Caught up

I’m caught up and can begin my summarizing again. Hopefully I have gotten that out of my system and can settle down into more of what I myself expect from my 100 Book Club readers at school: no summary, more personal response.

Small points of the translation differences continue to stand out. When the elder Prince Bolkonsky is giving his daughter Princess Marya her daily geometry lesson, he exclaims against her stupidity, but then paces the room, “touched the princess’s hair with his hands, and sat down again.”

That phrase “touched the princess’s hair with his hands” struck me in several ways. First of all, it’s almost clumsy. Certainly if I came across it in one of David Wilson’s novels, I would consider it risible. (FYI, I do plan on attending his autographing session at Scott’s Bookstore on Tuesday.)

But here it is direct, blunt, and ambiguous. I went back to the Dunnigan translation, and sure enough, she has “lightly touched his daughter’s hair,” which is a very different and very much softer approach to Nikolai Andreevich’s character. In the new translation, it is not clear at all whether or not Prince Bolkonsky has a soft spot for his plain, religious daughter.

Of course, in either translation, there’s a lot of this. Tolstoy just gives a blank description of an action, much as Benjy’s narration of his section The Sound and the Fury, his father touches the wall and the lights come on, just the facts, ma’am, and none of the emotional underpinnings. I myself am not very good at reading any emotional underpinnings into these descriptions. Asperger’s, perhaps? Perhaps it’s very clear to everyone else that the Prince is stroking Masha’s hair tenderly if regretfully?

But I don’t think so. I think phrases like these are pivot points for Tolstoy’s approach to these characters. Prince Bolkonsky keeps alternating, at least in my reading, between savage martinet and sane if somewhat self-centered paterfamilias, and I think one way Tolstoy does that is to give us these emotionally empty descriptions of the character’s actions.

Another way I think he does it is to tell us what a character’s like, and then show us something completely different. Everyone’s terrified of the Prince, but he doesn’t really do much to be scary. Yes, he yells at people, and he seems extremely short-tempered. But he’s not an ogre at all; much of his anger is defensive, and I’m a little surprised that none of the women with whom he shares his house has figured this out.

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