Wednesday, October 30, 2013

War and Peace and the new translation

I've done it. Another of the imperatives crossed off the list, which only means, presumably, that I draw closer to shuffling off this mortal coil. Yesterday I finished reading War and Peace. It's one of these questions, isn't it - perhaps when there was nothing one wanted to read: Ah, but have you read War and Peace? And now I have. And?

And now, for a start, I can feel able to read something else. This massive tome - for I was reading it in the new paperback, single-volume edition illustrated here - has dominated my reading, threatened to topple off the pile on my bedside table, weighed down my overnight bag when I travelled for literally months now. When I travelled abroad on holiday I took holidays from Tolstoy and read other stuff on my Kindle, but all my home reading has focussed on Russian gentry and the laborious prose of Anthony Briggs' translation. I suspect you're getting my drift now. I shall speak plainly.

I asked for this version because I read things like this: 'This is the best translation so far of Tolstoy's masterpiece into English. It achieves the difficult feat of combining faithfulness to the original with smooth, idiomatic English. The result is a triumph of cultural mediation' – Robert Maguire, Professor of Russian, Columbia University, New York. 'If you haven't already read War and Peace, there's no better time to do so' - Vogue. And I was convinced, because the neat little 3-volume Oxford World Classics edition that I had inherited insists on having the pronunciation marks for all the Russian names every time they appear and I thought it would drive me mad. I chose a book rather than a Kindle edition because it had a dramatis personae that I could flip back to when confused (frequently), despite the knowledge that it would break my nose if I fell asleep reading it.

But I'm perplexed. How can anyone - except, perhaps, an American - think it acceptable to keep saying that characters 'coloured up'? As in 'Countess Marya coloured up'? What, pray, is wrong with 'blushed'? (It's repeated so often I found myself cringing in anticipation). I find myself looking through the World Classics edition and noting that the slightly old-fashioned language (this translation, by Louise and Aylmer Maude, dates from 1933) seems to suit the narrative better; I read in the notes to the version I've just read that the Maudes lived in Russia and had actually consulted Tolstoy himself, who claimed that 'better translators could not be invented', and wonder why anyone else would undertake such a thing.

And the novel itself? The novel that Tolstoy apparently said was not meant to be a novel at all? It drove me crazy several times, primarily in the conversations and social manoeuvrings of the characters in peacetime - all these soirĂ©es and balls. I enjoyed, if that's a suitable word, the descriptions of battles and the retreat of the French from Moscow. I pictured the mural in the Moscow Metro which showed the nonplussed Bonaparte's bafflement when he found Moscow deserted and open, and felt I had learned more of the background to a culture I find fascinating. I hated the over-use of adverbs and the repetition of adjectives - 'His handsome eyes were shining with an unusual brightness and kindness' - and I found much of the dialogue banal and superfluous - a bit like ploughing through an interminable episode of East Enders. 

I made up my mind to read War and Peace after my Russian trip - that picture, and my ignorance of what it depicted, played a part in my decision - and I'm glad I've done so. I feel that what I've written here might have some of my dear readers thinking 'She's for a jig or a tale of bawdry or she sleeps' - or whatever. Not so. I was raised on classics and Victorian verbosity (Whymper's Scrambles Amongst the Alps before I was 10, for example). But the combination of a novel that, in Simon Schama's words, 'you don't just read, you live' and an entirely superfluous and inelegant translation leave me, I'm afraid, as cold as the retreat from Moscow.

Now, what shall I read …?

Sunday, October 20, 2013

How was it for you?

It was great. I need to say that right away. After - as I found out today - 28 weeks in our own particular wilderness of worshipping on a badminton court, the joy of being back in the church was almost worth the wait. Yes, there is a heap of stuff still to be done - floorboards to replace grey chipboard, paintwork to be de-scabbed (you can see where - look at the sedilia), lighting to be tinkered with - but for heaven's sake, this is our lovely church, returned to us with a wonderful acoustic (not a carpet in sight) and the layout of the original conception uncluttered by the accretions of years of tinkering.

I had to laugh, though - laugh because losing the heid wouldn't have accomplished anything. I laughed at the person who informed me that the new kneeler-boards were dangerously large and caught her legs - laughed and told her it was better to be a short-arse like me. I laughed at the person who complained at the unfinished aisle. It was possible to laugh because I felt so relieved at the completion of the journey, and because I know there is still so much to be done. It was possible to laugh because we are no longer in danger of falling through the floor or being wiped out by the condemned electric circuits. It was possible to laugh because from the very first phrase of the very first hymn I knew that the acoustics were a dream, making singing a joy and speech wonderfully audible.

And it was possible to laugh because the prayers of the faithful from the past 160 years still saturate this building, because when we sang "O Lord, hear my prayer" after communion it no longer felt like singing in the wilderness, where the notes would be swept away in the wind. Truly, God is in this place - but if we forget to listen, if we can't hear God for the sound of our own voices, there is no point in any of it.

Importunate widows, spiders - they were all there with one message today. The gospel, the sermon, the hymns - they all said it. I for one found it exciting.


Friday, October 18, 2013

Home again!

We're! (All right, that movie wasn't yesterday, but I can't resist the probably inappropriate allusion) A gang of us descended on Holy Trinity Church Dunoon this morning, fighting our way past the men in hard hats who warned us that once inside we'd not get out as they were dismantling scaffolding, negotiating the piles of scaffolding poles and discarded bits of mysterious metalwork to see inside the church we'd left looking desolate and dirty on Low Sunday. We weren't there merely to gawp, but to make it fit for use on Sunday. Gawping, however, came first. To the stranger, it might look as if little had actually changed; the sanctuary, for instance, has paintwork to be done and the central aisle has rough boards covering the space where the various heating systems have had their workings, but the hideous calamine-lotion coloured wooden dado has been replaced by dark red painted plaster and the whole floor is no longer the worm-eaten, rot-weakened potential disaster we had been sitting on top of for all these years. The strangely amateurish platform on which the choir stalls used to sit is gone, the whole area of the choir now restored to its original structure with not a carpet in sight. With any luck, that's how it'll stay. And those of us who've seen the photos of what has been done, we know the awfulness that has been transformed all around us.

The effect was strangely dreamlike - when I sat down as if for a service, I felt the unreality that accompanies dreams of familiar places, and I realised that there have been times in the past where I have indeed had near-nightmares about our church being taken over by people who changed everything so that it no longer felt like the same place. But there's a great feeling about this dream, a dream that includes using that marvellous space for musical performances that the carpetless acoustics can only enhance. And the narthex - just look at the picture of the narthex with its plaster gone and the stone laid bare - reminded me of the lovely buildings we stayed in in Sicily, where the bare stone contrasted with the modernity of the furnishings. I have visions of golden uplighters at floor-level ...

But all this - the enthusiasm with which we all set to work dusting and polishing (all the time hoping that the men on the scaffold tower in the photo don't make too much mess putting in the last window), the laughter, the marching through the rain carrying altar frontals and altar-rail kneelers, the determination to get rid of the foosty cardboard cups that had languished throughout the works in a cupboard under the tower and did odd things to the coffee - all this brought it home once again how important our building is to our worship and our life as a community. People have talked, recently and in the past, of how enlivening it could be for worship to be transferred to a modern space, perhaps one in the town centre where parking would be easy and more people might know we were there and come.

It's not been like that. After the initial hilarity induced by finding ourselves in a strange hall the worship turned out - for myself at least - to be difficult. On the days when I simply didn't feel like going, there was nothing in the environment to give me a nudge towards prayer or mystery. The music was hard going - the piano a sad thing, tending to die a little each time Mr B attacked the keys with anything like a forte; the dead acoustics accentuating the poor sound of the singing so that the less confident gave up singing altogether. The receiving of communion always seemed a tad strange, in that people didn't seem able to achieve a normal sort of progression from seats to front and back again without becoming entangled in each other. You can be jolly about this - and God knows we tried - but it becomes wearisome, a chore. It reminded me of wet days at the CSSM of my childhood holidays, when we had to have our services in a hall rather than on the beach - and there is no way I ever wanted these days back again.

So if anyone asks if this has been a positive experience, I would have to say that it may still turn out to have positive benefits in terms of valuing what you have - but I cannot say I shall miss any tiny bit of the worship over the past 6 months. I became an Episcopalian - I became a Christian, in fact - because of the enabling beauty and numinosity of the two church buildings in which I found myself, and I can't help thinking that we give our leaders an unnecessarily uphill task if we expect them to bring mystery to the mundane on a weekly basis. I don't think our congregation grew in any way because of the convenient location of the hall we were in, and I know for certain that my own spiritual growth was put on hold while I combatted the temptation to go for a walk on a Sunday morning.

Yes, it's good to be going back. And I must add one thing: somehow, we were given the right leader to see us through all this.  How often does that happen?

Friday, October 04, 2013

The men in the radio

We were listening to music on the radio the other night - hardly surprising; we do this every night in life - and for some reason discovered, Mr B and I, that we had both as children pictured tiny musicians inside the radio every time an orchestral concert came on. In these days, of course, there was considerably less music to listen to; the Third Programme didn't come on until after 6pm (heralded, I recall, by the wonderful theme used by Britten in his Young Person's Guide) and I went to bed shortly after (we're talking the 1950s here). Later, thanks to the acquisition of a more modern radio, I discovered Radio Luxembourg and pop music, though that was only audible after dark. (Don't ask me why; I suspect it may have something to do with Physics.) In the light evenings, you could barely hear Elvis through the static. The nostalgia trip was completed with the joy of finding a photo of the radio we had in the kitchen - can you not just see the tiny musicians, in their evening tails, ranged behind the golden cloth front?

We both hated, I discovered, the singing on "Listen with Mother" - on at 1.45 every weekday. I can still hear the voice of Daphne Oxenford in my mind's ear. The man who did the duets with Eileen Brown  ("Hob shoe hob ..." - aargh) was known as Uncle George. How sinister. You can see we had a fascinating ramble into our childhoods, separated by the width of the country but strangely similar in some ways.

Another moment of nostalgia, absolutely nothing to do with the above, came with the remembering of how I came to know what someone with a broken collar-bone might look. (If you follow me on Facebook or Twitter you'll know why I was speculating). There was this book, you see, a "Teach Yourself" book, on home nursing or some such terrifying area of self-improvement. It was blue, but apart from that looked like the book on the right. I think there were photos in it, but there were also the most terrifying line drawings, showing you how to bandage such injuries
as a fractured jaw, a fractured thigh (horror!) and - you've guessed it - a
broken collar bone. You would recognise the last injury by the forward
droop of the shoulder and limb, I recall, and the face of the victim would,
according to the illustration, bear a face of patient suffering. As I spent
quite a lot of time in the post-war years being ill with such things as measles and whooping cough (the first child caught everything. I was doomed) I tended to read anything that came to hand - and this book was one of the most gripping.

Another book I recall being horrified by was a collection of prints of work by war artists, the most worrying of which showed the aftermath of an air-raid. But my post-war traumas (not brought on by anything but my parents' conversations and the sight of the land-mine destruction along the road; I'm not that old) belong, I feel sure, to another post ...