A 19th Century Kind Of Style


I’ve again been dipping into the 19th Century — as part of my 100 novels project — last month  Huckleberry Finn, and this month Anna Karenina. While I’m not up to offering, at the moment, any great, piercing critical insights, I find myself enjoying the formality of the language, of the rhetoric, even in Twain, who presents a genuine American voice. Besides the intimidating length of some 19th Century novels — my copy of Anna Karenina is 912 pages — I think modern readers may be intimidated by the formality of the prose. I know I was when I first picked up Twain in elementary school.

As writers and readers, at least in English, we’ve been influenced by the Hemingway-esque, terse sentences, the zippy, piss-urgent language of The Associated Press, of journalism, and the rhetorical notion of "open" punctuation–fewer commas, and even fewer semicolons (because of the tendency toward shorter sentences?).

But perhaps the 19th Century novelists learned their prosody and punctuation from that era’s teachers of rhetoric, of the written word meant to be spoken, of different "beats" or pauses for different punctuation. I get a sense, especially from Twain, that his prose begs to be read aloud,  read carefully, whether read aloud or silently, not zipped through as if it’s the latest from the AP. It’s hard to say whether this is true for the Tolstoy since it’s a translation.

Other oddities of the Constance Garnett translation: I keep encountering many one-sentence paragraphs, and those paragraph breaks sometimes don’t seem consistent with the flow of the action of a scene. (Is Russian like this? Or rather, Tolstoy’s Russian?)

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