TOLSTOY’S PROSE.

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.

Comments

  1. Musorgsky also knowingly and egregiously broke the rules. To my knowledge, Musorgsky’s only musical contemporary who didn’t badmouth him at some point was Borodin, and it’s quite possible that I missed something. Everyone condescended to him, and some of his friends thought of him as an idiot (at least to begin with).
    But except for Tchaikovsky, he has more listeners today than any of his Russian (and most of his European) contemporaries. (Screw you, Cui!) And Tchaikovsky is too sugary.
    Musorgsky’s mistakes were extremely fertile; he was honored as an innovator by Debussy, Ravel, and Stravinsky. It’s not certain to me whether he was flatly ignorant of the rules, or whether he sort of knew what they were, but deliberately ignored them. In Russia there was a battle between Germanist musicians and anti-Germanists, and strict rule-following was Germanist. Musorgsky pushed the anti-Germanism farther than any of them.
    My understanding is that the rules he violated were primarily the voice-leading rules, with harmonic violations rising from that. I further surmise that his violations came because he thought pianistically and didn’t think of music as separate voices, as in a string quartet or a symphony.

  2. Musorgsky also knowingly and egregiously broke the rules. To my knowledge, Musorgsky’s only musical contemporary who didn’t badmouth him at some point was Borodin, and it’s quite possible that I missed something. Everyone condescended to him, and some of his friends thought of him as an idiot (at least to begin with).
    But except for Tchaikovsky, he has more listeners today than any of his Russian (and most of his European) contemporaries. (Screw you, Cui!) And Tchaikovsky is too sugary.
    Musorgsky’s mistakes were extremely fertile; he was honored as an innovator by Debussy, Ravel, and Stravinsky. It’s not certain to me whether he was flatly ignorant of the rules, or whether he sort of knew what they were, but deliberately ignored them. In Russia there was a battle between Germanist musicians and anti-Germanists, and strict rule-following was Germanist. Musorgsky pushed the anti-Germanism farther than any of them.
    My understanding is that the rules he violated were primarily the voice-leading rules, with harmonic violations rising from that. I further surmise that his violations came because he thought pianistically and didn’t think of music as separate voices, as in a string quartet or a symphony.

  3. rootlesscosmo says:

    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.
    Can anyone suggest an English-language parallel? I’ve tried and all I get is Poe, but then who represents his all-prose counterpart? And I’m sure there are many others my tired brain hasn’t retrieved.

  4. Steven Crane wrote very prosy prose but also some rather odd free verse. Mark Twain was very non-poetic. But the dates aren’t right.

  5. Steven Crane wrote very prosy prose but also some rather odd free verse. Mark Twain was very non-poetic. But the dates aren’t right.

  6. When I mentioned having enjoyed your posts about Tolstoy’s style the other day it was the one you linked to at the top, REPETITION IN TOLSTOY, that I was really thinking of. It’s really such an interesting angle that I’ve thought about it ever since. (The truth is I’m not even sure if ‘style’ is the appropriate technical word to use in this case. It’s an artful tactic, and maybe that’s considered ‘style’, I don’t know the conventions of literary criticism.) Anyway, what I like about the effect you are describing — and I don’t think even if I were Russian reading the original I would have caught it myself, but that’s another discussion — what I like is that Tolstoy is allowing the reader’s eye into the space of the landscape and the time, or sequence of events. In a different way, Cezanne, in his painting of Mont Ste Victoire forty years later, explored the movement of the eye (shifting focus, the movements caused by binocular vision) in landscape painting.

  7. Thank you for mentioning more about Tolstoy’s writing… his prose is, indeed, quite rough at times, and that lack of polish and repetition often reinforces his message.
    The phrase in the Rostopchin scene struck me as nonsensical, undisciplined speech from a crowd. I found an essay by Peter Vail and Alexander Genis that explains it this way:
    Объяснить в рациональных терминах этот бред нельзя, но он абсолютно и до конца понятен. Безграмотные толстовские плебеи давно пооканчивали ликбезы, школы, университеты, но сейчас уже вся страна оговорит на языке загадочной “развязанной дистанции”.
    (I only read this in cached mode because of a warning about site, so search it at your own risk!)

  8. Oops, I meant that Tolstoy often reinforces his messages by using repetition and unpolished prose. (I’m not trying to do the same thing.)

  9. Yeah, I saw that Vail/Genis passage too, but I don’t believe it. Tolstoy wasn’t a zaumny writer, and he didn’t write incomprehensible бред; I can only guess that the phrase развязать дистанцию had some slang meaning in early 19th-century Moscow that has since been forgotten. Tolstoy did, after all, spend a lot of time reading manuscript memoirs and talking to aged veterans of the period, so he may have run across the phrase and liked it.

  10. I agree: Tolstoy didn’t write incomprehensible бред. I think it’s plausible that he found slang in period materials, but if he invented this phrase, I think it’s intentional (therefore comprehensible on some level) nonsense that reflects the undisciplined character of the crowd, a mob.
    If the phrase is invented, I’m not sure I buy the education and ликбез aspect of the Vail/Genis explanation: the big assumption of ликбез or some other literacy training injects some nice irony, but an eavesdropping servant, for example, could have created the phrase.

  11. Bill Walderman says:

    A comment on John Emerson’s comment about Mussorgsky. Mussorgsky’s innovation (and to a certain extent Liszt and Wagner were doing the same thing) was to treat harmony as a color element of music, not as a structural element. He relished the sounds of chords for their own sake, not for the role they played in leading from one point to the next. Earlier composers such as Chopin used chords coloristically to some extent, but at the same time they followed the rules even if they pushed chromaticism further and further away from diatonic tonality.
    Mussorgsky didn’t care about the rules. Mussorgsky’s treatment of harmony liberated subsequent composers such as Debussy from the structural treatment of harmony.
    Mussorgsky’s piano writing exploits the sonorities of the piano as pure sonorities divorced from traditional harmony. After I heard “Pictures at an Exposition” played on the piano for the first time I couldn’t tolerate the orchestrated versions any more.

  12. Is a puzzlement. I’ve asked around here in Moscow, and so far one of my most knowledgeable translator friends thinks it’s a solecism that combines letting loose something (развязать in the more figurative sense) and perceived military jargon (дистанция, which was used primarily in the military in the 18th and 19th centuries). The sense of it might be something like “letting it rip” mixed with “going the whole way to set things right,” but translated in such a way that it is clear it is illiterate speech, or rather a badly educated person tossing about some big words. Something like “that’ll bivouac the hell out of ‘em.” (Tolstoy’s most famous solecism, Образуется, said by the servant in AK, is now “standard” Russian for “things will work out.” But at the time it was understandable nonsense, something like “things’ll righten up.)
    I’ll pass on any other ideas.
    You sure are a careful reader, Hat.

  13. Musorgsky honored Liszt and Liszt liked one of his pieces, and they almost met. The anti-Germanists liked Liszt just for being quasi-Hungarian.
    What I’ve heard said of Wagner is that he changed keys so often that the feeling of a tonal center was lost, but that he still followed the rules in a way that Musorgsky didn’t. All of “The Five” were anti-Wagnerians, I think.
    The musical polemics of that era sound silly now, but in point of fact the anti-Germanists are the ones I like best — Satie, Musorgsky, et al. The Germanists were trying to be Beethoven or to out-Beethoven Beethoven, and it was just too awful.

  14. Musorgsky honored Liszt and Liszt liked one of his pieces, and they almost met. The anti-Germanists liked Liszt just for being quasi-Hungarian.
    What I’ve heard said of Wagner is that he changed keys so often that the feeling of a tonal center was lost, but that he still followed the rules in a way that Musorgsky didn’t. All of “The Five” were anti-Wagnerians, I think.
    The musical polemics of that era sound silly now, but in point of fact the anti-Germanists are the ones I like best — Satie, Musorgsky, et al. The Germanists were trying to be Beethoven or to out-Beethoven Beethoven, and it was just too awful.

  15. one of my most knowledgeable translator friends thinks it’s a solecism that combines letting loose something (развязать in the more figurative sense) and perceived military jargon (дистанция, which was used primarily in the military in the 18th and 19th centuries). The sense of it might be something like “letting it rip” mixed with “going the whole way to set things right,” but translated in such a way that it is clear it is illiterate speech, or rather a badly educated person tossing about some big words. Something like “that’ll bivouac the hell out of ‘em.”
    That makes a lot of sense; thanks much!

  16. The Germanists were trying to be Beethoven or to out-Beethoven Beethoven, and it was just too awful.
    Yeah, a lot of post-Beethoven 19th-century music is tedious and/or annoying for that reason. Poor Brahms kept trying and failing to out-Beethoven Beethoven; he should have stuck to things like the German Requiem, which is gorgeous.

  17. My punch line is that Satie and Musorgsky were the first to solve the problem. And maybe Chopin. By and large I don’t think that except for Musorgsky the various nationalist musicians using folk themes quite escaped. And in general, the rhapsody / tone poem / program music attempts at free form usually were to limp. But Satie and Musorgsky redid harmony, counterpoint, and to a degree, form.

  18. My punch line is that Satie and Musorgsky were the first to solve the problem. And maybe Chopin. By and large I don’t think that except for Musorgsky the various nationalist musicians using folk themes quite escaped. And in general, the rhapsody / tone poem / program music attempts at free form usually were to limp. But Satie and Musorgsky redid harmony, counterpoint, and to a degree, form.

  19. rootlesscosmo says:

    ,i>he should have stuck to things like the German Requiem, which is gorgeous.
    Have you listened to the Clarinet Quintet or either of the String Quintets lately? Vier ernste Gesänge? It’s true, the First Symphony is not unfairly called “Beethoven’s Tenth” (though would Beethoven have done that opening? the timpani aren’t, to my ear, an echo of those in the Beethoven Violin Concerto); but both before (the Piano Quartets and the F minor Sonata) and after (see above) he was very much an original, with a sensibility very different from Beethoven’s.
    The sense of it might be something like “letting it rip” mixed with “going the whole way to set things right,” but translated in such a way that it is clear it is illiterate speech, or rather a badly educated person tossing about some big words.
    I read a deposition once in which a witness kept calling the ambulance drivers “ambulatory men,” because he’d picked up the word “ambulatory” during a hospital stay and thought it sounded classy.

  20. rootlesscosmo says:

    Botched the tags again. Bivouac bivouac bivouac, he muttered.

  21. Beethoven’s Ninth was one too many already.
    God, I hope that the spam is from a meat prankster and not from a Turing bot. It’s scary.

  22. Beethoven’s Ninth was one too many already.
    God, I hope that the spam is from a meat prankster and not from a Turing bot. It’s scary.

  23. “Ambulatory men” is funny. This is probably unkind, but I recall some neighbors in Brooklyn whose dog barked constantly. The owner said, “We had one of them temper shots, but it’s worn off. She’s got real bad temper again.”
    BTW, another translator wrote back with a sigh, saying that the question of that line has been a favorite discussion point for “eggheaded Russian intellectuals” over the decades. “No one really knows” is his answer, with the same suggestion that it’s a solecism.

  24. I downloaded a live piano version of Pictures at an Exhibition here, the site of a young Russian pianist, Serg van Gennip. Like Bill, I like it much better than the orchestral version.
    Is ‘Pictures at an Exposition’ (361 hits) a translation of the Russian title that comes via French? It’s an art exhibition that the title refers to, and now I come to think of it I’m not sure what an exposition is in English, except it’s another word for a world’s fair type of event. ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’ gets 236,000 hits, but that may be because it’ was recorded with that title by (Keith) Emerson, Lake and Palmer, a very irritating band from the ’70s.

  25. marie-lucie says:

    AJP, in French “exposition” is right for a show of art or interesting things set up for public viewing, but “exhibition” is derogatory and implies showing off or even indecent exposure.

  26. Have you listened to the Clarinet Quintet or either of the String Quintets lately? Vier ernste Gesänge?
    Oh, I love lots of Brahms—the Clarinet Quintet is one of my very favorite pieces of music. And of course “he was very much an original, with a sensibility very different from Beethoven’s”; all the more pity he felt compelled to confront Beethoven on his own turf. (Not saying the symphonies are terrible, there are nice things in all of them, but it’s hard to feel they were necessary.)

  27. Is ‘Pictures at an Exposition’ (361 hits) a translation of the Russian title that comes via French?
    Must be; as m-l says, exposition is the normal word in French. The Russian is Картинки с выставки, literally “Pictures from an Exhibition.”

  28. “exhibition” is derogatory and implies showing off or even indecent exposure
    I suppose that’s ‘exhibitionist’ in English.
    As I type this, I’m listening to Shostokovitch’s Symphony # 11, (1. Palace Square) and I think it’s so good. Whoever it was (Bill? the other day, who thought all his symphonies were Stalinist and boring should make an exception here.
    The only thing I don’t like about him is that certain phrases get recycled in different works.

  29. Дистанция has the meaning of an administrative section of a railroad track, commonly in the phrase “дистанция пути”. The man in charge would be начальник дистанции пути. I guess here дистанция may have this or related meaning, perhaps with a military connotation. For possible relevant military usage, see here:
    http://dic.academic.ru/dic.nsf/bse/161121/Дистанция

  30. There were no railroads in 1812.

  31. :))) From the link I sent you:
    Диста́нция (от лат. distantia — расстояние)
    (военная), расстояние по глубине между военнослужащими, орудиями, машинами, подразделениями или частями (кораблями) в строю, на марше (походе) или в боевом порядке, а также между самолётами при полёте в строю или в боевом порядке.

  32. marie-lucie says:

    “exhibition” is derogatory and implies showing off or even indecent exposure
    I suppose that’s ‘exhibitionist’ in English.
    You mean that “exhibitionist” comes from the French word “exhibitionniste”, as it has connotations which are not in English “exhibition” or the verb “to exhibit”.
    In French the corresponding words all have the same negative connotations of showing something others would turn away from in disgust. For instance, if on a beach where you expect to see young, fit people in bikinis there are older, grossly obese people in the same attire, you might say of the latter Ces gens s’exhibent sur la plage.

  33. Дистанция has the meaning of an administrative section of a railroad track, commonly in the phrase “дистанция пути”.
    Might it also mean a stage? In a military context, say, a day’s march? In which case one could translate it rather nicely as “he’ll go the full distance for you!” or “he’ll go the whole nine yards!” though that doesn’t take in the military connotations.

  34. Ces gens s’exhibent sur la plage.
    This is a useful verb that doesn’t seem to exist in English — unless it’s flaunt, but flaunt’s not quite right in your beach context .

  35. Oh no, not ‘the whole nine yards’! We just did that.

  36. “Displaying themselves” would work for me. It would describe young hot people and old fat people equally, and might be mildly pejorative in the former case, but would be very pejorative in the latter.
    Ravel changed the dynamics of the opening of Musorgsky’s “Pictures”. He made it tenuto, which gives it a more deliberate feeling. Piano versions are always a little brisker. I heard the Ravel version first and loved it, and I never liked the piano opening. It annoyed me so much that I finally found the scores and compared, and I believe I found the reason.

  37. “Displaying themselves” would work for me. It would describe young hot people and old fat people equally, and might be mildly pejorative in the former case, but would be very pejorative in the latter.
    Ravel changed the dynamics of the opening of Musorgsky’s “Pictures”. He made it tenuto, which gives it a more deliberate feeling. Piano versions are always a little brisker. I heard the Ravel version first and loved it, and I never liked the piano opening. It annoyed me so much that I finally found the scores and compared, and I believe I found the reason.

  38. marie-lucie says:

    “Displaying themselves” would work for me. It would describe young hot people and old fat people equally, and might be mildly pejorative in the former case, but would be very pejorative in the latter.
    In French you would need two verbs: se montrent would be a neutral verb somewhat equivalent to “displaying themselves”, but s’exhibent is definitely negative: you would use it for young people only if you were opposed to any display of flesh, whether attractive or not.

  39. For the right person, “displaying themselves” could be very pejorative, perhaps with help: “The little sluts are displaying themselves down on the beach, I suppose”.
    Someone else might say, “Let’s go down to the beach and watch the display”. It might or might not be a sort of parody of the Puritanical expression.

  40. For the right person, “displaying themselves” could be very pejorative, perhaps with help: “The little sluts are displaying themselves down on the beach, I suppose”.
    Someone else might say, “Let’s go down to the beach and watch the display”. It might or might not be a sort of parody of the Puritanical expression.

  41. I’m not sure. If you say “Let’s go down to the beach and watch the fat old people displaying their wares”, it’s marginally less offensive than “Let’s…watch the fat old people exhibiting themselves”, which hints at mildly criminal behavior, even though it’s a similar metaphor.

  42. On Tolstoy’s repetitions – and since you mention Nabokov – here’s a bit from Nabokov’s Lectures on Russian Literature: “One peculiar feature of Tolstoy’s style is what I shall term the ‘groping purist.’ [Nabokov can never resist getting his dig in...] In describing a meditation, emotion, or tangible object, Tolstoy follows the contours of the thought, the emotion, or the object until he is perfectly satisfied with his re-creation, his rendering. This involves what we might call creative repetitions, a compact series of repetitive statements, coming one immediately after the other, each more expressive, each closer to Tolstoy’s meaning. He gropes, he unwraps the verbal parcel for its inner sense, he peels the apple of the phrase, he tries to say it one way, then a better way, he gropes, he stalls, he toys, he Tolstoys with words.”

  43. Excellent quote, thanks! (I own the book, and I’ve really got to get around to reading it.)

  44. marie-lucie says:

    I confess that I have never read Tolstoy, so it is nice to have an example of what is meant by Tolstoy’s “repetitions”. “Groping” for words is what many of us do, even some writers who eventually settle on a single word. I don’t see why this kind of “creative repetition” is considered bad form, unless from the point of view of possibly bureaucratic terseness, which is irrelevant in a novel.

  45. “creative repetition”
    Sounds like a poetry slam.

  46. Mirandice says:

    But did Nabokov mean Tolstoy groped for words, or that he groped with his words? The groping being the initial and more approximate presentment…

  47. Mirandice says:

    The phrase, “the whole nine yards,” a pet of mine, was mentioned as having been recently discussed. How can I find that discussion?

  48. marie-lucie says:

    Mirandice, There are two relevant threads: “The whole nine yards” and “I tie my hat”. From here you can google “languagehat nine yards” and “I tie my hat”. You can also write to me (from my name),

  49. Here and here.

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