Thanksgiving Is Ruined

The Personal is Political. The Political is Personal.

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November 05, 2007

The new NYRB delivers the latest in the series of reviews & articles that appear with regularity hither and yon, about powerhouse translator team Pevear & Volokhonsky. In this case, the focus is on their new War and Peace.

The new review is by Orlando    Figes and is on-line in full, here, for the moment, anyway.

One great service that this particular review performs is to remind us of Nabokov's wonderful observations about the place of repetition in Tolstoy's writing style:

One peculiar feature of Tolstoy's style is what I shall term the "groping purist" . . . .

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.

Nabokov's words are heartening. They suggest that you are in good company, with Tolstoy, if you are one of those who can become obsessed with the trial and error process of pinning down a phrase
knows what it's like to struggle repeatedly for just the right phrase

reject many options

do lots of crossing out

tend to circle and jab with words at an elusive concept like a cave dweller trying to bring down a mammoth with a spear

or make like a potter, adding clay, turning it, removing clay

        or like a whittler carving a stick

        or like an painter working with oils?

        like a

        like a ??

then watch in horror as the very attempt at verbalization causes migration, creep or slippage of the original concept to someplace new

no, not "causes," exactly -- correlates with?


is caused by some third, unknown thing?

or want to just forget the whole thing and shut up

. . . or if your simply are one who can become easily transfixed by the workings of the literature of repetition.

Of course, it's more complicated than that. It's always more complicated than that, isn't it?

Bahktin, from his "Discourse in the Novel," on the "internal dialogism" of Tolstoy's writing:

Thus, discourse in Tolstoy is characterized by a sharp internal dialogism, and this discourse is moreover dialogized in the belief system of the reader, whose peculiar semantic and expressive characteristics Tolstoy acutely senses . . . .

[E]ven in his most "lyrical" expressions and the most "epic" descriptions, Tolstoy's discourse harmonizes and disharmonizes (more often disharmonizes) with various aspects of the heteroglot socio-verbal consciousness ensharing the object, while at the same time polemically invading the reader's belief and evaluative system, striving to stun and destroy the apperceptive background of the reader's active understanding.

The Devil knows what to make of it.