I was reading A Living Chattel by Anton Chekhov this morning and I was struck by how similar the prose is to Vladimir Nabokov’s. Am I stereotyping The Russians (as a literary body), merely overreaching, or is there something about Russian literature translated to English that gives it a certain tone?
It’s very stark, and yet so descriptive. The words themselves aren’t stark; they’re rich and sumptuous, explaining love and beauty and sadness perfectly. But declarations are given starkly. Perhaps it’s the shortness of those statement sentences in amongst the breathless tumble of consciousness, and perhaps ‘spare’ is a better word.
Groholsky embraced Liza, kept kissing one after another all her little fingers with their bitten pink nails, and laid her on the couch covered with cheap velvet. Liza crossed one foot over the other, clasped her hands behind her head, and lay down.
Groholsky sat down in a chair beside her and bent over. He was entirely absorbed in contemplation of her.
How pretty she seemed to him, lighted up by the rays of the setting sun!
There was a complete view from the window of the setting sun, golden, lightly flecked with purple.
The whole drawing-room, including Liza, was bathed by it with brilliant light that did not hurt the eyes, and for a little while covered with gold.
Groholsky was lost in admiration. Liza was so incredibly beautiful. It is true her little kittenish face with its brown eyes, and turn up nose was fresh, and even piquant, his scanty hair was black as soot and curly, her little figure was graceful, well proportioned and mobile as the body of an electric eel, but on the whole. . . However my taste has nothing to do with it. Groholsky who was spoilt by women, and who had been in love and out of love hundreds of times in his life, saw her as a beauty. He loved her, and blind love finds ideal beauty everywhere.
Do you see? So many short sentences – but actually that seems to be true of the Russian too, so clearly this is not a style that comes about in the course of translation to English. We can’t lay claim to those bare statements – they’re sometimes even shorter in the original.
Грохольский обнял Лизу, перецеловал все ее пальчики с огрызенными розовыми ногтями и посадил ее на обитую дешевым бархатом кушетку. Лиза положила ногу на ногу, заложила руки под голову и легла.
Грохольский сел рядом на стул и нагнулся к ней. Он весь обратился в зрение.
Какой хорошенькой казалась она ему, освещенная лучами заходящего солнца!
Заходящее солнце, золотое, подернутое слегка пурпуром, все целиком было видно в окно.
Всю гостиную и, в том числе, Лизу оно осветило ярким, не режущим глаза, светом и положило на короткое время позолоту.
Грохольский залюбовался. Лиза не бог весть какая красавица. Правда, ее маленькое кошачье личико, с карими глазами и с вздернутым носиком, свежо и даже пикантно, ее жидкие волосы черны, как сажа, и кудрявы, маленькое тело грациозно, подвижно и правильно, как тело электрического угря, но в общем… Впрочем, в сторону мой вкус. Грохольский, избалованный женщинами, любивший и разлюбивший на своем веку сотни раз, видел в ней красавицу. Он любил ее, а слепая любовь везде находит идеальную красоту.
All that said, thinking about who was big here at the time, it would seem that short sentences were de rigeur. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde had some nasty little lines that built suspense like the steps of a terrifying staircase, leading to that awful portrait in the attic.
Yes, there would be a day when his face would be wrinkled and wizen, his eyes dim and colourless, the grace of his figure broken and deformed. The scarlet would pass away from his lips, and the gold steal from his hair. The life that was to make his soul would mar his body. He would become dreadful, hideous, and uncouth.
George Bernard Shaw was doing it too; maybe they all were.
I think this has something to do with a different idea of how to write descriptively. Rather than endless poetic drivel, these short sentences are a kind of walk-through of a scene – and as all of these boys wrote plays, that makes sense. Is it a ‘literature for the masses’ thing, brought on by the popularity of theatre? Or is it just that many writers of the time wrote plays on the side (or the other way around), for cash to support more lofty work?
I don’t know why it took me comparing the English translation of A Living Chattel with the original Russian to realise this trend around the overlap of the 18th and 19th centuries (Nabokov, of course, being the baby of the club); maybe because the Russian is just shapes to me, so the form is my only clue and requires more examining.
I don’t think I see this many short sentences in modern literature. I use too many in my writing because I’m used to online marketing; I always think that I’d have to grow up a bit if I were to write something ‘serious’. Are our modern writers more specialised in their output because there’s less pressure to survive the winter on whatever can be scraped together from a play or a short story? I certainly don’t see many authors mixing it up with their media.
Do you know what is incredibly interesting though? I just found out that one of my favourite authors, Janet Fitch of White Oleander magic, studied Russian history and loves Dostoyevsky. That is so clearly why she is my perfect author. She is the definition of Chekhov’s ‘glint on broken glass’.
None of this has any meaning, just musings.