Tuesday, May 26, 2009


About three hundred pages in, end of Volume One of the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation, it’s time to take stock. Reading War and Peace seems to conjure more readily comparisons to the Hollywood epic, or TV Mini-Series, than to the epic poems of antiquity. What Tolstoy does well is what every storyteller, particularly in motion pictures, has tried to do well after him: give us action and give us interaction, with enough context to keep it interesting, but never to bury depiction with exposition. In other words, in that pithy phrase, ‘show, don’t tell.’ Tolstoy’s great novel, so far, is very readable because it is comprised of scenes, most of which are short and very focused. It gives us a mammoth tale in bite-sized chunks, as it gives us a cast of characters who are just distinctive enough to keep confusion at bay, but which are also more or less of a type, which is to say, aristocrats rather unremarkable in themselves.

So, as with many genteel drawing-room dramas, part of the fascination is seeing 'how the other half lives.' Tolstoy looks back at the generation of his grandparents, and he has the great good fortune to be an insider to both the aristocracy and the military, the shaping forces of that world. The gauntlet that Tolstoy flings down, for the novel, is the illusion of rendering all levels of society equally well: Napoleon and Alexander, the Russian czar; the aristocrats in their various capacities -- Prince Andrei Bolkonsky and Count Nikolai Rostov are the two we follow into battle in Volume One, both present at the debacle of Austerlitz as Volume One ends -- as well as the generals, the hussars, the enlisted men, the horses even; then there are the ladies seeking suitable union (as for instance Princess Elena Kuragin) or avoiding unsuitable union (as for instance Princess Marya Bolkonsky); there’s the illegitimate son of Count Bezukhov, Pierre, who inherits everything, despite the efforts of his more legimate kin to put themselves forward. It’s a cast that only vaguely includes the commoners, but somehow Tolstoy’s grasp of his characters’ milieu, his magisterial 'what I assume, you shall assume' register, makes aristocrats common enough even for American readers born in the twentieth century.

In the first Volume most of the intrigues center on the Kuragin family, trying to maneuver more favor from the dying Count Bezukhov, and trying to maneuver a comfortable marriage for young Anatole. The figure who emerges as the most indelible is the old Prince Nikolai Bolkonsky who runs his household in an unvarying manner, and is pleased that his devout daughter Marya refuses Anatole Kuragin. At the end of Part One, the going-off-to-war leave-taking of the patriarch by Prince Bolkonsky’s son, Andrei, is the first scene that overwhelmed me with Tolstoy’s precise grasp of tone. In cinema or television, the scene would be fraught with some kind of emotive soundtrack rendering a garden variety 'emotionality,' that flattening of affect that says, in effect, that what these characters feel is what 'we all feel.' What makes Tolstoy the lord of realist fiction is that he knows that what 'everyone' feels is what convention dictates they feel, but that what each individual feels is what their own natures dictate. And what he’s after is the individual natures of humanity depicted in the confines of rather rigorous conventions: interactions in high society salons, rituals of courtship and marriage, rituals of death, enactments of inheritance and social placement, tensions within hierarchies, both familial and martial, the rituals of war and the strategies of battle, and, so to speak, the best-laid plans of mice and men.

Tolstoy’s narrative opens in medias res upon a society facing the threat of the foreign invader. It’s 1805 and Napoleon, or, as the Russian aristocracy like to call him, ‘Buonaparte,’ is already on the war-path. War and Peace is a tale that had to be told: a crucial period of European history from the perspective of that great power to the East. Tolstoy’s definitive conceit is that we are being allowed to visit ‘behind the scenes’ at the cultural moment when the first major pan-European threat of modern times emerged and was quelled. The context, then, is the last hurrah of the old aristocracy of Old Europe, while the element of historical fact that veers toward absurdity is that the Russian aristocracy speak to each other in French. It’s as if a major country had already been colonized by a foreign power and culture. It’s so remarkable that no one remarks on it. The French are the enemy, and yet adopting their language and their manner is the measure of one’s civility and standing in Russian society. Is there any way such a culture could endure in modern times?


Andrew Shields said...

I love that bit about Lord Tolstoy of Realistic Fiction (which is why I just quoted it on my blog, of course).

Donald Brown said...

Thanks...and I hope you go through with your intention to read it this summer.

I'm becoming more and more interested in Coetzee; reading Attridge's book on him. Eventually I'll be reading your posts on the novels (after I read the novels).

Andrew Shields said...

I never did re-read Slow Man, because I could not find my copy! And I never did a real post on Diary of a Bad Year. Perhaps I'll do another round of Coetzee reading when I hear a new novel is approaching. But this time more limited: Disgrace, EC, Slow Man, Diary of a Bad Year -- those four for sure, but not all of the others.

Donald Brown said...

He has a piece of new fiction in the current NYRB. Excellent too.