A Tolstoyan “Christmas Carol”

War and Peace is, you may have heard, quite a long book—and one about which, clearly, many things could be written. It encompasses multitudes: the daily lives of families like the Count Rostovs; the soldierly lives of Nikolai, Denisov and their comrades; the aristocratic lives of the circle of Countess Hélène Bezukhov; nearly a decade of the Napoleonic wars; and much more besides. It is also, clearly, a Great Work: it is epic (it encompasses multitudes), it is Tolstoy’s chance to teach us not only about these families but about the Russian people, and not only about the Russian people but its history, and not only its history but all of history, the science and study of history. That is to say, in addition to being a novel, War and Peace is a treatise on historiography—and on military science, for that matter, and on diplomacy, and probably plenty else besides.*

In other words, as I say, there is a lot to write about War and Peace, and I will write only a small part of it this week. I plan, or at least want, to write about Sonya and Princess Marya; about the death of Anatole Kuragin and the subsequent death of Prince Andrei; and about some language and translation issues. Aside from today, which is about clearing aside more personal business, that should easily wrap a week and I won’t have gotten to the smallest bit of what even I could say about this book.

But first, for that personal business. Twitter followers and readers of this earlier post on the novel are aware that this book was not the most fun of reads for me. Several friends, including David, have suggested having a look at other translations, and I wouldn’t say that the Pevear and Volokhonsky was a joy to read, language-wise, I don’t think this really accounted for much of my problem with the book (though I do still plan to look at other translations, for a few reasons). Several specific problems were discussed in that earlier post, and having finished the novel, I pretty much stand by them. But the overarching thing for me is Tolstoy himself. He writes this giant didactic novel and then, towering over it, tempts me to think about him instead of about the text. I really hate doing this. So I will get it out of the way for a moment today and then try to stick to the book itself for the rest of the week.

War and Peace is a very religious book, as Tolstoy was a very religious man, and ideals of Christian charity are very important to it. Instances of self-sacrifice are everywhere, as are instances where one party sacrifices a second to save a third, often without the second’s consent or knowledge. Giving, and doing right by dependents, and the obligations of the upper classes to the lower, the obligations to care for the poor or for religious adepts—they all come up again and again. None of this should be objectionable, and I began to think of another writer I’ve always loved who focused on similar themes: Charles Dickens. But where Tolstoy, even in his giving, seems somehow nasty, Dickens seems lovely and joyful and happy, as if spreading happiness (sometimes with wealth and opportunity) is a wonderful thing (and when he must spread sorrow, because there isn’t always a happy ending, Dickens is sad, because spreading sorrow is sad though necessary).

So I began thinking about where the differences come in, and thought of what a Tolstoyan “Christmas Carol” would be. I believe that if Tolstoy were to have written Dickens’s classic story, much of the beginning would have played out similarly. But the end—the moral of the story and the way the plot is completed—would be a bit different. Scrooge wouldn’t show up at the Cratchetts’ house with a goose for their Christmas dinner and Tiny Tim wouldn’t recover; Scrooge would arrive empty-handed to simply sit with the family and fast for the day, enjoying their suffering as Tiny Tim finally wasted away, rewarded by God with death and the peace only it can bring. That would be his happy ending, mind you. For Dickens, money can’t buy happiness, but it can sure improve upon a situation of poverty. For Tolstoy, money can only bring unhappiness, while the poverty that eliminates any choice of behavior is the happiest freedom and death the only true happiness available to humans.

I have very little time for this, or for the illogical extremes of Tolstoy’s fatalism (you may get more on that later). Tolstoy is simply hateful to me—a misogynist, but also anti-human, an advocate of perpetual earthly suffering. You note I say “an advocate”; he seems to almost revel in it. I mostly find this grotesque, I think. And it’s a constant frustration as I try to piece his project apart a bit to write about it, to think how much I dislike the project iself.

But there’s much too much to talk about not to do it, and now I’ve gotten a little venting out of my system, I hope I can make some of it sound at least a bit interesting. And perhaps this view is totally foreign to you, and this “Tolstoyan Christmas Carol” sounds completely off. It’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

*It is also, as is so much of Tolstoy’s work, a treatise on the importance of personally nursing your children. It took until the epilogue, but he managed to squeeze it in.

7 comments to A Tolstoyan “Christmas Carol”

  • I like the Tolstoyan Christmas Carol a lot, made me chuckle. I haven’t read War and Peace and may never. I think I lean more towards old Dusty, if we have to take the Nabokovian choice. If you get a chance though, a brief synopsis of how a Dickensian War and Peace may flow would amuse.

  • Ooh, a Dickensian War & Peace is an awesome idea! I think that was really a constant comparison I was making mentally already, since there are so many similarities—tons of characters, tons of plot, tons of connections between characters and plots. Dickens even did a novel with a whole separate war element going on!

  • Boy, you’re pounding the stuffings out of St. Tolstoy.

    The way I deal with this general problem, of course, is by refusing to take the ideas of writers seriously, or not their ideas about anything other than writing, and to even go so far, in especially cheery moments, as to deny that the world’s greatest writers have any ideas of any consequence at all, or at least none that are not about writing.

    Although this solves certain problems, it is poor critical practice, and not recommended. Keep pounding!

    Tolstoy’s “A Christmas Carol” is ingenious, and I would love to see it enacted by Muppets.

  • I read Anna Karenina maybe ten years ago now, and aside from the trimmings of plot, have no memory of my actual reaction to that book. And I was also reading quite differently ten years ago. This is all just to say that I’m fascinated by your reaction to Tolstoy and look forward to reading more.

    I’m also giggling over muppets and Tolstoy… and then, for no good reason at all, my mind went on to combine Fraggle Rock and Victor Hugo.

  • Tom—Well I don’t think I would call what I’m doing good critical practice either, but as I said, I hate doing this and I wish I could do what you do instead. It does seem better, more pure or something. And a lot of the time (I think) I do ignore this stuff. But there are just some people I can’t help myself with…

    I am glad so many people are a fan of the “Christmas Carol” idea! I think muppets would make the Tolstoyan version seem even more readily cruel. Poor, poor Kermit!

    Michelle—Yes, I have pretty much the same experience with Anna Karenina, though I remember liking it a lot. So it’s kind of weird! But I’m glad you’re enjoying.

  • Yes, the Muppet idea is a good one. You should write a treatment, contact an agent, etc.

    The problem you have here that goes against Good Critical Practice is the antipathy, but you seem to be fighting it off darn well.

  • Al Delay

    Gosh. If your thoughts on Tolstoy were revealed to Russian public you’d have gotten such an enormous dose of ridicule.