Friday, July 23, 2010

Thoughts from a former Soviet High Schooler

From group member Misha Ratner, writing from New York:
Reading this book now has given me the twin pleasures of gaining an entirely new perspective on the classic I had studied in Soviet high school and, at the same time, the sheer joy of reading in my native tongue. And what a delicious treat is Tolstoy's writing! I had started reading the book just about three weeks ago, but have almost caught up with your pace. This has nothing to do with the fact that I'm reading "War and Peace" in Russian, per se. I don't subscribe to the notion that something, if anything, is "lost" in translating a work of prose (as opposed to poetry). That all depends on the writer, the work and the translator.

Much of the discussions on your blog deal with the philosophical, historical and other intellectual aspects of Tolstoy's work. I have had much more personal, at times even visceral, response to this book. So much of what Tolstoy writes rings true to my experience--Prince Andrei's complex relationship with his family, Pierre Bezukhov's absentminded search for the meaning of life, Nikolai Rostov's ardent enthusiasm and naiveté contrasted with Boris Drubetskoi's cold and calculating careerism--that I find myself fully emotionally engaged in all other parts of the book that have no relation to my own life--the keenly observed stories of army life and battle scenes, the detailed descriptions of Russian high society.

I am still savoring one particular episode in the book: the old oak tree Prince Andrei passes on the way to and from the Rostovs' country estate. On the way there, the tree appears to Bolkonsky as a barren giant, standing alone and untouched by the rush of spring life all around it. The tree appeals to Andrei's melancholy thoughts that his life no longer has any meaning and he should simply live out his days in isolation of his country estate. During his brief stay at Rostovs, Bolkonsky's thoughts and feelings are transformed by Natasha's beauty, innocence and infectious love of life. On the way back home, the previously barren oak tree is now teeming with signs of spring, with green shoots and growth everywhere. This is Tolstoy at his best. A turning point wrapped in a poetic sketch of nature. An apparent digression that turns into a central episode. A couple of days equaling a life's journey. All in a massive book that spans an epoch.

I also wanted to bring up Tolstoy's treatment of Jews and the ingrained nature of anti-Semitism in Russia. That is something that may not be immediately apparent to the readers in your group. Actually, Tolstoy's writing here and in other works, unlike Dostoevsky's, is not overtly anti-Semitic. Tolstoy's use of the pejorative "zid" (or kike), as opposed to "evrei" (or Jew) merely re-creates the vernacular of that era--just like, for example, Mark Twain's use of the word "nigger" faithfully reflects the vernacular of the racist South he was describing in his books. With one important difference. Twain was critical of the racism he so keenly observed; Tolstoy, if not sharing in the the prevailing anti-Semitism, certainly was never critical of it. One minor episode relatively early in War and Peace illustrates my point. Dolokhov, who by that time had been stripped of his officer rank, is addressed directly by Kutuzov during an inspection of troops in the 1805 campaign. This draws attention of a general who asks Dolokhov's commanding officer to tell him more about this unusual soldier. The officer describes Dolokhov, and here I'm paraphrasing only slightly, as "a good and brave soldier, but a little hot-headed--just recently killed a kike as we were going through Poland." Killing a man is being offered, in an offhand way, as evidence of mere hot-headedness? That may seem incredible to our modern ears. 19th Century Russians, however, regarded Jews, not even as second-class citizens, but as barely human -- when they thought about them at all.

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