The Green Stick: A Voice of Clarity and Truth Resurrected

You open the book, you turn the page, and once again you are in that familiar drawing-room, clutching your invitation to the soiree of Anna Pavlovna Scherer and being ushered over to pay your respects to her ancient, beribboned aunt. Then you take your long-accustomed place among the guests: the pert little Princess Bolkonsky with her needlework; the suave and repulsive Prince Vasily; the celebrity exile, Viscount Mortemart; and Princess Helene, whose astonishing yet deadening beauty gleams in the shining flesh of her bare shoulders and diamond-draped bosom...then at last to the fat, bumbling bear, the bastard Pierre Bezukhov, and his sworn friend, Prince Andrei, resplendent in his dry, sharp, angry gloom.

How many times have you been here, going back almost thirty years from your first entrance? A half a dozen, maybe more. Yet here you are again; and again, from the very first you are drawn back into that world that has lived inside you as vividly as your own life. And you know you will be there again through all twelve hundred pages; you have never yet stopped and walked away.

But this time, there is something different about the encounter. This time in the drawing room -- that light, brief curtain-raiser to the oceanic depth and immensity that lies ahead -- the figures look sharper. They speak in somewhat different tones, more distinct and differentiated. They are more creaturely in their gait and movements. And the prose that animates them has more of the rough grain of reality than before.

This is
the new edition of Tolstoy's War and Peace, translated by Richard Pevear and his wife, Larissa Volokhonsky. Published this year to general acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic, it is perhaps the closest that any English-speaking reader can come to Tolstoy's Russian. Pevear and Volokhonsky have made a specialty of this kind of thing in recent years, sandblasting away the prettied-up prose and smooth Anglicisms that have encumbered the translations of most great Russian novels. Their efforts have been particularly effective with the works of Dostoevsky, whose strange, polyphonic rhythms were almost completely obscured for a hundred years until Pevear and Volokhonsky's landmark translation of The Brothers Karamazov, which also made their reputation as the premier Russian translators of the age.

Tolstoy's prose is more "simple" and straightforward than that of many Russian writers; I remember my great relief at finally reaching Tolstoy in my Russian-language literature classes after weeks of wrestling with Gogol's hilarious but torturously convoluted language. It's hard to "lose" Tolstoy completely even in the most gussied-up (or, in my college case, badly done) translation; he drives so relentlessly at the truth and reality he is trying to convey that its burning core always comes across, usually with great power. (The Penguin Tolstoy translations by Rosemary Edmonds are particularly fine in this regard, despite making the pugnacious little Russian sound like, well, a typical Penguin author, a purveyor of finely-rendered -- and very English -- fiction.)

Yet even in the early stages of my reading of Pevear and Volokhonsky's rendition, I can see that they have made something new and different -- and much more Tolstoyan. It doesn't flow smoothly and exquisitely; it has, as I said, much more of a grain to it, to catch and snag reality, hold it in front of us for a moment so that we can see it with new clarity. Paradoxically, this greater "awkwardness" makes Tolstoy's artistry -- "periodic structure, emphatic repetitions, epic similes," in Pevear's words -- more clear. In particular, you can see how he employs that repetition of words -- sometimes using the same word as many as five times in a single short passage -- as a hammer to drive his point home, and to serve as a marker of his commitment to truth over questions of mere style. In his short but informative introduction, Pevear quotes Boris Pasternak on Tolstoy's art and insight:

All his life, at every moment, he possessed the faculty of seeing phenomena in the detached finality of each separate instant, in perfect distinct outline, as we only see on rare occasions, in childhood, or on the crest of an all-renewing happiness, or in the triumph of a great spiritual victory. To see things like that, our eye must be directed by passion....

Such passion, the passion of creative contemplation, Tolstoy constantly carried within him. It was precisely in its light that he saw everything in its pristine freshness, in a new way, as if for the first time. The authenticity of what he saw differs so much from what we are used to that it may appear strange to us. But Tolstoy was not seeking that strangeness, was not pursuing it as a goal, still less did he apply it to his works as a literary method.

[Pasternak is another Russian author who has been particularly ill-served by his translators. In fact, the main reason I took up Russian studies in the first place all those years ago was in the secret hope that one day I would be able to do Pasternak justice in new translations of his poetry and his novel, Doctor Zhivago. Unfortunately, my Russian was never good enough for this task; nor, as it turned out, was my English. But perhaps Pevear and Volokhonsky could take on Pasternak as their next project.]

Pevear notes another strange aspect of Tolstoy's art:

I was struck, while working on the the impression that I was translating two books at the same time. Not two book in alternation...but two books simultaneously. One is a very deliberate and self-conscious work, expressive of the outsize personality of the author, who is everywhere and present, selecting and manipulating events, and making his own absolute pronouncements on them: "On the twelfth of June, the forces of Western Europe crossed the borders of Russia, and war began -- that is, an event took place contrary to human reason and the whole of human nature." It is a work of provocation and irony, with broad and elaborately developed rhetorical devices....The other [book] is an account of all that is most real and ordinary in life, all that is most fragile and therefore most precious, all that eludes formulation, that is not subject to absolutely pronouncements, that is so mercurial that it can hardly be reflected upon, and can be grasped only by a rare quality of attention and self-effacement....It seems to me that the incomparable experience of reading War and Peace comes from the shining of the one work through the other."

I was once fortunate enough to stand in the room where Tolstoy wrote much of War and Peace, in the house on his family estate, Yasnaya Polyana, in the countryside near the city of Tula, about 100 miles south of Moscow. Or rather, I stood in a reconstruction of the room. The Nazis burned down the mansion when they paid their visit to the area in 1941. However, most of contents of the house had been removed before the Germans got there, and was brought back when the house was restored after the war. I also saw the hard, black upholstered couch where Tolstoy -- and all of his children -- had been born.

It was a strange trip -- a package tour, on a long bus ride from Moscow -- with a strange guide, who seemed to be going through some kind of emotional crisis at the time: his eyes red-rimmed from crying, his clothes slightly disheveled. But he told us several interesting stories, in his careful English, on the way to the estate, which was now a museum and park. When we arrived, the parking lot was nearly full, but the two gift shops, which offered books -- translated crime and action thrillers from the West mostly -- were closed. It was late autumn, very chilly, but not yet the full blast of Russian winter. We made our way through a number of wedding parties gathered in the parking lot: giddy youngster still in ornate gowns and stiff new suits. "It is the practice," said our guide, "for Russian newlyweds to visit some local shrine of note on their wedding day. In Moscow, they may go to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, where eternal flame honors the dead of the Second World War; in Petersburg, they lay flowers before the famous Bronze Horsemen. And here in Tula region, they come to Yasnaya Polyana." (Yes, I did take notes at the time, and can still -- barely -- make them out, almost 14 years later.)

Long trails through columns of birch led us to Tolstoy's unmarked grave: a small earthen mound on the edge of a shallow ravine. "This," said the guide "is where Tolstoy and his brother tried to find the 'green stick.' Nikolai, the brother, told Lev there was a green stick somewhere in these woods that would guarantee the goodness and happiness of the world, if only they could find it. Lev searched for many days here, many years as a boy, but he did not find it."

As he stood shivering in the wind -- for some reason, he wearing only a thin, wrinkled trench coat over his street clothes, woefully inadequate to the weather -- the guide's eyes filled with tears again, and his language grew halting. "I think...I think we should perhaps honor this man, who made, perhaps, many mistakes, and was perhaps cruel in some ways to those who loved him. But he wanted what was good and just, and tried very hard to find it." And there his search had ended, beneath that unmarked mound, so small it could have been a child's grave -- the child who searched in vain for the green stick.

But the voice he gave to the reality he apprehended with such astonishing clarity is not buried. It is with us still, speaking the word, speaking the world of life, the mercurial moments, dying even as they rise, yet imbued with imperishable meaning.

*Illustration: a portrait of Tolstoy by Leonid Pasternak (the writer's father).*