A Big Thick Book.

Having read a little further in Deadlock (see this post), we were again thunderstruck when we got to the part where our heroine Miriam is taking her new Russian friend to the British Museum, where he orders a book… which turns out to be the very one we are simultaneously but separately reading, my wife in English (the Magarshack translation) and I in Russian: Anna Karenina!

There he stood, Russian, come from all that far-away beauty, with German and French culture in his mind, longingly to England, coming to Tansley Street; unconsciously bringing her her share in his longed-for arrival and its fulfilments. She watched as he talked, marvelling at the undeserved wealth offered to her in the little figure discoursing so eagerly over the cumbrous volume, and at this moment the strange Russian book was probably waiting for them.

It was a big thick book. Miriam sat down before it. The lights had come on. The book lay in a pool of sharp yellow light; Tolstoy, surrounded by a waiting gloom; the secret of Tolstoy standing at her side, rapidly taking off his overcoat. He drew up the chair from the next place and sat close, flattening out the book at the first chapter and beginning to read at once, bent low over the book. She bent too, stretching her hands out beyond her knees to make herself narrow, and fastening on the title. Her anticipations fell dead. It was the name of a woman…… Anna; of all names. Karenine. The story of a woman told by a man with a man’s ideas about people. But Anna Karenine was not what Tolstoy had written. Behind the ugly feebleness of the substituted word was something quite different, strong and beautiful; a whole legend in itself. Why had the translator altered the surname? Anna Karayninna was a line of Russian poetry. His word was nothing, neither English nor French, and sounded like a face-cream. She scanned sceptically up and down the pages of English words, chilled by the fear of detecting the trail of the translator.

Mr. Shatov read steadily, breathing his enthusiasm in gusts, pausing as each fresh name appeared, to pronounce it in Russian and to explain the three names belonging to each character. They were all expressive; easy to remember because of their expressiveness. The three-fold name, giving each character three faces, each turned towards a different part of his world, was fascinating….. Conversation began almost at once and kept breaking out; strange abrupt conversation different to any she had read elsewhere…. What was it? She wanted to hold the pages and find out; but Mr. Shatov read on and on, steadily turning the leaves. She skipped, fastening upon the patches of dialogue on her side of the open page, reading them backwards and forwards, glancing at the solid intervening portions to snatch an idea of the background. What was the mysterious difference? Why did she feel she could hear the tone of the voices and the pauses between the talk; the curious feeling of things moving and changing in the air that is always there in all conversations? Her excitement grew, drawing her upright to stare her question into the gloom beyond the lamp.

“Well?” demanded Mr. Shatov.

“It’s fascinating.”

“What have I told you? That is Tolstoy,” he said proudly; “but this is a most vile translation. All these nu and da. Why not simply well and yes; and boszhe moi is quite simply, my God. But this preliminary part is not so interesting as later. There is in this book the self-history of Tolstoy. He is Layvin, and Kitty is the Countess Tolstoy. That is all most wonderful. When we see her in the early morning; and the picture of this wedding. There is only Tolstoy for those marvellous touches. I shall show you.”

“Why does he call it Anna Karaynina” asked Miriam anxiously.

“Certainly. It is a most masterly study of a certain type of woman.”

The fascination of the book still flickered brightly; but far away, retreated into the lonely incommunicable distance of her mind. It seemed always to be useless and dangerous to talk about books. They were always about something else….. If she had not asked she would have read the book without finding out it was a masterly study of Anna. Why must a book be a masterly study of some single thing? Everybody wisely raving about it…. But if one never found out what a book was a masterly study of, it meant being ignorant of things everyone knew and agreed about; a kind of hopeless personal ignorance and unintelligence; reading whole books through and through, and only finding out what they were about by accident, when people happened to talk about them, and even then, reading them again, and finding principally quite other things, which stayed, after one had forgotten what people had explained.

There’s so much going on there! The experience of encountering a different culture and way of writing, the question of translation (was there really one that had nu and da and boszhe moi?), the problem of a man writing the story of a woman (which I have been chewing over as I read Tolstoy), the issue of Levin and Kitty being based on the author and his wife (ditto), and that final meditation on whether it’s better or worse to know what other people have said about a book… I know that kind of writing isn’t to everyone’s taste, but it is to mine.

(I’ve finished Part 7 of AK, and will put it aside to read Turgenev’s Новь [Virgin Soil] and some other things published in early 1877 before reading Part 8, aka the epilogue, first published in late June.)


  1. Here you go. The 1904 Scribner’s edition, complete with one nu and lots of Bozhe moï. No da, but “Prashchaïte—good-by, Darya Aleksandrovna, da svidanya!”

    This Financial Times article on Tolstoy’s early English translations is interesting, and fortunately not behind paywall.

  2. Thanks very much! From the second link:

    The American Nathan Haskell Dole, who published the first translation of Anna Karenina, also in 1886, did work with the Russian text but this was not always apparent. To the critic of the New York Times, his version suggested “the geological subsidence of a layer of Russian into a substratum of English, leaving a number of words to linger fossil-like amid the latter in untranslatable durability”.

  3. Hat—read the comments, too!

  4. Well, some are interesting and some make me grind my teeth…

  5. The story about the German translator was interesting.

  6. Here it is, for those who do not wish to brave internet comment sections:

    An excellent article about an endlessly fascinating subject. My only quarrel with the author’s book so far — I just got it from the library — is that, notwithstanding what Victor Lucas wrote in “Tolstoy in London,” there is good reason to doubt that Tolstoy actually heard Dickens, for reasons too complicated to go into here. The curious can consult the “Tolstoy Studies Journal” for 1998.

    Maybe 30 years ago, while visiting my grandmother in New York, I found a 24-page typescript in a desk drawer, titled (in German) “My Second Trip to Yasnaya Polyana,” and marked up in three different handwritings. My grandmother’s father, Raphael Löwenfeld, was the “German writer,” mentioned at p. 347 of the author’s book, who in 1892 published the very first biography of Tolstoy. Löwenfeld, who was Tolstoy’s German translator, had come to the realization that while readers in the West knew Tolstoy’s novels, they knew nothing of the man or his philosophy, and this was someone who needed to be considered as a whole — life, works, and world-view together. He visited Tolstoy in 1890, and they went out to the fields together to reap oats, taking turns with the scythe that visitors to Yasnaya Polyana can see today. In the introduction to the biography, Löwenfeld described Tolstoy as “one of those rare men who come along only in the great turning points of world history — to teach, to warn, to save!”

    This was in pre-internet days, and I had no idea whether this typescript had ever been published, and though I hoped that two of the handwritings were those of Tolstoy and Löwenfeld, I did not know for sure, and knew no way to find out. And I was puzzled about the third person involved. Then in 1990 I came across Cathy Porter’s splendid edition of Sophia Tolstoy’s diaries. The explanation was there: Löwenfeld had written (actually dictated) the article after returning to Berlin, and then mailed it to Sophia, inviting her to make any changes she felt necessary (i.e., to keep Tolstoy out of trouble with the authorities). The article appeared in a German newspaper not long afterwards, and later as the final chapter of a revised 1901 edition of a book first published in 1891, “Gespraeche ueber und mit Tolstoj” (Conversations about and with Tolstoy.)

    The whole book can be read on Google Books, and for anyone interested in Tolstoy and able to read German, it is worth a look, especially that last chapter. You will find there, for instance, Tolstoy’s account of being thrown into the snow by a watchman at the Tula Nobles Club who thought that a moujik was trying to get through the door. Also the story, horribly mangled by Henri Troyat in the famous biography that won him admission to the French Academy, of Tolstoy remembering, after 40 years, the beggar boy he encountered at Mt. Pincio in Rome. “Date mi un biaoccho,” the child cried out — “give me a penny” — which somehow in Troyat’s telling became a tearful child, asking for a toy (“jouet”). What is especially interesting in this typescript is the deletions. For example, Löwenfeld writes that the Tolstoys had hoped to send a message to the young Tsar, through his mother, that when there is famine in the land, and people are dropping like flies, and the response of the Government is to deny that there is famine, and to use force, it tends to educate both the intelligentsia and the common people toward revolution. Sophia has changed “revolution” to “bad feelings.” Another hand, evidently Tolstoy’s (from the wide nib of the pen he used), has crossed out the whole paragraph.

    You wouldn’t know it from the typescript, but Löwenfeld stayed at Yasnaya Polyana only two days. He didn’t like the increasing rigidity of Tolstoy, and he was distressed by the Tolstoyans’ bad treatment of Sophia. He later visited England, at Tolstoy’s suggestion, to see Chertkov, but his sympathies were definitely with Sophia, not Chertkov and his followers.

    In 1994, my wife and children (then 7 and 10) and I went to Yasnaya Polyana to donate the typescript to the archives, along with a handwritten letter from 1892, in which Tolstoy reacted to the biography. This was late June, the air was full of the scent of jasmine, and nightingales were singing. Readers, if you are ever in Moscow, and have a day in which to visit Yasnaya Polyana, you will never forget it.

    — Peter Crane, Seattle

    I love the story about Tolstoy’s being thrown into the snow by a watchman at the Tula Nobles Club (I would have applauded the watchman — if you insist on dressing like a peasant, be prepared to be treated like one), and I didn’t much care for Troyat’s famous biography (Bartlett’s is much better).

  7. AJP Crown says

    There is no Tansley Street in Bloomsbury but she must have got the name from Arthur Tansley, an eminent ecologist who coined ecosystem and worked at UCL, – perhaps at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine the entrance of which, I once noticed, is covered with a kind of greenish-black mould – round the corner from the British Museum.

    Apparently she was thinking of Endsleigh Street, WC1:

  8. Yes, she lived on Endsleigh Street in a rooming house like the one described in the novels; she changed the name, presumably, for the usual reasons authors of fiction obfuscate real-life originals.

  9. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    Financial Times article on Tolstoy’s early English translations is interesting, and fortunately not behind paywall.

    A brilliant article. Thanks for drawing attention to it.

  10. Owlmirror says

    I love the story about Tolstoy’s being thrown into the snow by a watchman at the Tula Nobles Club (I would have applauded the watchman — if you insist on dressing like a peasant, be prepared to be treated like one),

    I cannot think of a charitable interpretation of this.

    Violence and bullying are laudable when someone looks like they are a typical target of violence and bullying?

  11. Oh, for heaven’s sake. I don’t approve of violence and I do not actually think people should be thrown out into the snow. That said, not every single impulse I have is charitable and philanthropic; if all yours are, you are a very superior person indeed. I deplore the contemporary bien-pensant addiction to showing how virtuous one is by rushing to point out every possible falling away from perfection in the speech and writing of others (when examined under the most unforgiving, if not malicious, lens); this is one of the main reasons I spend less and less time on MetaFilter. Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto; also, I yam what I yam and that’s all what I yam.

  12. Stu Clayton says

    Charity begins at home, and so does domestic violence. That’s why I put my dukes up when someone tries to find a charitable interpretation of what I say – and uncharitably fails. It gives charity a bad reputation.

  13. David Eddyshaw says

    My perhaps excessive dislike of the vile Seneca is largely due to having read his letters to Lucilius, and above all the one in which he touts the spiritual benefits for millionaires like themselves of pretending to be poor people for a day.

    No wonder Nero went to the bad …

  14. Seneca should have been thrown out into the snow like Tolstoy!

  15. David Eddyshaw says

    It just occurred to me that “Seneca” is a rather odd word from a Latin phonological standpoint. Why isn’t it *Senica? And where does it come from? Anybody know?

  16. Good question. Googling around, I see it’s been connected with senectus ‘old age,’ but I have no idea if that’s an actual etymology or the usual guessing.

  17. Tolstoy has been dead and buried for a century now. Giggling at the thought of him getting thrown into the snow is like giggling at Wile E. Coyote being crushed by an anvil. No overweening Russian authors or animals have actually been harmed for more than a few seconds. Both got a chance to learn to be more thoughtful, but at least one didn’t.

  18. John Cowan says

    While reading the FT article, I was struck by the notion of H.G. Wells as a protege of Henry James, something that would never have occurred to me before. I can’t imagine Wells saying that Tolstoy was an elephant harnessed to a coach-house, but James, yes.

    I also can’t imagine why Constance Garnett was working by candlelight during her translation of W & P. 1901-04 was deep into the gaslight era not only in Britain but in Russia as well, and Welsbach mantles (which are exceedingly bright; I’ve used kerosene lanterns with them) had been commercially available since 1892. Was she in such poverty then that nothing better than candles was available to her?’

    The building I live in, built in 1872, was set up for illuminating gas until it was gut rehabbed in the late 1990s; at one point we incautiously opened a tap connected at one end to a pipe that ran down the kitchen wall and to nothing at the other, and a loud hissing noise resulted. We shut the tap off again and called Con Ed.

  19. Stu Clayton says

    Your Deadlock link is blocked for me. In fact the entire gutenberg<dot>org site is blocked for German users. The S. Fischer Verlag claims to hold copyright for certain works by Heinrich and Thomas Mann, and by Döblin, that were available on Gutenberg. Each of these works entered the public domain in the US more than 40 years ago.

    This explains what’s happened so far. An excerpt:

    # Q: The plaintiff is S. Fischer Verlag, GmbH. Is that the international conglomerate?
    A: Yes, it is part of a family of companies all under single ownership and control or majority stakeholdership, from Germany, reaching around the world. S. Fischer Verlag, GmbH is a unit of Verlagsgruppe Georg Holtzbrinck GmbH. Internationally it is known in the US and elsewhere as Holtzbrinck Publishers LLC. Readers in the US know this as Macmillan, which is one of the largest publishers in the US by revenue, and owns many familiar imprints. US readers might also recall that Macmillan was one of four companies accused by the US Dept. of Justice in 2012 of price fixing. The companies eventually settled the antitrust claims, including by giving credits to customers who had overpaid for eBooks. #

  20. Interesting, the Deadlock link and Gutenberg seem to work just fine in Austria.

  21. I guess Holtzbrinck didn’t/couldn’t bully the Austrian courts.

  22. Man, I hate these profit-grubbing thugs. It’s a wonder we have free access to anything at all.

  23. Stu Clayton says

    This is the first part of what I got at the link:

    # Your IP Address in Germany is Blocked from http://www.gutenberg.org

    We apologize for this inconvenience. Your IP address has been automatically blocked from accessing the Project Gutenberg website, http://www.gutenberg.org. This is because the geoIP database shows your address is in the country of Germany.

    Diagnostic information:
    Blocked at germany.shtml
    Your IP address:
    Referrer URL (if available): http://languagehat.com/a-big-thick-book/
    Browser: Mozilla/5.0 (Windows NT 6.1; Win64; x64) AppleWebKit/537.36 (KHTML, like Gecko) Chrome/75.0.3770.100 Safari/537.36
    Date: Sunday, 23-Jun-2019 14:56:06 GMT

    Why did this block occur?
    A Court in Germany ordered that access to certain items in the Project Gutenberg collection are blocked from Germany. Project Gutenberg believes the Court has no jurisdiction over the matter, but until the issue is resolved, it will comply.

    For more information about the German court case, and the reason for blocking all of Germany rather than single items, visit PGLAF’s information page about the German lawsuit.

    For more information about the legal advice Project Gutenberg has received concerning international issues, visit PGLAF’s International Copyright Guidance for Project Gutenberg

  24. Stu Clayton says

    I guess Holtzbrinck didn’t/couldn’t bully the Austrian courts.

    The Manns and Döblin were Germans.

  25. Stu Clayton says

    # Q: The judgement devotes around half of its pages to the Plaintiff’s assertation that they own the copyrights. Why is that an issue, and is it settled?
    A: Plaintiff has not provided sufficient documentation to support their claim that they are the exclusive owner or licensee of copyrights for the 18 items. In fact, some of the licensing agreements presented to the Court were signed after the lawsuit was filed! The Court allowed multiple iterations by the Plaintiff to try to improve on the insufficient documentation, including hearings, to prove they are actually a rights-holder.

    Irregularities and gaps remain, and will be revisited during the appeal. There are at least two major concerns. One is that the original printed books were published between 1897 and 1920, sometimes by other companies that were subsequently acquired by Plaintiff. Plaintiff has never produced evidence of continuous ownership of the rights, to those original printed books that Project Gutenberg digitized. Or, that the “community of heirs” (the English translation referring to the family of the authors) duly inherited the rights, and can thereby assign them to the Plaintiff. The Court did not require demonstration of rights at the outset of the lawsuit, and PGLAF is not convinced that Plaintiff actually has rights to any of the 18 items, including rights for eBooks (as opposed to printed books). #

  26. The Manns and Döblin were Germans.

    Don’t they publish any Austrian authors?

  27. Not that I want to give them any ideas.

  28. Stu Clayton says

    Don’t they publish any Austrian authors?

    Maybe it’s as you said: “I guess Holtzbrinck didn’t/couldn’t bully the Austrian courts.”

  29. AJP Crown says

    What’s this? I thought MacMillan was run by an ancient Scottish family of Old Etonian crofters whose chairman – Harold be thy name – was the PM before the banishment of Mr Khruschev. He was related by marriage to President Kennedy. Or something. I don’t mean he was married to Kennedy. It was before that sort of thing.

  30. And now it turns out they were German all along. It’s like the Windsors, who are actually Saxe-Coburg and Gotha.

  31. Stu Clayton says

    # PGLAF has pointed out that German is widely spoken in the US (the third-most common second language), and also is widely taught in schools and colleges.#

    Third behind Spanish (I suppose) and … what ? Chinese ? Vietnamese ? English ??

    Certainly not French, a second language which only pretentiousness can pretend to speak.

    Edit: must be Newspeak.

  32. AJP Crown says

    We’re all Germans. I am a doughnut.

  33. According to Worldatlas it’s English, Spanish, Chinese (i know and they do too), French with creole, Tagalog, Vietnamese, Korean, German. In other words, German is the third “second language” of European origin.

  34. Jonathan D says

    I think the German as third most common second language in the US idea usually refers to the number of students currently studying non-English languages in schools and colleges, possibly not restricted to non-native speakers of those languages.

    If it were actually talking about the most common second languages in the US, then presumably the first on the list would be English.

  35. True. The statistic I quoted is for languages spoken at home. Which makes a lot of sense, IMHO. Figuring out who is L1 and who is L2 and who is truly bilingual is too difficult (Who is on the first, I must add, even if they are deaf-mute)

Speak Your Mind