Teaching Tolstoy’s Master and Man

In the three decades or so that I have been teaching works by Tolstoy, I don’t remember ever teaching the one known in English as “Master and Man.” This could be because it didn’t speak to me when I first read it or because I have consistently felt there were other, more effective works that I already had in my classes, I’m not sure. I’ve thought about it more seriously as I’ve been reading George Saunders’ A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, which I’ve already written about a few times in these posts (with maybe two more to go–I can’t skip what he has to say about “The Nose” and “Gooseberries” so more soon). Having thought about it, I still think I won’t teach this story, but the exercise has clarified some things for me.

First, the existing best-known translation has some serious flaws, not least of which is the title itself, which I don’t want to delve into too much at this point: titles are always tricky, and this one appears to have been filtered through the “Tolstoy the great spiritual thinker” prism, distorting it a bit from something in fact rather mundane into the grand sounding (please imagine my voice dropping a full register to pronounce) MASTER AND MAN! Well, it could be that, but Хозяин и работник could also be “Owner and Laborer” (Tolstoy the anti-capitalist) or even “The Owner and the Worker” (Tolstoy the fabulist). But this is for another discussion.

Now, I have frequently written about my distaste for the translation police tactic of cornering a single word or phrase to pronounce a translation inadequate, and I refuse to do that here. But there is a key line in the story, in fact the line on which the entire story pivots, when the main character appears to be transformed. So getting this line right is very important.

The two principal characters, lost in a blizzard, are in a crisis. One (the worker) appears to be near death. The other, the hitherto selfish owner, opens his coat and lies down on top of the first in order to warm him. This is done, as Saunders characterizes it in his reading and I agree, as “kind of a miracle of writing,” after Tolstoy has put himself “in a tough spot,” needing “to pull off a transformation [of the character] in which we can believe, one that mimics the sort of transformation a real-life stinker might actually undergo” (239). So far so good.

But then Vasily Andreevich speaks a line that overwhelms him and makes the transformation meaningful: “‘There, and you said you were dying! Lie still and get warm, that’s our way….,” upon which “tears came into his eyes and his lower jaw began to quiver rapidly. He stopped speaking and only gulped down the risings in his throat. ‘Seems I was badly frightened and have gone quite weak,’ he thought. But this weakness was not only not unpleasant, but gave him a peculiar joy as he had never felt before. ‘That’s our way!'” he said to himself, experiencing a strange and solemn tenderness….” This is the Maude translation, which is what Saunders uses, and the passage is on pp. 211-212 of his book. (I’ll have more to say about the translations Saunders uses in another post.)

I sensed there was something off about the awkward phrase “that’s our way” even before looking at the source text. Tolstoy’s writing is nothing if not natural sounding, including in dialog, and when it isn’t, there is generally a reason for it in the characters. Here “that’s our way” takes readers, as it does Saunders, down a side path that leads away from one of Tolstoy’s constant preoccupations, a combination and complication of the internal and external states of a character that often makes it hard to say where an apparent transformation comes from.

Saunders wonders, “What does he mean, ‘that’s our way’? The Russian way, the way of Russian masters, the human way?” and notes “It’s beautiful: it doesn’t occur to him that this has never been his way, not at all, until this moment right now.” The problem with this line of interpretation is that the key phrase, Вот мы как (Vot my kak), doesn’t have anything about a way in it and is actually rather hard to pin down in terms of its meaning. My sense is that it has more of an emotional aspect than a denotative one (and thanks to Tatiana S. and Vika T. for confirming this for me). It strikes me as the sort of thing that a parent might say to an ailing child, comforting the child and trying to make him feel better. “There now” might do it, or maybe “Here we are then,” all comfy and warm, no need to be afraid anymore, just lie still, and you’ll feel better soon…. In other words, it’s mostly emotional, an endearing little flourish tacked on to V. A.’s, “There, and you said you were dying! Lie still and get warm….” It does not hinge on anything especially Russian, on a Russian way, or a Russian master, or even on an explicitly “human way.” But it is a trigger for the character, as if the action of comforting another, saying these words aloud, makes him feel something has hasn’t felt before, or at least for long enough not to remember it anymore.

How to interpret this is, as often in Tolstoy, a good question, and Saunders quite rightly wonders more about the “transformation,” including the possibility that Vasily Andreevich might be being consistent with his previous self in this behavior and not really exhibiting any especially radical change at all, though he himself interprets it as such. This is a good line of inquiry for a Tolstoy work. Vasily Andreevich’s emotional state here could be seen as akin to that of little Tanya Oblonsky, in Anna Karenina, when she secretly shares her dinner with her brother Grisha, who’s being punished for misbehavior, and a sense of her own “noble action” brings tears to her eyes.

Tolstoy routinely taints moments of apparent spiritual transformation, making them “real” by embedding them in specific sets of conditions that might have been different, sometimes linking them to bodily injuries, lack of sleep, and misinterpretations of someone else’s words or the natural world. This case appears to be another example, rather understated and mundane like the story’s title, complexly interwoven with the outside world (the raging snowstorm), and the imperfect but powerful words we use to say things, especially the most intimate kind, to others and to ourselves.

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