A review

George’s commission was dated 9 January 1915, which was a Saturday, and on the same day the literary magazine The Athenaeum came out with an unsigned review of his translation of Il’ia Tolstoi’s Reminiscences of Tolstoy. However, it is likely that George received notification of his commission long before he read this review, as he was not a fan of The Athenaeum and probably waited for the publishers of his translation, Chapman & Hall, to send him a copy from their cuttings agency.

The curious thing about this review is that it was appearing nearly three months after the book was published — and in those days book reviews tended to come out far closer to publication date than they do today. As I explained in my post of 5 November, for George Calderon to net the job of translating Tolstoy’s son’s ‘sensational’, eagerly awaited memoirs was a tremendous endorsement of his status as a Russianist and writer of English. His translation was serialised for four months before book-publication on both sides of the Atlantic, but probably the War took the edge off its reception.

The most likely author of the review of 9 January 1915 was the English Tolstoyan Aylmer Maude (1858-1938), and his nose was probably put out of joint by George getting the contract to translate the memoirs in the first place. One of the reasons Maude was not chosen as translator was probably to do with Tolstoy family politics following Lev Tolstoy’s death in 1910 (Aylmer and his wife Louise had been deeply enmeshed with the family whilst Tolstoy was alive, whereas George had never been).

I won’t ‘go on’ about George’s and Aylmer Maude’s relationship, but I will say that it was quite complex. As someone who had taken Tolstoy’s ‘philosophy’ apart in an article of 1901 more comprehensively than anyone before George Orwell in 1947, Calderon was unlikely to have much in common with a man who believed in this ‘philosophy’ and had even tried to live it in a fissiparous English commune. Maude’s close involvement with Fabianism and his admiration of G.B. Shaw would also have been anathema to Calderon. The latter’s main differences with Maude were, however, probably literary.

A major reason for suspecting that this review was written by Maude is stylistic. The author swiftly sidesteps the unique quality of these memoirs — their intimate domestic portrait of Tolstoy, their interpersonal emotional depth — in favour of (a) discussing ‘the omission of many things which loomed large in Tolstoy’s career’, and (b) expatiating ad nauseam on ‘the very few slips we have noticed in the book’, e.g. minutiae connected with Tolstoi and chess, which Maude himself had played with the writer. This is very reminiscent of George’s criticism in the TLS (11 March 1909) of the first volume of Maude’s own, authorised biography of Tolstoy:

Mr Maude has a morbid conscientiousness about chronology which will spare us no event, however irrelevant to the matter in hand, if it is somewhere recorded as having occurred at a particular moment. The reader is perpetually mastering a group of details in the hope that they are the premisses to a story and finding that he has been cheated: Tolstoy had the toothache, his sister suffered from rheumatism, he raised a mortgage, or planted a birchwood, a poor Tartar came and pitched his tent by the hayfield, but nothing came of it in any case.

In other words, Maude was a ‘compiler’…  A severe warning, this, from George to biographers everywhere!

Just as, in his review, Maude does not seem to grasp the deeply empathic nature of Il’ia Tolstoi’s memories of his father, and how wonderfully human, warm, unpretentious and playful the Tolstoy of these Reminiscences is, so too Maude’s response to George’s translation is limited to the ineffably pedestrian ‘Mr Calderon’s English version is fluent’. As Vladimir Nabokov pointed out long ago, in translation ‘fluency’ and ‘readability’ may be the last refuge of a scoundrel. George’s version, in fact, is not ‘fluent’ in the sense of ‘plangent’, or of water running out of a drainpipe; it is alive, individual, and full of interesting English surprises.

The fact of the matter is, Maude and many other Edwardian Russia-fanciers, e.g. Maurice Baring and Constance Garnett, were good linguists but neither literary nor critical, which George Calderon was.

Nevertheless, at the end of his (?) review Maude conceded: ‘the big thing is that we are indebted to Mr Calderon for presenting this book to us in a form in which it can be read with pleasure’. This is very reminiscent of the compliment George paid to Maude in his TLS  review (6 October 1901) of the second volume of Maude’s biography of Tolstoy: he said he was ‘a man of a rare sort, himself an idealist, a seeker, an experimenter, of keen intelligence, devoted to public good’.

The mutual respect between two such different Russianists and men must have been an advantage when in 1913 Maude moved into lodgings with Marie Stopes and her first husband a hundred and fifty yards away at 14 Well Walk and Calderon and Maude occasionally passed in the street.

If anyone out there knows for certain who the author of this review was, will you please tell us in a Comment?

Next entry: The military situation


About Patrick Miles

I am a writer who specialises in Anton Chekhov and is writing a biography of George Calderon.
This entry was posted in George Calderon, Personal Commentary, Timeline and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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