26 May 2010

Pierre Bezukhov, “Clerical Persons”, and Defamiliarization (Part 1)

(Note: I’m only half way through volume 1 of War and Peace, partly because I haven’t had much time for reading lately and partly because I’m also looking through a couple of other book simultaneously. In the first book of Volume 1, there are three really compelling scenes that stand out, at least to me: Anna Pavlovna Scherer’s soiree, the Rostov dance party, and the original Count Bezukhov’s deathbed drama. To start off my blogging, I’m going to try to write three posts about a tiny aspect of the Count Bezukhov section, particularly how the sacrament of unction is described by Tolstoy.)

As I wrote before, the first two times I read War and Peace, it was with the Ann Dunnigan translation, and since I am unable to read the Russian original, I was looking forward to a fresh perspective in this new translation.

One thing that struck me was the way Tolstoy writes about priests in the scene where Pierre’s father deathbed unction service [1] in chapter 20. The service is described as follows (by the way, in all my quoting the emphasis will be my own):
"He lay directly under the icons; his two large, fat arms were freed of the coverlet and lay on top of it. In his right hand, which lay palm down, a wax candle had been placed between the thumb and the index finger, held in place by an old servant who reached from behind the armchair. Over the armchair stood the clerical persons in their majestic, shining vestments, their long hair spread loose on them, lighted candles in their hands, performing the service with slow solemnity." [2]

After the service, Tolstoy writes, "The sound of the church singing ceased, and the voice of the clerical person was heard deferentially congratulating the sick man with having received the sacrament." [3]

This use of "clerical persons" rather the "priests" or "clergy" was a bit jarring to me. It also struck me as particularly Tolstoyan. I didn’t remember this from the last time I read it, so I dug up my Dunnigan copy. Here is how she translated the last sentence of that first passage:
"The clergymen, their long hair falling over their gorgeous, shimmering vestments, stood around the armchair with lighted tapers in their hands, slowly and solemnly celebrating the service." [4]

And the second passage is translated: "The chanting ceased, and the voice of a priest was heard congratulating the sick man on having received the sacrament." [5]

A couple of thoughts about this right away. First, I think Dunnigan’s sentences are superb. For literary quality, you could do much worse. Second, I think that the literary quality is the reason she changed “clerical persons” to “clergyman” and “priests.” Those sentences just sound off, and it was easy to edit his clumsy prose. There are at least two things about this usage that seem very Tolstoyan to me. The use of repetition as a literary device, and the use of the literary technique called defamiliarization. Whereas a more conventional writer would vary the vocabulary, such as Dunnigan did with "priests" here and "clergymen" there, Tolstoy intentionally used the same rather odd phrase over and over.[6] At the very least this has the affect of magnifying the oddness of the phrase.[7]

In my next post I will try to analyze this phrase as a case of defamiliarization, and how I think defamiliarization tends to work in War and Peace. In the post after that, I will try to figure out if behind the technique there lurks Tolstoy’s famous anti-clericalism.

[1] It is interesting that several characters call it "Extreme Unction." It partly makes sense because they are speaking in French. Still, you don’t usually hear it phrased that way among Orthodox Christians these days.
[2] War and Peace (Pevear/Volokhonsky, Knopf). Page 80. I apologize for these sloppy citations.
[3] War and Peace (Pevear/Volokhonsky, Knopf). Page 81. There were a couple other mentions of ‘clerical persons’ in this section of the book, but I forgot to note their locations.
[4] War and Peace (Ann Dunnigan, Signet Classic). Page 116.
[5] War and Peace (Ann Dunnigan, Signet Classic). Page 117.
[6] See the introduction to the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation (page xv) for more information about repetition. He notes that both Dunnigan and Maude typically gloss over the repetitions. I did look up a free translation of W&P online which I think is Maude and the translator actually did repeat “priest” consistently.
[7] For more about the oddness of Tolstoy’s prose, though I don't recall if he touches on repetition, see Gary Saul Morson’s Hidden in Plain View: Narrative and Creative Potentials in 'War and Peace'. I read the first half of it a while ago and need to finish it. It's one of the best literary theory books I've picked up.


aaronandbrighid said...

Very interesting post, Matthew. I look forward to more.

My Russian is absolutely minimal at best, but I looked up the passages to which you refer to discover the Russian expressions translated by Pevear/Volokhonsky as 'clerical person' and 'extreme unction' (from French in chapter 19, but from Russian in chapter 18). As for the first, dukhovnye litsa, it is indeed used consistently in Russian, and I think 'clerical person' is a close translation. Obviously, 'clerical' lacks the connection of the Russian adjective, often used for clergy, with the root word for 'spirit', but I don't think there was any way to reproduce this. I can't be sure, however, but I would think that that connection makes the expression less likely to be anti-clerical, at least for Tolstoy. But I am definitely open to correction as that as mere guesswork for me.

The Russian expression translated as 'extreme unction' in chapter 18 was new to me: soborovat', apparently related to sobor, 'cathedral' or 'assembly'. Etymologically, at least, it doesn't seem to have the connection with death only that the French l' extrême onction would have.

aaronandbrighid said...

Sorry, I should have clarified that dukhovnye litsa is plural, and should have been 'clerical persons' in the second sentence of my second paragraph. I think Tolstoy uses it in the singular only in the second passage you quoted, when 'the clerical person' congratulates Count Bezukhov on receiving the sacrament.

Matthew said...

Thank you for looking that up! I know even less Russian than you do, so the help is appreciated.

One of the problems with trying to do a close reading of a translation is that there is always the possibility that you end up chasing optical illusions. I guess my argument will stand and fall on whether or not, would sound odd to a typical Russian reader in the 1860s. If not, at least I will have had fun chasing around optical illusions.

I don’t think this is anti-clericalism, either, by the way. I’m not sure, though, which is why I broke this up into a few posts so I could think about it more.

The Secretary said...

We are doing a group reading of WAR AND PEACE this summer over here. Twitter feed is here. Hope you will join us and participate in the conversation!

Matthew said...

Secretary > What a coincidence! I'll try to remember to check back with your site from time to time.