One of the things that surprised me when I started reading War and Peace in Russian was that it wasn’t particularly well written in the “fine writing,” Nabokovian sense. The sentences were baggy, the words were not carefully harmonized, and there was an astonishing amount of repetition. But le style, c’est l’homme, and Tolstoy himself was baggy and unharmonized, and I was soon as caught up in the story as I had been when I read it in English.
But eventually I started realizing that his style worked in a way I wouldn’t have expected, and I’ll tell you exactly when this became clear to me. It’s early in Book I, Part Two; the Russian army is holed up in Braunau, having failed to meet up with Mack‘s Austrian army, already surrounded at Ulm and surrendering to the French. Young Nikolai Rostov, serving with the Pavlograd Hussars, is sharing quarters with his squadron commander, the excitable and high-living Captain Denisov (based on Denis Davydov), who comes back from a night of losing at gambling and asks Rostov to hide a purse with his remaining money under his pillow; the purse later disappears, and the protracted wrangle over who took it and who owes whom an apology is interrupted by the announcement that the army is going into action.
Now comes Chapter 6, of which I present the first two paragraphs, in Russian and then in English (in the translation by Louise and Aylmer Maude):
Кутузов отступил к Вене, уничтожая за собой мосты на реках Инне (в Браунау) и Трауне (в Линце). 23-го октября русские войска переходили реку Энс. Русские обозы, артиллерия и колонны войск в середине дня тянулись через город Энс, по сю и по ту сторону моста.
День был теплый, осенний и дождливый. Пространная перспектива, раскрывавшаяся с возвышения, где стояли русские батареи, защищавшие мост, то вдруг затягивалась кисейным занавесом косого дождя, то вдруг расширялась, и при свете солнца далеко и ясно становились видны предметы, точно покрытые лаком. Виднелся городок под ногами с своими белыми домами и красными крышами, собором и мостом, по обеим сторонам которого, толпясь, лилися массы русских войск. Виднелись на повороте Дуная суда, и остров, и замок с парком, окруженный водами впадения Энса в Дунай, виднелся левый скалистый и покрытый сосновым лесом берег Дуная с таинственною далью зеленых вершин и голубеющими ущельями. Виднелись башни монастыря, выдававшегося из-за соснового, казавшегося нетронутым, дикого леса; далеко впереди на горе, по ту сторону Энса, виднелись разъезды неприятеля.
Kutuzov fell back toward Vienna, destroying behind him the bridges over the rivers Inn (at Braunau) and Traun (near Linz). On October 23 the Russian troops were crossing the river Enns. At midday the Russian baggage train, the artillery, and columns of troops were defiling through the town of Enns on both sides of the bridge.
It was a warm, rainy, autumnal day. The wide expanse that opened out before the heights on which the Russian batteries stood guarding the bridge was at times veiled by a diaphanous curtain of slanting rain, and then, suddenly spread out in the sunlight, far-distant objects could be clearly seen glittering as though freshly varnished. Down below, the little town could be seen with its white, red-roofed houses, its cathedral, and its bridge, on both sides of which streamed jostling masses of Russian troops. At the bend of the Danube, vessels, an island, and a castle with a park surrounded by the waters of the confluence of the Enns and the Danube became visible, and the rocky left bank of the Danube covered with pine forests, with a mystic background of green treetops and bluish gorges. The turrets of a convent stood out beyond a wild virgin pine forest, and far away on the other side of the Enns the enemy’s horse patrols could be discerned.
The bolded words are all forms of the same verb in Russian, conscientiously turned into different phrases in English so as to avoid the cardinal sin of repetition (and two of them are melded into the single phrase “became visible, and”). This is one way of doing things, it lends variety, but in this case the variety destroys what Tolstoy is doing with that paragraph.
Russian has a whole series of verbs relating to vision and other forms of perception that are the bane of translators; белеть [belét'], for instance, is defined as ‘to show up white’ in the Oxford dictionary, but when would you ever say something “shows up white” in English? In Russian, things белеют all the time: sails, clouds, faces, you name it, and each time the poor translator has to figure out what periphrasis to use, inevitably losing the compact force of the simple verb. Here we are dealing with the verb виднеться [vidnét'sya], which Oxford defines as ‘to be visible.’ Again, we rarely have occasion to talk about things being visible, but here we have виднеться used five times in rapid succession: the town, the vessels/island/castle/park, the left bank with its greenery, the convent, and finally the enemy. The thing is that the repetition doesn’t stand out the first few times, because the Russian verb is utterly lacking in distinction: it’s basically a placeholder, something to connect the reader/viewer to the things seen. It’s the verbal equivalent of a hand pointing helpfully in the desired direction. It’s almost as bland and featureless as “said,” which we are used to seeing repeated over and over without really noticing it. It’s a boring verb, and its repetition lulls rather than irritates.
And it is precisely that lulling effect Tolstoy is after. Here, he murmurs (after a brisk scene-setting paragraph), see this bucolic scene? Sun, rain, a little town, red roofs, a bridge, ships, an island, a convent… The barely heard mutter of Виднелся… Виднелись… Виднелся… Виднелись… виднелись… is like the soothing clack of the train passing over the rails as you drift off in your sleeping compartment, half-watching the countryside pass by outside. And then in the final three words of the paragraph his fuse reaches its end: виднелись разъезды неприятеля [vidnélis' raz"yézdy nepriyátelya], “were visible the mounted patrols of the enemy.” We’re not idle onlookers observing a quiet countryside, we’re at war, and the shooting will soon start.
Note that it’s not just the repetition that is lost; even the significant inversion of the last clause, placing the all-important word “enemy” at the end, is ignored by the Maudes: “the enemy’s horse patrols could be discerned.” The Ann Dunnigan translation I happen to own handles it no better: “the enemy’s cavalry patrols could be seen on the hillside.” The translators are painting a landscape, while Tolstoy is setting you up and delivering a sucker punch.