soon, otherwise we would have fallen in love.

    Crossword puzzles don’t even come close.

  10. I just got to an interesting bit:

    Агафья Михайловна посмотрела на Кити сердито.

    — Вы меня не утешайте, барыня. Я вот посмотрю на вас с ним, мне и весело, — сказала она, и это грубое выражение с ним, а не с ними тронуло Кити.

    Agafya Mikhailovna [the cook] looked angrily at Kitty.

    “Don’t try to make me feel better, ma’am. It makes me happy just looking at you and him [Levin],” she said, and this rough/coarse/rude use of “him” and not “them” touched Kitty.

    I guess she could get away with not using the polite plural for her betters because she was an aging woman and a valued household servant of long standing.

  11. John Cowan says:

    Russian used to have a polite plural in the 3rd person as well as the 2nd? Huh. (I am not speaking here of the use of the 3rd person pronoun (singular or plural) as a polite 2nd, as in German, but an actual distinction between rude and polite in 3rd-person reference, as in Japanese). This is the way things worked in the Common Speech, but I didn’t know that any Indo-European language worked like this.

  12. David Eddyshaw says:

    Mooré does this: you-pl for polite you-sg, “they” for honorific he/she (Jesus is “they” throughout in the Mooré Bible.)

    None of that nonsense in its close relative Kusaal: the Kusaasi didn’t have chiefs originally, and most of them still don’t take kindly to the concept, unless they personally get to pick the chief, and not always then. It can cause problems in committee work …

  13. Russian used to have a polite plural in the 3rd person as well as the 2nd?

    Actually, not polite so much as deferential — only used by peasants and servants about members of the ruling class.

  14. Dmitry Pruss says:

    The classic domestic’s line about a different Tolstoy, Alexei: “граф ушли на партийное собрание”

    ~ Count went (3rd person plural) to the party meeting”

  15. Ha!

  16. tovarish
    in this context, it simply means ‘classmate’, I think. It’s on the list suggested by a synonyms dictionary.
    In the Kitty-Dolly scene, the bit that sounds unclear, ‘Dolly was completely comforted in the depression caused by her conversation with Alexey Alexandrovitch,’ in Russian reads ‘Долли утешилась совсем от горя, причиненного ей рахговором с Алексеем Александровичем’, which unambiguously means that she was lifted out of her misery when she had seen the bursting happiness of Kitty and Levin.

    I’ve just reread chapters VII to XIV, the whole ‘happy’ sequence and the crossword love game, and it didn’t sound artificial or unrealistic to me. In fact, I vaguely remember feeling like that myself, once or twice. In fact, it begins with Stiva drowning Karenin’s misery in generous good-nature. Only then it switches to Levin. And what struck me, what I hadn’t quite realised before was the role that Stiva plays in the novel dousing everyone around with his good-naturedness. He’s like an emotional reference point throughout the novel.

    By the way, does anyone know what that drink is, the one that Stiva teaches Count Anichkin to make, wine with oranges? Is it mulled wine? But Stiva says ‘it sort of cools you down’.

    Khavchin is amusing, thanks for the link. I agree with him about Tolstoy’s overuse of ‘shiny eyes’ but otherwise there’s a lot of nit-picking, and from the perspective of our time, which is a bit unfair.

  17. I’ve just reread chapters VII to XIV, the whole ‘happy’ sequence and the crossword love game, and it didn’t sound artificial or unrealistic to me. In fact, I vaguely remember feeling like that myself, once or twice.

    The problem is not with the feeling, which of course is realistic and appropriate, but with the way it is hammered in over and over, chapter after chapter. It’s as if he went on from the opening sentence to give a few dozen examples of happy and unhappy families. I imagine most people who read the novel in their youth just gobble it up and don’t notice that sort of thing, but when you read it for the first time in your sixties with a lot of novels under your belt and high expectations of Tolstoy, you do.

  18. Stu Clayton says:

    which unambiguously means that she was lifted out of her misery when she had seen the bursting happiness of Kitty and Levin.

    I stand justified, having guessed “cheered out of her depression by the sight of”. Based only on common sense !! “Completely comforted in the depression” [caused by nobody having remembered his birthday] is something Eeyore would be, in the translation by E.S.L. Milne.

  19. to Languagehat –
    I don’t know, I’m in my sixties with a novel or two under the belt, this bit flowed smoothly for me. It’s not to defend Tolstoy, I am as critical of him as many others. On the subject of repetitiveness, the ‘radiant eyes’ of Marie Bolkonskaya is what really-really jarred me. Not nice. Sad.

    to Stu –
    yes, and I was mildly surprised at Garnett’s sloppiness here.

  20. Well, I may just have been grumpy when I read it, then!

  21. or envious of Stiva’s seemingly endless choice of ‘special’ vodkas and cheeses 🙂

  22. Stu Clayton says:

    “Special” vodkas ? I rarely drink any alcohol at all, so vodka always tastes to me like battery acid. There seems to be a strong basic demand for alcohol and religion, but fruit and doctrine are generally added for the sake of appearance. And to make it easier to consume more than is good for you.

    Oddly, the combination of cheese and wine has a similar effect. As does the addition of rosé to a peach milkshake.

  23. Stiva is really big on vodkas and pickles in Lilia Kim’s “Anya Karenina”, too. In my days in the Russian nobility milieu, their special vodkas were mostly herbal infusions, like the famous душистый колосок (Anthoxanthum odoratum aka sweet vernal grass)

  24. SFReader says:

    Just read an anecdote I wanted to share.

    A translator hates reading readers comments on her work on the Internet.

    “The plot is terrible, but the writing is excellent”

    “No, idiot, the author’s writing is as terrible as his plot, but you won’t know that, because you are reading a TRANSLATION!”

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