When Updike died the other day, I sent a friend an email with one of my favorite lines from his short story, A&P. When he wrote back, he sent one of his favorite lines, which was really more like a paragraph, and also, not surprisingly, one of the lines I had considered sending him as a favorite of my own. The thing about that story is that nearly every line is one you might claim as a favorite, the voice in it is just that good.
Most of my reading time over the past few months has been occupied with an entirely different piece of fiction. I started reading War & Peace before Christmas, as a distraction of sorts. I wanted the demand and commitment, the long march of it. I had read it before, but some time last year I read a review that made me want to pick up one of the new translations, I don't remember exactly what it said, but it was something that left me with the impression that the translators had tried to stay true to the words that Tolstoy seemed to love to use, to maintain consistency in the phrases that he returned to throughout the book.
Even with that kind of intended fidelity to the original language, War & Peace is not quotable in quite the way A&P's clever turns of phrase are. There is the problem of translation, to begin with, something that always troubles me and a reason that I tend to be shy in my approach to fiction that was not written in my own language. When Updike writes "All of a sudden I slid right down her voice into her living room", I am charmed by the novelty of that little phrase, common words used in an uncommon way. How would it have been translated into another language, though? What phrase in french would have captured just that small strangeness in it, or the images that it evokes even as the meaning, the way he was drawn in by her voice, is maintained? A translator could have rendered it into a phrase that would have been translated back as "All of a sudden I was drawn in by her voice, right into her living room" and something would have been lost, wouldn't it have?
One of the most memorable experiences of my life as a college student was translating Saint Exupery's memoir, Terres des Hommes (the title of which is translated in English to Wind, Sand and Stars, and if that doesn't say it all about the problem of translation, I don't know what will, since Terre des Hommes is literally Land (as in earth, soil, the way a potato is a pomme de terre or apple of the earth) of Men). Clearly I am still fired up about that experience, as I am now writing using parentheses within parentheses, and surely Mr. Carey would be proud of that lasting impression he made, were it not for the fact that I am using such poor sentence structure. After we finished writing my thesis together (which had led to us doubting whether it was possible at all to write a thesis on Eliot's Four Quartets), I suspect we both comforted ourselves by remembering his words to me at our last advisory session in the coffee shop - "At least it is a beautifully crafted piece of writing," so certainly he would expect better of me.
But I digress. I was just going to say that the experience of translating Terre des Hommes was so memorable because each line presented a charming puzzle to us, a unique and happily translatable gem of description, like the line about the tender blades of grass poking their noses through the cracks in the sidewalk. The genius of Saint-Exupery was that he used these clear physical images in original ways, so those of us who had to read in translation were able to hold fast to his original image and intent. It was lovely.
Tolstoy is not so concrete. War & Peace is filled with historical references that it would take a long tenure in academia to sort out, spiritual and intellectual concepts, gestures, ideas, expressions in language that is no doubt outmoded in its original language even more obviously than in translation. Reading it today, in English, even a very good translation, one feels that one is missing much.
Still, the experience of reading it has been so rich for me. I feel so grateful for it, in a way I can't entirely explain, though I feel compelled to try. I think of Tolstoy as the most ambitious of novelists, the most generous, a writer who is trying to give you every moment of a span of a lifetime, every gesture, all the fleeting thoughts, the sun on the crops, the hunt, the comet of 1812 and a missing button on a beloved's jacket. When I started writing more seriously, it was because I wanted to do that. Not, I admit, to give it to you, but because I wanted to see what the world would look like described. I wanted to start on page one and see what happened over time. And this is something that, no matter how beautiful or clever or quotable, a short story has a very hard time delivering. Time.
Which is why, I suppose, there are all those Rabbit books.
And why I'll be back, later, with more about War & Peace, which is to say, more about me, and more about everything that exists in the entire world. And more.