Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Tears and Jam

Even in translation, Tolstoy's sentences leave those of the writers we've read so far--and probably those of any writer anyone will read--seeming crippled, anemic, asthmatic. It took me until part 2 to really notice the incredible motion, the athleticism, of his sentences: they are almost scenes unto themselves. A few examples:

" 'Well, bonne chance,' she added, giving Vronsky a free finger of the hand holding her fan, and lowering the slightly ridden-up bodice of her dress with a movement of her shoulders, so as to be well and properly naked when she stepped out to the foot of the stage under the gaslight's and everyone's eyes"(131).

"The dairymaids, hitching up their skirts, their bare, white, as yet untanned legs splashing in the mud, ran with switches after the calves and drove them, lowing and crazed with spring joy, into the yard"(153).

"Seeing their mother, they were frightened, but peering into her face, they understood that they were doing a good thing, laughed, and their mouths full of cake, began wiping their smiling lips with their hands smearing tears and jam all over their beaming faces"(264).

The ridden-up dress, the untanned legs, the tears and jam--these details are lively by themselves, but Tolstoy doesn't simply present them to us: he moves them around, changes them, makes them part of a mini-scene. That is: Betsy's shoulders lower her dress; the white legs splash and run (we can picture, too, the dark mud on the white legs); and the children smear the tears and jam across their faces. These sentences--along with many, many others in the novel--begin in one place and end in another. They do this on the level of the images they describe but also, in the case of the last one, on the level of the character's perception. At the start of the sentence, the children are scared; then they have a little epiphany; then they laugh and smile, their faces still wet with tears. And all while chewing.

Characters are always moving in the novel--even the smallest scenes are full of cracking knuckles, trembling hands, nervous fingers--but somehow this movement is most powerful when condensed into a sentence. And when Tolstoy condenses it, he is often doing so to convey a change in his characters' perceptions--those many mini epiphanies. This is because Tolstoy is interested in those moments when we see the world differently, when everything changes--or at least seems like it does. Even after that charming scene with the tears and jam, a little bad behavior from her children "suddenly destroyed for Darya Alexandrovna all that day's happiness and pride"(271). That is a trivial example compared to Anna's sudden perception of her husband's ugly ears, or Karenin's own brief change of heart. Levin is perhaps most susceptible to epiphany, and after his engagement to Kitty his perception of the world is transformed--"in particular it was him, Levin, that they all loved so much that night"(400). He becomes astoundingly self-absorbed.

Tolstoy's sentences are still themselves very dynamic--"a boy ran up to a pigeon and, smiling, looked at Levin; the pigeon flapped its wings and fluttered off, sparkling in the sun amidst the air trembling with snowdust, while the smell of baked bread wafted form the window as the rolls appeared in it"--but as a whole, in this section, they freeze time. They mirror Levin's self absorption by becoming haltingly absorbed in details. Is epiphany really so dynamic after all? Perhaps the sentence itself, like Tolstoy's characters, has its limits of perception and change.


  1. I completely agree with what you posted. Tolstoy (and clearly his translators) really had a way with words. Considering the fact that a translated version can still convey so much meaning, I wonder how amazing would it be to actually read the book in its original - russian version. Professor Herold, did you read the book in russian? I'm curious, does it "sound" different?

  2. That's a really neat post! I feel that many of the sentences contain as much action as usually three or four would hold together. In the same way, the novel overall seems to hold enough stuff to constitute more than one novel, between Anna and Vronsky, Levin and Kitty and everything about workers and the state of Russia.

  3. Yeah, the translators, Pevear and Volokhonsky, have a really good introduction to the book; they seem to be quite aware of Tolstoy's techniques and nuances. I'm not sure about this, but I've heard Tolstoy's prose, in Russian, is much more lucid than Dostoevsky's--and I think the translators (same for each book) successfully render their stylistic differences.