Monday, November 19, 2007

Riding to Moscow on Chairs

The current New Yorker has a wonderful review by James Wood of a new translation of War and Peace. The whole review is worth reading: it captures some of the novel’s most vivid, and “poetic,” moments, and the fact that they're poetic and what we mean by that are what interests me. The young man Petya is killed in battle, and his comrade Denisov “approaches the body and, as he looks at Petya, ‘irrelevantly’ recalls him once saying, ‘I'm used to something sweet. Excellent raisins, take them all.’ I think that “irrelevance” is of the essence of poetry.

One passage about the variety of translations seems particularly relevant to poetry:

In the novel’s epilogue, Marya enters the nursery: “The children were riding to Moscow on chairs and invited her to come with them.” That is exactly what Tolstoy writes, because he wants us to experience a little shock of readjustment as the adult meets the otherworldliness of childish fantasy. But Garnett, the Maudes, and Briggs [earlier translators] all insert an explanatory “playing at,” to make things easier for the adults. As the Maudes render it, “The children were playing at ‘going to Moscow’ in a carriage made of chairs, and invited her to go with them.”

This might seem like a trivial point, but it is a little clue to the vision of the whole novel. Tolstoy sees reality as a system of constant adjustments, a long, tricky convoy of surprises, as realities jostle together and the vital, solipsistic ego is affronted by the otherness of the world. Nikolai Rostov thinks that warfare is a glamorous business of “cutting people down.” But warfare is nothing like that, and when he finally has the chance to cut down a Frenchman he cannot do it, because the soldier’s face is not that of an enemy but “a most simple, homelike face.” He gets a medal and is called a hero, but can think only, “So that’s all there is to so-called heroism?” By the time Prince Andrei fights at Borodino, he has lost any sense he once had that a battle can be successfully commanded, and applauds General Kutuzov for at least knowing when to leave well enough alone. On a trip home, he sees two girls stealing plums from the estate’s trees, and is comforted, feeling “the existence of other human interests, totally foreign to him and as legitimate as those that concerned him.”

That difference between the alternative translations of “riding to Moscow on chairs” and “playing at ‘going to Moscow” in a carriage made of chairs” seems to capture perfectly what poetry is all about—as Wood says, the ego “affronted by the otherness of the world”—and also captures perfectly why language that is too “accessible” does not always serve the poem.


Diane K. Martin said...

I also enjoyed the review -- and agree with you that that difference is what matters in poetry. In my mind, I see it as a gap that must be sparked. The poem must leave that gap so that the reader's mind makes that spark.

KATE EVANS said...

The New Yorker is so great. I let my years-long subscription lapse recently...this is prompting me to renew. Thanks.

PS to Diane: I like the spark metaphor.