Thursday, September 18, 2014

The snouts of the horses were wet. - "A Prisoner in the Caucasus" and Tolstoy's plain style

Now, a direct descendant of Pushkin’s Tales of Belkin, somewhat arbitrarily chosen, “A Prisoner of the Caucasus,” one of Leo Tolstoy’s many tales of military life, unusual in that it is not from early in his career but rather dead center between War and Peace (1865-69) and Anna Karenina (1873-77), so what I mean is, we are perched atop the peak here.

I read the story in Volume XIII of a 1913 set of the collected works of Leof N. Tolstoï.   No idea who the translator might be, so let us just assume that the English text is full of blunders of all kinds.  The text as is nevertheless tells a fine story.

An officer is captured by Tartars and held for ransom.  He is soon joined by another prisoner.  There will be no ransom, since his mother has no money.  He kills time in the village, befriends a Tartar girl, and plans his escape, or perhaps prepares for his death.  Reasonably exciting.

How does one of the great prose writers of all time begin?

A Russian gentleman was serving as an officer in the army of the Caucasus.  His name was Zhilin.

One day a letter from his home came to him.  His old mother wrote to him:-

Well, if the narrator’s prose is like this, the mother’s letter won’t be any more exciting.  I mentioned that Pushkin, in his fiction, approached a plain style; Tolstoy’s style is there.  It starts plain and stays plain.  Tolstoy is not out to dazzle, not this way, at least.

Not that Tolstoy tells the story like a fairy tale.  The world, especially once the prisoner reaches  the mountain village, becomes pretty solid:

Then two children on horseback came along on their way to the watering-trough.  The snouts of the horses were wet.

Inessential details, or inessential if Tolstoy were writing a summary of the story for an encyclopedia rather than a work of art.

Although the point of view is firmly fixed on Zhilin, and by any ordinary sense of sympathy the tension of the story lies in our hope that he can escape his captors, Tolstoy simultaneously creates some sympathy for the Tartars, who in another kind of story would simply be the  enemy.  This is a funeral – the “red-bearded Tartar”’s brother has been killed, presumably by the Russians.

They smoothed the earth over, and again sat around the grave in rows.  There was a long silence.

“Allah! Allah! Allah!”

They sighed and got up.  The red-bearded Tartar gave money to the old men, then he got up, struck his forehead three times with a whip, and went home.

It does not seem like much, but these people  and their culture become convincingly full.  This is one of Tolstoy’s greatest gifts.  What appears to be distance or an attempt at objectivity is the result of his great human sympathy.

I had meant to read this story for years because it is the source of a superb movie, Sergey Bodrov’s Prisoner of the Mountains (1996), which makes surprisingly – horribly – few changes in order to update the story to the then-current Chechen war.  If I were a more experienced film blogger I would plaster the post with stills of the mountain scenery and the Chechen village.  There is a scene where the prisoners tinker with a radio (in the story, a watch), and finally tune in – something – Louis Armstrong performing “St. James Infirmary,” which somehow sets the camera spinning.  The moment is ecstatic and sublime, and the effect unavailable to the literary artist, even to Leof N. Tolstoï.


  1. As a child, I was somewhat puzzled by Pushkin's plainness. Now I feel his simplicity is refined, French and crisp, while Tolstoy's plainness is a bit like his talking to peasant boys in a village school.

  2. Very nice comparison. Not that Tolstoy cannot be refined or crisp - he has more than one stylistic mode - but when he's plain, he tries to be the plainest.

    It's a story like this where it is easiest to see what Hemingway saw in Tolstoy.

  3. The argument is wide-spread that 19th Russian writers have no challengers to the title of "head of the class." However, I wish I could read Russian rather than rely upon translations. That wish, however, will never be fulfilled. So Constance Garnet (sp?)remains my go-to translator. Should I look elsewhere?

  4. For my purposes, Garnett is mostly pretty good. I would say avoid her Nikolai Gogol, but otherwise, I am fine with her. Faulkner read her Garnett's Dostoevsky, and if it was good enough for him...

    But there are now multiple credible translations of most major Russian works, so really, whatever is at hand is probably all right.

  5. Jon Gardner points to Tolstoy as the prime example of the invisible narrator, the writer who least imposes himself between reader and story. I've been thinking a lot about the plainness of Russian 19th-century literature, especially (of course, maybe?) that of Chekhov, who could write well of beauty and nature, but always in simple language. I contrast that with Nabokov, whose (English, anyway) prose is full of games and violations of common usage. I haven't come to any conclusions or anything; I've just been thinking a lot about it.

    One thing about translations is that sometimes subtle shades of meaning and the inner poetry of the original language can be lost, poetry turned into flat sentences, etc. Nobody's solved that one, as we all know.

  6. The distance of the narrator in this story is extreme. Not that Chekhov did not often go as far and do the same.

    I just assumed that the translator was incompetent and left out everything I would need to actually piece together the art of the story. My assumption is likely wrong, and anyway the art works in a differently. Does something like the wet-snouted horse recur? Yes, of course.

    Have you read Andrei Bely's Petersburg? That's the one that really prefigures what Nabokov does in Russian, and later English, and a book that can only function in the hands of an artful translator.

  7. I keep hearing about the Bely book, but I haven't read it yet. Are there multiple translations? Do you recommend one?

  8. Have you all seen this:

    1. I read C&P several years ago but never owned a copy; this sounds like the version to get.

      As for Tolstoy, I read his big three novels and loved them. I need to read his shorter fiction.

  9. Petersburg translations, I dunno. There are quite a few now. I should look into that. I should read the novel again.

    The new Oliver Ready Crime an Punishment does look pretty tasty. Tempting, tempting.

    I have enjoyed much of Tolstoy's short fiction. "Hadji Murad" is a great masterpiece in the mode of the story I discussed here.

    1. I second the recommendation of "Hadji Murad." Masterpiece is right. "The Death of Ivan Ilyich" and "The Cossacks" are also great novellas.