War & Peace: a plea

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!)?!?

15 comments to War & Peace: a plea

  • Looking a bit like a boy’s book, is it? “Boy’s book,” that’s Nabokov on War and Peace – I might even be able to find a full quote if you want.

    I do have some advice, entirely Nabokovian – fondle the details. W&P has some fine scenes. Have you gotten to Book X, Ch V yet? I wish I could remember an example from earlier in the novel!

    This does not answer at all the objection in your footnote. Meaning, what’s the ratio of great scenes or great sentences or great details per page? Maybe not that high in the end. Maybe surprisingly low.

    Trollope, to follow the Victorian comparison, is at least as needlessly repetitive and talky, although an altogether jollier chap.

  • A full quote would be good–or point me to where I should be looking for it. Is it in the Lectures on Russian Literature? I don’t actually have that one, oddly (now that I’ve read lots more Russians).

    There are definitely some fine scenes. I think I have not gotten to the one you mention yet, but my edition does not have books up to X–each volume restarts “part” numbering, which have chapters. But the scene I finished recently, with Balashov listening to Napoleon go off about the tsar, was very good, and there have been others.

    But it is not a good enough ratio for me, I think. And the fact that there are so few great sentences to go along with the great scenes makes it worse for me personally.

  • Strong Opinions, a 1969 BBC interview, p. 147-8:

    I go by books, not by authors. I consider Anna Karenin the supreme masterpiece of nineteenth-century literature; it is closely followed by The Death of Ivan Ilyich. I detest Resurrection and The Kreutzer Sonata. Tolstoy’s publicistic forays are unreadable. War and Peace, though a little too long, is a rollicking historical novel written for that amorphic and limp creature known as “the general reader,” and more specifically for the young. In terms of artistic structure it does not satisfy me. I derive no pleasure from its cumbersome message, from the didactic interludes, from the artificial coincidences, with cool Prince Andrey turning up to witness this or that historical moment, this or that footnote in the sources used often uncritically by the author.

  • Sorry, one more, p. 152:

    Tolstoy said, so they say, that life was a “tartine de merde” which one was obliged to eat slowly. Do you agree?

    I’ve never heard that story. The old boy was sometimes rather disgusting, wasn’t he? My own life is fresh bread with country butter and Alpine honey.

  • I love how you offer an example of a quote that bothers you, and how it might read better. (You’re right; it would.) I’m reading the P&V translation right now, and have read the first half of the Constance Garnett translation of Anna Karenina, which I prefer. War & Peace feels clunky to me, though I like the story, and I assumed it was just a translation issue. I’ve (heard) that Constance Garnett cut out the stuff she couldn’t figure out how to translate; thus, the read feels smoother. Now I’ll have to be looking hard at both, to see exactly what makes one book feel more smoothly written. One thing that comes to mind, is that (I think) Anna Karenina was written second? Maybe Tolstoy had simply become a stronger writer by then? But anyhow, at this point, I’m trying to read W&P for its story rather than its style…

    A lot of people have told me that Tolstoy WAS his style, so maybe I’m missing something…

  • I wish I could help. I have the same problem with Tolstoy’s works. I’ve tried several times to read his books but find that I have to give up mid-way. I love Dostoyevsky’s books and over the years I’ve explained my ambivalence towards Tolstoy in terms of my love for Dostoyevsky. As though the two were diametrically opposed to each other. Completely irrational! Nabokov’s deep appreciation of Tolstoy and his near dismissal of Dostoyevsky are well known.

  • I liked War and Peace but I totally agree about the extraneous stuff and oh my just wait until the epilogue(s). I agree it’s not “that good” but I did really enjoy reading it. For SOME reason :)

  • Al Delay

    I just don’t get why English speakers praise Dostoevsky and criticize Tolstoy. Dostoevsky’s literary stile was appalling and very often pathetic. Tolstoy is much superior to Dostoevsky as an artist. This is an opinion which the vast majority of Russian writers shared.

    Look at Nabokov who couldn’t stand Dostoevsky and found Tolstoy’s literary style as of a great master. This Nabokov’s view is not his peculiarity but the opinion of many Russian speakers. In Russian it’s much easier to read Tolstoy than Dostoevsky. Tolstoy’s stile is refined and smooth while Dostoevsky’s is rough and uneven.

  • Al Delay

    By the way Tolstoy wrote using simple phrases. If you take short passages from his writings then you will be disappointed because of simplicity of sentences. But there is something else which nobody else could do. Nabokov said that it was the feel of time or presence which was unique. To understand Tolstoy you should be capable to grasp the atmosphere which is created by Tolstoy above analysis of mere sentences structure.

  • Yeah, nicole, what is the deal with your incessant praise of Dostoevsky?

    Grasp the atmosphere and ignore the sentences – could that sound less like Nabokov? Add: “and enact the implied collectivist political program,” I guess.

  • Al—As Tom insinuates, I do not often praise Dostoevsky. I believe, as I happen to have read earlier this week, that Dostoevsky did not care at all about the sentence—or something to that effect. And I would agree that Tolstoy is superior to him as an artist. That said, I still think War & Peace is too long, repetitive, and self-indulgent, and would have benefited from editing.

    Tolstoy’s sentences are not the most beautiful, but my complaints about Tolstoy are really not on the sentence-level.

    I really need to read the Nabokov lecture on him though.

  • Al Delay


    I didn’t formulate it correctly: it was not about sentences level critique but I thought that you indulged yourself too much in nuances of characters’ behavior. You wanted Tolstoy to think your way or you got irritated that he thought in a way which was unacceptable for you.

    It happens to all people. When we meet people who are drastically different or even on opposite side from our views then we feel kind of angry and want to debate.

    Tolstoy is not your type. I wonder how you overlooked Schopenhauer’s pessimism and misogyny when you talked about his aphorisms book.

    Somehow many people managed to enjoy War and Peace despite being indifferent to Tolstoy’s religious views. Nabokov for example or Ernest Hemingway. On the other hand D.H. Lawrence couldn’t stand all Russian literature and Nabokov paid him back calling him mediocre writer.

  • When we meet people who are drastically different or even on opposite side from our views then we feel kind of angry and want to debate.

    Certainly—and I’m not sure why this should be discouraged when a novel like War & Peace is so clearly an idea-oriented book. It has an agenda.

    But no, Tolstoy is not my type. I am not indifferent to his religious views; I am actively hostile to them. I cannot speak to Schopenhauer’s misogyny very well, but it’s not pessimism that is a problem for me.

  • “Many people approach Tolstoy with mixed feelings. They love the artist in him and are intensely bored by the preacher; but at the same time it is rather difficult to separate Tolstoy the preacher from Tolstoy the artist – it is the same deep slow voice, the same robust shoulder pushing up a cloud of visions or a load of ideas. What one would like to do, would be to kick the glorified soapbox from under his sandalled feet and then lock him up in a stone house on a desert island with gallons of ink and reams of paper – far away from the things, ethical and pedagogical, that diverted his attention from observing the way the dark hair curled above Anna’s white neck.”

    Navokov, Lectures on Russian Literature, p. 140

  • This VN guy…I kinda like him.