It’s just as well I’ve finished Book III of War and Peace, because I need to put it aside for a few weeks to read Ronen (see this post); I’ll take the occasion to pass along some things I’ve run across in my quest for an explanation of the strange variability of Tolstoy’s prose style, sometimes brilliantly effective (see my discussion here), sometimes so clunky you wonder how the same guy could have written it. Well, it turns out there’s a whole book on the subject, Creating and Recovering Experience: Repetition in Tolstoy by Natasha Sankovitch; her thesis “is that repetition is central to Tolstoy’s art,” and he “uses this device—or rather, complex of devices—to represent and examine the processes by which people structure and give meaning to their experience.” I may or may not get around to reading the whole book, but dipping into it via Google Books turns up some interesting stuff, like this great quote from the unjustly forgotten (at least in English-speaking circles) Yuri Olesha (from his notebooks of the 1950s; it’s on pp. 492-93 of my 1965 Povesti i rasskazy, which I owe to the generosity of jamessal):
It’s strange that, existing in plain view, so to speak, of everyone, Tolstoy’s style with its piling up of coordinating subordinate clauses (several “thats” ensuing from a single “that”; several subsequent “whiches” from a single “which”) is, in essence, the only style in Russian literature characterized by freedom and by a distinctive incorrectness, and up to the present time, despite the demand that young writers write in a so-called correct way, no one has yet given an explanation of just why Tolstoy wrote incorrectly. It would be necessary (and it’s odd that up to the present time it hasn’t been done) to write a dissertation about the distinctive “ungrammaticalness of Tolstoy.” Someone observed that Tolstoy knew about his violation of syntactic rules (he spoke constantly of having a “bad style”) but that he felt no need whatsoever to avoid these violations — he wrote, it’s said in this observation, as if no one had ever written before him, as if he were writing for the first time. Thus, even Tolstoy’s style is an expression of his rebellion against all norms and conventions.
And the formalist critic Boris Eikhenbaum, in his 1923 article “Problemy poetiki Pushkina” (translated in the collection Twentieth-Century Russian Literary Criticism as “Pushkin’s Path to Prose”), says this about the turn from poetry to prose in Russia in the 1830s:
In Lermontov’s work both elements are somehow balanced, but there is a telling difference between his poetic style and the style of his mature prose. His prose, initially rich in metaphors, in rhythmic-syntactical parallelisms, and in long sentences (“Vadim”) — a legacy of verse — later becomes simple and clear. A kinship with verse is still felt in the prose of Gogol and Turgenev, who actually began with poetry. On the other hand, the prose of Tolstoy, Leskov, and Dostoevsky developed without any relation to verse; in fact, their prose is essentially hostile to it. This is not a special case but a general pattern. In French literature a good case in point is the relation between the prose of Chateaubriand and Hugo on the one hand and that of Stendhal and Mérimée on the other. The difference between poetry and prose is not an external matter of layout; it is basic, organic, no less essential, perhaps, than that between abstract and representational painting. There is a permanent, never-ceasing tension between the two modes. Prose can don the plumage shed by poetry and become in this attire musical, stylistically intricate, and rich in alliteration and rhythmic cadence. (Such is the prose of Marlinskij and Andrej Belyj.) The boundary between prose and poetry is thus practically obliterated until, having won the battle, prose casts off those luxuriant robes and appears again in its natural guise.
It’s natural that if one comes straight from, say, Nabokov, whose own “poetic prose” comes out of Bely’s, Tolstoy’s feels rough-hewn and awkward. But he gets exactly the effects he wants. (Incidentally, Lisa of Lizok’s Bookshelf has finished her reading of W&P; her summing-up is here.)
While I’m at it, I have a question for those of you who know the novel in Russian: what the devil is meant by the crowd’s exclamation in III:3:25, “он тебе всю дистанцию развяжет!” [literally 'he will unbind the whole distance for you']? This comes after Count Rostopchin says he’ll hand over to them the villain who caused Moscow’s ruin (the French are about to take the city), and they’re saying approving things about Rostopchin, but this is utterly incomprehensible to me, and apparently to previous translators, because it’s rendered in wildly varying ways: “He’ll show you what law is!” (Maude), “He’ll bring things to order!” (Dole), “He’ll clear up the whole prospect for you!” (Dunnigan), and the admirably exact but lamentably meaningless “He’ll undo the whole distance for you!” (Pevear/Volokhonsky). If anyone can clear this up, I’ll be exceedingly grateful.
Addendum (2010). Frequent commenter Sashura (of Tetradki) sent me an e-mail in which he quoted Rosemary Edmonds’s translation “…He’ll show us the rights and wrongs of it all!” and added the following:
There are two sides to it: what it means and how to translate/render it.
I don’t agree at all that it’s Tolstoy’s solecism, but folk solecism – yes. By the way, the word appears twice in that part of the novel. I think it’s a masterstroke – it shows both the confused semi-literate speech where fancy words are used without knowing what they mean, and the confused mass mentality of the episode with the French approaching. And there is a duality of the meaning: he’ll break up [their military] order or he’ll sort it out. T. leaves it to the reader to interpret the exact meaning, which it doesn’t have, I think.
The word itself was very well known by the time, sometimes pronounced as ‘диштанция’. It appears in Griboyedov’s Woe From Wit: дистанция огромного размера, a phrase that is still a popular idiom in modern Russian meaning ‘big difference’. The military meaning is ‘interval, distance between formations in depth’. Tolstoy, with his own military experience, must have heard it spoken. In Sebastopol Sketches he uses several garbled military words (baxion for bastion). Dahl has a big entry on развязать with meanings ranging from ‘sort out’ to ‘to die, to pass away’.
As for translating, it depends on whether you want to be more interpretive, or more true to the original. I admire Peavor/Volokhonsky’s version – they just leave it to the reader to figure out what that means, as did Tolstoy.