By Amy Mandelker
February 11, 2010
I am proofing the galleys for this new edition of the Maude translation of War and Peace when a freak storm with gale force winds takes out three towering pines on my neighbor’s property, topples a venerable oak crushing a friend’s roof, and downs trees and power lines all over Princeton township and beyond, leaving the southern part of the state deprived of electricity for several days. Working against deadline, I try proofreading by candlelight, which gives me an affinity for the actual experience in the soldierly encampments Tolstoy described. The men, retreating from battle with their wounded, walked on dark, unknown roads and reached a bivouac lit only by campfire. They had little light for dressing their wounds and mending their clothes and gear. The officers may have had oil lamps and candles in their tents, and so wrote their diaries and letters in penumbral twilight, with an eye to the candle height and the dripping of wax.
In the darkness of that temporary deprivation of electrical light and computerized text, I bent over the galley pages of the night scenes of young Nicholas Rostov, riding, wounded on a cannon, the blood of the soldier who had died on the cannon earlier soaking through his breeches. Fearful of missing tiny corrections needed in French accents and German diacriticals in the candlelight, I confined my work to the daylight hours, working next to a window to capture as much of the pallid gray light of early winter as I could. I realized how dependent I had become on a 14-hour work day and the desperate last option of an all-nighter (now out of the question). A few hours after the power failed, the local police phoned everyone in the township and advised us to remain indoors. Without electricity, I experienced a terrible sense of isolation, cut off from my usual sources of information, the internet and the radio. What was going on out there? Communicating with the world entirely by email, I no longer knew my friends’ telephone numbers except as single digits on speed-dial. After a few hours, my laptop and cell phone lost all charge and I was limited to the land line and a phone book I could not read in the dark. The evenings being entirely black, and the predicted length of the outage running to three or four days, I had to ration my share of candles (the stores, operating only on daylight, with the refrigerator and freezer sections closed down and swathed in sheets of plastic, were completely sold out of flashlights, candles and batteries). For those few days, I found myself forced to synchronize with the natural rhythms of day and night, as were the soldiers of the battlefield, who waited anxiously and sleeplessly for dawn to begin their military engagements, and yearned for the darkness of night when battle would be forced to cease for a time and they could return to their encampments to tend their wounded and repair their weapons and uniforms and send out the secretive sentries.
It has struck me that, in writing these blogs about Tolstoy’s War and Peace, I am responding primarily to catastrophic events: the burning of cities, devastating earthquakes, states of emergency. The Russians have a special word for this type of catastrophe—“stikhiya”—encompassing the elemental, the random, the apocalyptic. Stikhiya sweeps away the routine and the quotidian, and yet, most of us will not personally live at the epicenter of devastation. Even when my own house is plunged in days of cold and darkness, after the all clear is sounded, I am alive and well, and can venture out and drive through the main streets of town to survey the aftermath of the storm. The scenes of fallen trees, scattered branches, downed power lines, damaged homes, and clusters of rescue workers clearing the wreckage, unroll slowly before my rain swept windshield. I am looking at an image framed, at the camera panning across disaster scenes in an art film.
Amy Mandelker has taught at UCLA, University of Southern California, Columbia, Brown, and Princeton Universities. Her books include Framing ‘Anna Karenina': Tolstoy, the Woman Question & the Victorian Novel and Approaches to World Literature: Tolstoy’s ‘Anna Karenina’. She has revised the acclaimed Maude translation of War and Peace, available this October. You can read her previous blog posts here and here.