I mentioned yesterday how Orlando Figes praised the War and Peace translation of Pevear and Volokhonsky, how the husband-and-wife team were able to capture the “awkward bumps and angularities” of Tolstoy’s language. Figes focused on Tolstoy’s repetition, but he also mentioned the writer’s long sentences. He quoted one in particular in which the mayor of Moscow despairs before the French advance.
Garnett breaks it into seven sentences; Briggs into five; Edmonds breaks it toward the end. But Pevear and Volokhonsky recognize the sentence for exactly what it is—the description of a man who cannot “stem the flow of the enormous current of people which carried him along with it”—and they leave it as they should, in all its glory, as one unbroken stream of words:
But Count Rastopchin, who now shamed those who were leaving, now evacuated government offices, now distributed good-for-nothing weapons among the drunken riffraff, now took up icons, now forbade Augustin to evacuate relics and icons, now confiscated all private carts, now transported the hot-air balloon constructed by Leppich on a hundred and thirty-six carts, now hinted that he would burn Moscow, now told how he had burned his own house and wrote a proclamation to the French in which he solemnly reproached them for destroying his orphanage; now he assumed the glory of having burned Moscow, now he renounced it, now he ordered the people to catch all the spies and bring them to him, now he reproached the people for it, now he banished all the French from Moscow, now he allowed Mme Aubert-Chalmet, the center of all the French population of all Moscow, to remain in the city and ordered the old and venerable postmaster general Klyucharev, who had done nothing particularly wrong, to be arrested and exiled; now he gathered the people on the Three Hills to fight the French, now, in order to be rid of those same people, he turned them loose to murder a man and escaped through a back gate himself; now he said he would not survive the misfortune of Moscow, now he wrote French verses in an album about his part in the affair—this man did not understand the meaning of the event that was taking place, but only wanted to do something himself, to astonish someone or other, to accomplish something patriotically heroic, and, like a boy, frolicked over the majestic and inevitable event of the abandoning and burning of Moscow, and tried with his little hand now to encourage, now to stem the flow of the enormous current of people which carried him along with it.
This is a case where form mimics content brilliantly. And it reminded me of another instance, another Russian instance, even. Here is the magnificent & mind-boggling opening sentence of Leonid Tsypkin’s Summer in Baden-Baden, a novel about Dostoevsky.
IMAGE: Moscow on Fire (aquatint on paper tinted watercolor) by J. F. A. Clar (1768-1844)
This is one in a series of occasional posts about my reading of War and Peace.