- Three clocks and they are all set differently. This is something I would do in my Youth, a nod maybe to the Modernists or something. Or maybe I was just trying to keep track of when the bars closed. (No bars in Cox’s Mills, though).
- A black & white tv my dad got me for Christmas in 1974 or so.
- On top of the tv and beneath the clock are some envelopes containing notes on my novel-in-progress. Each envelope contains notes and drafts for a different chapter--an inefficient way to organize your work. Don't try this at home!
- Beneath my work shirt, I am wearing a Gutter Brothers t-shirt. At some point I will do a post about the Gutter Brothers and Lowell Mick White Night at the Tex Lounge….
- The typewriter is a Smith-Corona I bought when I started college c. 1976 or so.
- The poster in back is for Bow Wow Wow when they played the Opry House in Austin. And it’s signed by Annabella! (Don’t know where that poster is now, sadly).
- I think that's an outline of my novel on the wall next to Bow Wow Wow.
- That’s a wooden giraffe on the windowsill.
- Got my copy of War and Peace handy. It’s the Norton Critical Edition, Maude Translation. I might well have been typing up inspirational Tolstoy mots.
- The loose-leaf binder holds the novel I was working on. On the cover of the binder? My backstage pass to the Clash! (From June, 1982).
- In the foreground, a pamphlet of West Virginia hunting and fishing regulations.
I was going through a box and came across this photo of me, taken in Cox’s Mills in 1983 or 1984. I was 25 or so years old. Some things about the photo:
In 1988 my mother was very ill and I took a leave from my job and moved back to West Virginia for a few months. I rented this apartment (an old tool shed converted into an apartment) in Glenville, just down the hill from the courthouse. I liked that place! The desk itself is the desk I still use: two filing cabinets with a door laid across. Here on the desk you see a computer, a PC's Limited--the precursor company to Dell--with a 20meg hard drive. (My mother, who was early into computers, said, "Good lord! What will you use 20 megs for?") That's an amber monitor for the computer. On that massive hard drive: WordStar, Lotus, a few games. Also on the desk: two clipboards (I am a big clipboard fan) pens, a desk calendar, two lamps, a matchbook, a check stub, mail, a 5 1/2 inch floppy. On the walls, a map of the Antietam battlefield (I visited Antietam that fall), a map of Gilmer County, and a map of Glenville. Also I can make out a sheet of paper with writing quotes by Vance Bourjaily and Leo Tolstoy:
Bourjaily: "There's a story you could tell to pass the time...."
Tolstoy: "If I were told that I could write a novel in which I could indisputably establish as true my point of view on all social questions, I would not dedicate two hours to such a work; but if I were told that what I wrote would be read twenty years fro, now by those who are children today, and that they would weep and laugh over it and fall in love with the life in it, then I would dedicate all my existence and all my powers to it."
In the syllabus I give to beginning writers at the start of a semester, I usually have some version of the following statement:
I really do expect the work in your portfolio to be revised. Please understand that revision does not mean merely correcting a few grammar, spelling, and punctuation errors (though that of course is important). Revision means re-envisioning your work—re-imagining it, re-creating it, transforming it into something better than what you started with.
It seems that most students really do often assume that revision consists mainly of copy-editing, of correcting the pesky grammar, spelling, and punctuation errors that plague almost every manuscript. They are wrong, of course, and sometimes resistant to the rather vague terms re-envisioning or re-imagining or re-creating, and have to be pushed—pushed somewhat gently for the beginners and with a bit more urgency for advanced students—toward taking up the necessary challenge of making their writing better and facing the sad fact that their writing, fresh from their nimble minds, just isn’t good enough as it is.
In a letter to a friend, Leo Tolstoy said, "...What I published previously I consider only a test of the pen and ink. What I am printing now I like better than the earlier things, but it seems weak, needed as an introduction. But what is coming!"
That pile of paper you printed off and I hope you’re gazing so fondly at is merely—adequate. It’s mediocre. Even though it’s a work of genius, it’s just average. The “what is coming!” is the work that you will create through revision, the new work—the new novel, the new story—the true work of genius as it ought to be. The problem then facing the writer—facing you and all writers—is getting the text to the point where it’s good and brilliant enough to abandon, to quit, to say it is finished and ready for publication, a process that takes place in the brain as much as it does on the page.
I think I said earlier how the Maude translation of War and Peace Anglicizes the names—which is kind of confusing. It also tones down and flattens the text, and makes it less interesting. As we see in this scene from Chapter XII, just before the battle of Austerlitz:
The voices were those of the orderlies who were packing up; one voice, probably a coachman's, was teasing Kutuzov's old cook whom Prince Andrew knew, and who was called Tit. He was saying, "Tit, I say, Tit!"
"Well?" returned the old man.
"Go, Tit, thresh a bit!" said the wag.
"Oh, go to the devil!" called out a voice, drowned by the laughter of the orderlies and servants
Okay, we get it. The soldiers are teasing a cook—and, perhaps I’m reading too much into this, but the cook, here and in the next chapter, comes off a bit effeminate. The “Tit, thresh a bit,” while clearly mocking, isn’t really that funny. I assumed it was some sort of untranslatable Russian joke. But Pevear and Volokhonsky handle it this way:
From Kutuzov’s yard came the voices of orderlies who were preparing to sleep; one voice, probably of a coachman who was teasing Kutuzov’s old cook, whom Prince Andrei knew and whose name was Titus, said: “Titus, hey, Titus?”
“Well?” replied the old man.
“Titus, don’t bite us,” said the joker.
“Pah, go to the devil,” a voice cried, drowned out by the guffawing of the orderlies and servants.
Okay, now it makes sense as a joke. A childish little taunting rhyme, the kind of stupid thing we used to say in the seventh grade or so, but a joke nonetheless. Titus, don’t bite us! Is it translated word-for-word from the Russian? I have no idea. But it makes more sense this way….
I first read War and Peace when I was 14 or so—my mother gave the Constance Garnet translation she’d read as a girl. I loved the book, of course—I fell straight into the lives of those characters and I never wanted leave them—Tolstoy’s overwhelming empathy towards people totally took over and captured me.
At the University of Texas I took a Tolstoy course, and for that class we read War and Peace and Anna K both (I tell my fellow teachers this today and they are stunned: they don’t believe undergraduates are capable of reading (or are willing to read) two large books in a semester—or even one large book). It was a wonderful class—one of the best I ever had.
But—we were reading the Norton Critical Editions, translated by Aylmer and Louise Maude. The translation bothered me: they anglicized most of the names. Andrei Bolkonsky became Andrew Bolkonsky—his sister Marie, Mary. Nikolai Rostov became Nicholas—but his sister Natasha stayed Natasha. Pierre also stayed Pierre. This bothered me a lot. It was confusing. And the prose seemed kind of dry and labored.
Still, I read this book over and over through the years—seven, eight, nine times, something like that—until the binding broke and it fell apart. Later, when I was driving a cab, I picked up a used copy of the Rosemary Edmonds translation, and I read that a time or two.
So, I have a history with this book. When the new translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky came out, I got a copy, hoping that I could convince someone in power to let me teach a Tolstoy class. (I didn’t). I read through some favorite sections, but I never got around to actually reading the new translation in its entirety, until now….