So nicole is reading War & Peace—but y’all already knew that. You probably also knew that I’m struggling with it, but only in part because of its length. I’m struggling not to hate Tolstoy reflexively, to take the novel on its own terms, and to evaluate it in some sense fairly. And to that end, I thought I’d do a bit of a check-in post for some advice now that I’m just shy of page 700.*
Now, there is a lot I don’t like about Tolstoy (see here, for starters), but I don’t want to get into anything about his personal philosophy or hatefulness just yet, because with nearly half the book remaining I don’t feel like I can really say anything definitive about this yet. Who knows who will get his comeuppance in the next 500 pages? Not me, at least (though I suspect it won’t be who I think it should).
What I didn’t realize before is that I think I don’t like him stylistically. I have memories of reading Anna Karenina in high school and putting it squarely in the Victorian novel category, which I’ve always loved: lots of characters, lots of plot, lots to bite into. I wasn’t a very good reader back then, and who knows what I would find it I opened AK up again—because I expected to find something similar in War & Peace, but this thing seems almost premodern.
That’s one theory, at least, put forward by the consumption partner last night when I was explaining my issues with the book (which apparently were almost identical with the issues he remembers his brother complaining about when he read W&P way back in his freshman year of college). Tolstoy just cannot shut up. He has to tell you everything. And then he has to tell you again. And then probably a few more times. You know that saying about “Tell them what you’re going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you told them”? Count Leo invented that shit.
I’m being vague. Here’s an example. Unfortunately, the best examples are long, because they involve some extended dialogue.
“I read our protest about the Oldenburg affair and was astonished at the poor wording of this note,” Count Rastopchin said in the careless tone of a man judging a matter that was very familiar to him.
Pierre looked at Rastopchin with naïve astonishment, not understanding why he was disturbed by the poor wording of the note.
“Does it make any difference how the note is worded, Count,” he said, “if the content is strong?”
“Mon cher, avec nos cinq cent mille hommes de troupes, il serait facile d’avoir un beau style,” said Count Rastopchin. Pierre understood why Count Rastopchin was disturbed by the wording of the note.
So, cut that second paragraph I quoted entirely, and cut the final sentence. What have we lost, and what gained? We already know Pierre, know that he would be naïve about diplomatic matters, and would understand his naïveté simply by reading his question to the count. But Tolstoy is almost unbelievably unsubtle. My question is: why?
That’s a serious question. Is he giving all this declarative information about characters’ intentions and psychology because the more subtle variant, leaving it all up to the reader to glean from other signs, simply wasn’t available to him, writing Russian literature when he did? I don’t think that’s right. Was it an intentionally adopted style—and if so, to what end? Is it an issue of translation—I’m working here with Pevear and Volokhonsky, and plan to compare certain things to several other translations, but have not yet done so—or is it also this awkward and bad in Russian? It’s all very strange, because no mediocre writer today would write this way at all. It violates everything about the “show, not tell” convention. Not that convention is necessarily good! But what was Tolstoy doing, doing this?
His need to beat you over the head with everything also results in what seems to me one of the great wasted opportunities in literature. You’ll note the French in the quote above (translated in P&V’s endnote as “My dear, with our five hundred thousand troops, it would be easy to have a good style.”); there is lots more where that came from. French was commonly spoken among Russian aristocrats for many years, and there is much social and political relevance in what language any person is speaking at any given time. Code-switching is very common, and there are instances where certain jokes or stories “must” be told in a given language, that sort of thing. The exact sort of thing, in other words, that you should be learning as you read through the novel (if you don’t already know it)—that the novel should be demonstrating for you. But instead, Tolstoy insists on letting you know not just which language people are speaking (which he does clumsily!), but also why. Please, stop telling me why everyone is doing everything!
Meanwhile, I keep coming back to that Nabokov quote I keep at the top of my right-hand sidebar, about yarn-spinners, teachers, and enchanters. Tolstoy puts all this stuff in that I don’t want, but he also leaves out so much that I do want—I should say, that I expect as a reader of novels. The novelistic detail that makes things seem more verisimilar than all this incessant explaining is sort of missing, though it’s hard to put a finger on what isn’t there. The enchantment isn’t there. In the VN sense of the term.
And so, dear readers who have ventured here or elsewhere with my friend the count: what is he doing? Is he doing it on purpose? Is it supposed to be good? Is it simply inaccessible to contemporary novel readers because of its distinctive style? Is it an echo of premodern histories? Is it a precursor of hysterical realism? Is it my own blindness, my own fever and spear? I want to do right by this baggy monster when I write about it for realsies, so help me out.
*I have to say, I never gave much credence before to the idea that authors should be mindful of a reader’s time and keep books shorter, but how in the hell am I almost at page 700 and there are still over 500 left (and it’s not that good!)?!?