Of which the absence of which is un-puttable up with… the absence

“The simplicity,” writes Tolstoy in the Edmonds translation of Anna, “the integrity, the sanity of this life he felt clearly, and he was convinced he would find in it the content, the peace and the dignity, of the lack of which he was so painfully conscious.”

Is this not a beautiful sentence? (My only problem with it is that, being a philosopher, I always read content as content and have to correct myself.) Garnett translates it in almost exactly the same words, only substituting “miserably” for “painfully.” I wonder what Pevear has. Someone check for me, could you? It’s in Part III chapter 12.

When I was little my parents used to repeat a tag attributed to Churchill, something about how putting the preposition at the end of a sentence was an error “up with which I will not put.” These days, instead, people tell a joke:

A Yankee woman, on vacation in the South, sits down on a park bench next to a Southern woman. The Southern Woman says, “So, what part of the country are y’all from?” The Northern Woman responds, “I’m from a part of the country where we know not to end our sentences with prepositions.” The Southern Woman pauses, then rephrases: “So, what part of the country y’all from, bitch?”

It’s funny. But it’s also cruder. The Churchill version pokes fun at sticklers, but can only be enjoyed by someone who thinks grammar is important. The joke implies, in distinction, that grammar is stupid and classist. A variant of the joke plays the scene on the Harvard campus, where a professor is the fall guy and a student is the wit. That one doesn’t involve North/South stereotypes but still manages to imply that people who love grammar have their heads up what we around here call their butt-butts.

Edmonds’ rendering of the Tolstoy sentence sounds natural to me, and elegant. It’d be a shame if we stopped respecting this elegance.

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6 thoughts on “Of which the absence of which is un-puttable up with… the absence

  1. It’s classist, all right. Sounds petty bourgeois to me — you know, the sentiment that being more correct than thou will earn one a better spot in society presently occupied by someone unworthy. Churchill (or who[m]ever it was from his ostensibly more aristocratic class who actually said it) wasn’t concerned with the preposition rule; he was ridiculing it. And the Edmonds translation is painfully conscious of its own lack of simplicity, so it can’t be beautiful because that makes the sentence self-contradictory. (I say nothing about its having two — two! — lists of three terms. Ugh.) Do I sound bitchy about all this? Sure I’m bitchy? Just yesterday there were two Andy postings, showing me at my best, and they’ve mysteriously disappeared.

  2. DR, yes. All reasonable people recognize that to apply the rule in every case would be ridiculous. And they probably always have.

    But, Andy, you seem to have missed the point. I said that the Churchill line made fun of sticklers. But the Churchill line suggests gently that sticklers are pedantic and foolish, while the joke makes the stickler into someone who is stuck up, who puts other people down, who deserves to be called a bitch. See? By the terms the joke sets up, anyone who speaks well is rude and desreves rudeness in return. Perhaps, in reality, there are people who speak well and also respect their interlocutors, but you sure wouldn’t know it from the joke.

    A longer response would point out that Levin, who is having this thought, is indeed deluded about the simple life he craves. Tolstoy’s way ahead of you.

    As to the de-posting of the Andy comics, I am truly sorry. Circs beyond my control. More Andy posts soon, I promise.

  3. I’m with Andy on this one. (And I think Andy was being Churchillian in not reading too carefully. You’ll of course remember the story of the young Winston returning a copy of Aristotle’s Ethics lent to him the previous day with the comment, “I knew all that already.”) There’s nothing more petty-bourgeois than making a subtle distinction between sticklers, i.e., those other petty-bourgeois, and those in the know who really care about grammar but occasionally flaunt/assert their aristocratic status by ignoring the rules, i.e., the successfully projected petty-bourgeois. Also, what’s the point of comparing English translations without evaluating them against the original Russian? What would Nabokov think!

  4. Like you, I agree with Andy. My response to her was mainly a matter of saying I’d already made her main point, and accepted the rest.

    I also agree with you — but only in general. In this case I don’t think the critique applies, since I’m not making a distinction between pedants and affected pedants. All I’m arguing is that the joke tells us that good grammar is equivalent to rudeness, that those who speak well are not just pretentious but also nasty. It’s a sophistic trick, and it arises from resentment.

    On Nabokov you have me. He hated Garnett’s translations. I suppose I could say that my devotion was not slavish.

  5. Petty Bourgeois? Do people still call one another that in argument? I feel like I’m at an undergrad party from 20 or more years ago.

    Hmmmm, despite the bellicosity, I don’t see the Stalinists here forcing many of the anti-social prepositions to work as postpositions.

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