June 07, 2017

Reading Russian, Distractedly

Reading Russian, Distractedly
Reading (Ivan Kramskoy, 1866), a portrait of Sofia Kramskoy.
Lev Tolstoy
Reading (Ivan Kramskoy, 1866), a portrait of Sofia Kramskoy.

Every once in a while when I’m reading in Russian, it feels as if I’m not reading Russian; I have the blissful, sensuous feeling that I’m just reading. Whenever my consciousness flashes me English, my reading is something less than the Russian. When I hear my thoughts in English it means I’m distracted.

My Russian vocabulary is Tolstoy- and Chekhov-oriented because I’ve read thousands of their pages; I can catch their distinctive writing-voices, but they both use way more words than I have at my command. (Imagine me as that amateur pianist who can carefully poke his way through Mozart and Chopin but is daunted by Beethoven or Stravinsky.) When a double-prefixed verb or do-hickey noun of theirs snags on my brain or lips, I have to do what an electrician does and check all the wires and connections and take apart the devious word that won’t communicate to me. I usually only go to the dictionary when I can’t shove the sentence along into sense.

When I meet one of Tolstoy’s narrative sentences that isn’t wiggly, I am in bliss. Here I am reading Anna Karenina (Part 3, Chapter 14), and there Karenin, Anna’s husband, is trying to read: “On smotrel v knigu …”

I glide along and comprehend (I’m rendering it in English, but I swear I just took it in without translating): “He looked in (at?) the book …”

Then, “i dumal o drugom”: “and understood and thought about other (other something).

Karenin’s “other something” is not Anna, but only because he doesn’t want to think about her. He wants to think about anything else!

In 1918 Aylmer Maude translated that sentence like so: “His eyes were on the book but he was thinking about something else."

Maude is the most famous and I’m guessing most read translator of Tolstoy and of this novel. Maude actually knew Tolstoy and some of his translations Tolstoy had at least glanced at and “approved,” but where did Maude see the eyes in that straight-forward Russian sentence? (Tolstoy was a fluent reader of English; he could have read his novel in English, but as far as I can tell, from reading every contemporary account of his relationship to that novel, he never even reread Anna Karenina in Russian after he made his final corrections to the book edition in the summer of 1877.)

Lev Tolstoy
Portrait of Lev Tolstoy by Ilya Repin (1887)

Tolstoy makes us so aware of body parts doing their own thing (Anna’s inner brightness that involuntarily lights into a little smile onto her lips, the barber’s hand gliding its way over Oblonsky’s face, Anna’s “spirit of deception” speaking to her the words she has just found herself saying to her husband), but he doesn’t point our attention to Karenin’s eyes here. I committed myself to learning Russian at the age of forty-five to read this very novel, “To find out what it really says!” And I keep discovering that we should thank goodness for translators, but I humbly wouldn’t have stuck any eyes into that description

Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, in their best-selling 2000 translation, turned the sentence this way: “He was looking at the book and thinking about other things.” Not a big deal, but why the plural things?

In 2014, Rosamund Bartlett gave us this: “He was looking at the book but his thoughts lay elsewhere.” Karenin is trying to focus on work, the refuge of unhappy, recently undeceived spouses everywhere. (That is, he now knows Anna is carrying on an affair with Vronsky because she has told him so.)

In her 1901 translation, Constance Garnett, who had an easy way with Russian, didn’t interpret or add: “He looked at the book and thought of something else.

Such tidy phrasing!

Reading is communication from writer to reader, and yet in Anna Karenina, whenever a character reads, he or she is often only somebody holding a prop, and whatever that book is may as well have been filled by its author with dots. Vronsky, for instance, “sat with his coat unbuttoned over a white waistcoat, resting both elbows on the table, and while waiting for the steak he had ordered he looked at a French novel that lay open on his plate. He was only looking at the book to avoid conversation with the officers coming in and out; he was thinking.

For one character after another, all of them intelligent and educated, all of them the sorts of people who would have been reading Anna Karenina in serialization in the Russian Herald if only they weren’t inside the novel, their eyes on the book are only a slowly wheeling ceiling fan. The words on the page scarcely stir into consciousness.

The closest we completely absorbed readers of Anna Karenina come to witnessing actual reading is in Part 1, Chapter 27, when Levin, the author’s superficial alter-ego who bears half the weight of the novel, is back home after Kitty’s rejection of his proposal. (He doesn’t know that he is in a love story and that she will later accept him.) His attention to a scientific book flutters like a faulty light-bulb, and yet, I hate to admit this to myself, Tolstoy’s description of Levin’s reading seems to me reflective of the way I probably usually read. Complete absorption is my goal and glory, but probably it’s as rare as being in the zone is for a professional athlete.

Let’s read along with Levin!

When he had gone into the little drawing room, where he always had tea, and had settled himself in his armchair with a book, and Agafea Mihalovna had brought him tea, and with her usual, “Well, I’ll stay a while, sir,” had taken a chair in the window, he felt that, however strange it might be, he had not parted from his daydreams, and that he could not live without them.

Agafea Mihalovna is the housekeeper, though regarded as something like a maiden-aunt; she is Levin’s warmest connection to his long-deceased parents. He is so accustomed to her he can be half-unconscious of her; they are wholly comfortable in each other’s presence:

Whether with her [that is, Kitty], or with another, still it would be. He was reading a book, and thinking of what he was reading, and stopping to listen to Agafea Mihalovna, who gossiped away without flagging, and yet with all that, all sorts of pictures of family life and work in the future rose disconnectedly before his imagination. He felt that in the depth of his soul something had been put in its place, settled down, and laid to rest.


He heard Agafea Mihalovna talking of how Prohor had forgotten his duty to God, and with the money Levin had given him to buy a horse, had been drinking without stopping, and had beaten his wife till he’d half killed her. He listened, and read his book, and recalled the whole train of ideas suggested by his reading. It was Tyndall’s Treatise on Heat. He recalled his own criticisms of Tyndall of his complacent satisfaction in the cleverness of his experiments, and for his lack of philosophic insight. And suddenly there floated into his mind the joyful thought: “In two years’ time I shall have two Dutch cows; Pava herself will perhaps still be alive, a dozen young daughters of Berkoot and the three others--how lovely!”

What a visitation! While reading, how are we to prevent (or why would we want to prevent) thoughts from floating into our minds? Is this distraction? Or do we all in reading’s midst daydream of our cow and future cows?

He took up his book again. “Very good, electricity and heat are the same thing; but is it possible to substitute the one quantity for the other in the equation for the solution of any problem? No. Well, then what of it? The connection between all the forces of nature is felt instinctively. ... It’s particularly nice if Pava’s daughter should be a red-spotted cow, and all the herd will take after her, and the other three, too! Splendid! To go out with my wife and visitors to meet the herd. ... My wife says, Kostya and I looked after that calf like a child.’ ‘How can it interest you so much?’ says a visitor. ‘Everything that interests him, interests me.’

Levin experiences several episodes in the manner of his author, but he is not ever a fiction writer--except here, where he catches himself in a merry little fantasy of marital bliss. Having voiced his would-be wife’s devotion to him, he reflects:

But who will she be?”

And Treatise on Heat, apparently still open before him, might as well be a block of wood. His little fantasy turns to ash:

And he remembered what had happened at Moscow. ... “Well, there’s nothing to be done. ... It’s not my fault. But now everything shall go on in a new way. It’s nonsense to pretend that life won’t let one, that the past won’t let one. One must struggle to live better, much better.” ... He raised his head, and fell to dreaming.

And then the comfort and companionship of lucky readers everywhere comes to the rescue:

Old Laska, who had not yet fully digested her delight at his return, and had run out into the yard to bark, came back wagging her tail, and crept up to him, bringing in the scent of fresh air, put her head under his hand, and whined plaintively, asking to be stroked.

Where are we on a 1-10 reading-absorption scale? Levin hasn’t been checking his phone or wandering off to Starbucks. He wants to read, he does read, but then his thoughts and feelings carry him this way and that, through memories and become mixed up with the very resonant present. Is this a 6?

The most fully engaged reading scene in Tolstoy’s fiction occurs in “Where Love Is, There God Is Also,” a French Christian magazine story he adapted in 1885, about a grieving shoemaker whose reading of the Bible stirs him as deeply as Anna Karenina does me: “When Avdyeich read these words, there was joy in his heart. He took off his glasses, put them on the book, and fell to musing.

When the characters in Anna Karenina look into their books, they invariably think “of another thing,” “something else” or other things, for instance Pava the cow. No matter how many times I read Anna Karenina (25 times and counting), I continually find sentences, passages and chapters that make me as joyful as the shoemaker over his New Testament. I copy out the sentence or two or three and it feels as if I’m conducting lines of moral or intellectual electricity. When Tolstoy looked into his favorite books, he found himself suddenly thinking of everything. He had one of his million flashes of insight back in 1862 when he was running a school for peasant children, and he discovered a couple of his students could write stories that knocked his socks off: “Every artistic phrase [...] distinguishes itself from the inartistic in that it calls up countless possible thoughts, imaginings and interpretations.

Tolstoy continued to find art where it was, not necessarily where it was supposed to be. And I keep finding it in this novel, in passages I’ve read dozens of times and seemingly never appreciated before. I sometimes find in past copies evidence--pencil marks in the margins, underlinings--that I had indeed noticed the same passages and lines before; but the art strikes me again and seems new again.

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