I’m not done yet with writing about War & Peace, but I needed a bit of a break—and one is required in any case, because this weekend is all about The Savage Detectives (no, I’m not done yet; yes, I will be all over this readalong by Sunday at the latest).
So I thought to reinvigorate my Fridays Revisitings a little bit—with Tolstoy! I have re-read the very short first chapter of Anna Karenina, the first Tolstoy I read (long ago, in high school). I remember a few plot elements, a few characters, and liking the novel overall, which at the time at least I took basically as a Victorian novel.
Revisiting has not led me to change that opinion at all, because two or so pages is hardly enough to do that, but it does show a bit how much my own mindset and prior experience with the author affect what I notice when I read. Anna Karenina opens, as is well known, with the line about the happy and unhappy families, but by the third sentence we know why the Oblonskys in particular are unhappy (and soon after, in what manner): “The wife had discovered an intrigue between her husband and their former French governess.”*
Prince Steven Arkadyevich Oblonsky wakes up, shortly after this explanation, on a couch in his study, to which he’s been relegated since his wife caught him out. He automatically reaches out for his robe, realizing as he comes to that it is not in fact there—because he’s not in his bedroom, because he’s been kicked out, because…
‘Oh dear, dear, dear!’ he groaned recalling what had happened. And the details of his quarrel with his wife, his inextricable position, and, worst of all, his guilt, rose up in his imagination.
‘No, she will never forgive me; she can’t forgive me! And the worst thing about it is, that it’s all my own fault—my own fault; and yet I’m not guilty! That’s the tragedy of it!’ he thought.
I was struck immediately—guilt and responsibility coming up right on the second page! And Oblonsky feels both guilty and not guilty at once. It’s his fault, but it’s not his fault; he’s responsible, but not. My first reaction is annoyance that Tolstoyan characters have so little sense of accountability, but my second reaction is to put things in a somewhat different light. Perhaps Tolstoy is just really interested in guilt, that understanding guilt is part of his project.
So what is Oblonsky guilty of and not guilty of? His wife “discovered” “his guilt,” meaning his affair, but what he really blames himself for, and deems not his own fault, is his reaction to that discovery: “he involuntarily (‘reflex action of the brain,’ thought Oblonsky, who was fond of physiology) smiled his usual kindly and therefore silly smile.”
‘It’s all the fault of that stupid smile,’ thought Oblonsky. ‘But what am I to do? What can I do?’ he asked himself in despair, and could find no answer.
It makes no sense, for Oblonsky, to blame himself for his own smile. But blaming his smile for something is perfectly all right!
*Quotes taken from the Louise and Aylmer Maude translation.
I’m not sure it would be right to say that my coverage of War & Peace has really been “building” to anything, but let’s see what I can do with day four, bringing things out more to the “point” of the novel, which, as Greg Zimmerman noted back in December, “inasmuch as you can pinpoint a single point in a 568,880-word novel,” amounts to something like this:
The course of a battle is affected by an infinite number of freely operating forces (there being no greater freedom of operation than on a battlefield, where life and death are at stake), and this course can never be known in advance; nor does it ever correspond with the direction of any one particular force.*
Tolstoy accomplishes a few things with the war portions of the novel, including developing the story of Borodino as a turning point in the Napoleonic wars, and I think these are the most interesting and compelling sections of the novel in many ways (though they kind of break the idea of “novel” a little bit)**. His interest is big: in explaining the causes of the war, or, as he often describes it quite to my liking, the great movement of people across Europe from west to east followed by a great movement of people across Europe from east to west.
I also like that he’s a bit of a wrecker. The war sections are more anti-authoritarian than the peace ones (except where the peace sections touch on diplomacy), and Tolstoy is actively antagonistic toward received interpretations of historical events. “They were wrong in 1812, they were wrong a generation later, and they’re wrong now!” he insists, and successfully—he is grappling with some pretty standard issues of historiography, and he is right to reject the idea that we can simply say “Napoleon was a genius” and all is explained.
Unfortunately, I am not fully sympathetic to Tolstoy’s alternative view. He is a fatalist, and practically a Calvinist. As he drills down into the cause of each cause, further and further, he gets to a point where each individual who made up a part of this movement across Europe is an individual who moved across Europe, but he can’t stop there. He insists that these people had no choice—whatever they did was inevitable, just because. (Of course, it’s not quite “just because” for Tolstoy, it’s because of that stage manager he mentions once in a while. But he begins to seem more like an 18th-century Frenchman who believes he’s living in a clockwork universe than whatever he really is.)
But is there a point to this level of analysis? Here’s an example from the epilogue, where he does lots more philosophizing, and which I think illustrates two main things: Tolstoy’s ridiculous philosophical sloppiness, and the pointlessness of his obsessive exercise in cause-seeking.
A locomotive is moving. Someone asks: why does it move? A muzhik says: the devil moves it. Another man says the locomotive moves because its wheels turn. A third asserts that the cause of the movement is the smoke blown away by the wind.
The muzhik is irrefutable. In order to refute him, someone would have to prove to him that there is no devil, or another muzhik would have to explain to him that it is not the devil but a German who moves the locomotive. Only then, by way of contradiction, will they see that they are both wrong. But the one who says that the cause is the turning of the wheels refutes himself, because, if he enters upon the terrain of analysis, he must keep going: he must explain the cause of the turning of the wheels. And until he arrives at the ultimate cause of the locomotive’s movement, the steam compressed in the boiler, he will have no right to stop in his search for the cause.
First, the sloppiness. With hardly a breath after saying the muzhik is “irrefutable,” Tolstoy is ready to tell you exactly how to refute him! And the idea that by contradicting each other, the two muzhiks should both be convinced of their wrongness is also suspect. And even if the man who mentions the turning of the wheels “must keep going,” that doesn’t mean he “refutes himself”; naming a promixate cause before a more distant cause doesn’t refute the existence of the proximate cause. There can be more than one!
The second point is really about scope, appropriateness, and obsession. There are perfectly valid reasons out here in the real world to care only about proximate causes of events. Perhaps simply saying “the wheels move” is unhelpful, and moving on to the steam compressed in the boiler is important because without knowing that, you won’t be able to fix a broken locomotive. But Tolstoy is unsatisfied with explanations that stop anywhere short of the stage manager—whereas going as far as the stage manager is pointless most of the time, because all it gets you is “there’s no such thing as free will and everything is predetermined.” That might be the ultimate explanation of all things, but if the same one thing is the ultimate explanation of all things, it’s a bit of a conversation-stopper—and doesn’t do anything at all to help get the train running on time.
I’m not saying necessarily that I disagree with Tolstoy’s views on free will (we might disagree entirely about what’s virtuous and what’s vicious, but in some ways I’m a Calvinist myself), but that I find his insistence on this depth of inquiry often barren and sometimes depressingly immoral. Many things Tolstoy says about the Napoleonic wars help me understand them better, but when he ultimately concludes that no one involved was responsible for any of his or her own actions, it’s at best inutile and at worst a disgusting rejection of personal responsibility. We are not working at the stage-manager level, and at the human level personal responsibility is still real. As the consumption partner put it last night, “You may have been predestined to be an asshole, but if you were, guess what? You’re still an asshole, and it’s still my right to treat you like one.” Of course, this is simply the tangle of free will and predestination: if you’re damned, it isn’t actually your fault, but you’re still damned because you deserve damnation. You can choose, like Tolstoy, to spend a lot of time stuck in this tangle.
My question for the end of this post is how well we think Tolstoy accepts his own conclusions. I spent Tuesday and Wednesday of this week writing about some of the peace-based plots, mostly in terms of deserts. Without free will or personal responsibility, there can be no such thing as just deserts, though. If Sonya’s motives are impure, why should she be punished? She couldn’t have done anything about it anyway, and nothing matters because it was all inevitable. If Kuragin is a despoiler, why should he get his comeuppance? Except! Tolstoy can give it to them because he’s made himself the stage-manager. We lowly humans cannot understand why things happen because we aren’t privy to a whole other level of “reasoning,” i.e., the stage-manager’s reasoning. He has reasons we can’t even imagine for making us all do what he does, so things might not make sense to us, but we can trust that they make sense to him. And this is perfect for a novelist—exactly what novelists do, as I discussed with Tom in the comments yesterday. I think that Tolstoy does accept his own conclusions, and that the war and peace sections are meant to be analogous counterparts proving the same point, but as Tom says, “The analogy is useless!”
Of course, we could always question Tom’s claim that “I am in some important sense a real person!” But really, practically speaking, he is, and so am I, and so was Napoleon, and so were the hundreds of thousands of troops who followed him into battle, and killed other real people. And I’m willing to hold them much more responsible for all that than Tolstoy is.
*Quote from Greg’s blog, presumably from the Anthony Briggs translation he read.
**Don’t worry, there are still plenty of things I disagree with in the war sections. He’s a super dooper nationalist, for one thing.
Yesterday, in telling the story of Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, I mentioned his sister Princess Marya. Marya is a bit unfortunate: she is dull and plain-looking, gets flustered easily, lives in worshipful fear of her father, and is bullied by her own companion, Mlle Bourienne. Marya is also extremely religious and devoted to the holy fools who regularly show up at her door (at the back door, that is, in secret from Prince Nikolai, who would make fun of them). She’s also an extremely nice and kind person—far too nice and too kind, if you ask me. I mentioned she was a spinster; Prince Anatole Kuragin does come knocking at her door, at the behest of his father (Princess Marya is a very wealthy heiress), but her face turns red and blotchy and there is simply no chance.
She has something of a counterpart in Sonya, a poor relation of the Rostovs (it’s unclear whether she shares their surname). As Princess Marya lives to serve her father, brother, sister-in-law, and later nephew, Sonya is constantly behind the scenes in the Rostov household making sure everything is moving along as it should. She helps Natasha, the old Count and Countess, little Petya—she’s a real “angel in the house” type. And she’s in love with the elder Rostov son, Nikolai, who shares her affections and promises, when he leaves for the hussars, to marry her one day.
Sonya is the perfect picture of constancy. Natasha, so often her companion, can’t understand how easily Sonya takes it all. And when one of Nikolai’s leaves ends in their falling still further in love, she only becomes more certain, more sure, more able to wait. Well, if Sonya refuses to suffer, surely Tolstoy will find a way to make her do so.
First, there is the unfairness of Countess Rostov. The Countess knows Sonya is blameless in all things, and in fact a very good person, but she wants Nikolai to marry a rich woman. This is important because the Countess’s own husband is in the process of leaving them all destitute—and instead of stopping him, or herself, or accepting the blame for ruining the family, she has determined that Nikolai will marry well, and thus Sonya needs to get out of the way. Nikolai is disgusted by the idea of marrying for money, in principle.
Tolstoy can fix all that by introducing Nikolai to Princess Marya (via the war, naturally), and although they don’t understand each other at all (a feeling Nikolai maintains for the rest of his life), they fall in love. Though he still considers marrying for money wrong, Nikolai is happy to be released from his engagement to Sonya (at his mother’s behest, of course) because he’s been easily convinced that with no money the two of them will face only hardship. So Sonya, the constant, loving Sonya, writer of hundreds of letters to her man in the hussars, is practically forgotten beside the saintly (and super-rich) Princess Marya.
I suppose you could just guess that Tolstoy liked to break up happy couples, but there must be some reason to break up this one and leave that one intact, or vice versa. It’s not just random entertainment here. So why can’t Nikolai and Sonya be together—what is Tolstoy able to do now that they’re broken up that he couldn’t do before?
There’s not much question of Nikolai being redeemed in the way Prince Andrei is. He’s a simple hussar without Andrei’s discontent to begin with, and even marrying Princess Marya isn’t enough for him to really understand her religiosity. The main effects of the Nikolai–Marya marriage vs. the potential Nikolai–Sonya marriage seem to be: the Rostov family is rescued from total financial ruin (which was not Nikolai’s, much less Sonya’s, fault to begin with), and the Countess never has to face her own responsibility for enabling her husband to ruin them; Sonya is pushed aside and becomes an invisible member of the Rostov household, never to marry; and Princess Marya, who ended up an old maid because of her own completely pathetic nature (stand up to your ridiculous father! and Mlle Bourienne!), does marry and have a family. These effects do not seem very far-reaching: swap one woman for another, and end up with some money. I’m forced to conclude the problem lies with Sonya.
Tolstoy helps me conclude this, as he likes to tell more than show, and when he tells of Countess Rostov demanding a letter from Sonya renouncing her engagement, this is what he (I mean, his narrator) says:
Sonya burst into hysterical sobs, answered through her sobs that she would do everything, that she was ready for everything, but promised nothing directly, and in her soul could not resolve to do what was demanded of her. She was to sacrifice herself for the happiness of the family that had nourished and raised her. To sacrifice herself for others was Sonya’s habit. Her position in the house was such that it was only on the path of sacrifice that she could show her worth, and she was accustomed to sacrificing herself and loved it. But formerly, in all her acts of self-sacrifice, she had been joyfully aware that in sacrificing herself she thereby raised her value in her own and other people’s eyes, and became more worthy of Nicolas, whom she loved more than anything in her life; but now her sacrifice was to consist in renouncing that which for her had made up the whole reward for her sacrifice, the whole meaning of her life. And for the first time in her life she felt bitter towards the people who had been her benefactors only so as to torment her the more; she felt envy of Natasha, who had never experienced anything like that…. And for the first time Sonya felt her quiet, pure love for Nicolas suddenly begin to grow into a passionate feeling, which stood above the rules, and virtue, and religion; and, under the influence of that feeling, Sonya, having been taught by her life of dependence to be secretive, involuntarily answered the countess in general, indefinite terms….
Sonya, that horrible, horrible bitch, wanted something for herself—and as soon as she realized it, she contaminated her “quiet, pure love” with passion. Even though everything she had ever done up to this point was good (and Tolstoy isn’t even really claiming here that it was all based on ulterior motives; Sonya really is good), the fact that her self-sacrifice was less than 100% pure makes it worthless. She was only sacrificing so she could gain something later! She was only sacrificing so that the people who supported her would continue to support and love and appreciate her! Horrors!
Princess Marya, on the other hand, was a true, pure self-sacrificer, who thought her life would amount to nothing because she had spent it all on sacrifices to others. That is to say: Princess Marya consciously chose to waste her life on devotion to an old man who didn’t appreciate her and a child she should never have been responsible for, making choice after choice knowing that she would likely not marry and not have a family of her own because of these decisions. Father Tolstoy is here to right this wrong for her, of course, because holy fools do take care of their own. And what of Sonya? By the end of the novel, she’s barely even seen as human. Everyone knows her feelings don’t matter, because she’s taken it and liked it for decades, and what else is new?
One of the better things about reading War and Peace is that it gave me the chance to exercise my plot-analysis muscles—that is, to try to dig down past the surface and see how Tolstoy’s gears were grinding away, trying to do whatever he was trying to do in the novel. He’s not, how shall I put it, terribly subtle about these things (though not unsubtle either), so it works well as a bit of an exercise piece, I think. Well, we can see about that at the end of this post!
Here I’d like to examine the story of Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, one of the (many) principal figures in the novel, who figures heavily in both the “war” and “peace” sections. At the beginning of the novel, we meet Prince Andrei married to “the little princess,” a pretty woman he doesn’t seem to much care for and who soon dies in childbirth, leaving him a son, the little Prince Nikolai (as opposed to the old Prince Nikolai Bolkonsky, Andrei’s father). At the time, Andrei is out fighting in the first Russian campaign against Napoleon, at Austerlitz. On his return home with a wound, Andrei assumes an estate of his own, leaves his son largely in the care of his spinster sister Princess Marya (and employees), and drifts about, improving his estate but without much of a raison d’être.
A few years later, Prince Andrei meets the young Countess Natasha Rostov at a ball, and it’s clear the two of them will soon be engaged. It also seems clear that their engagement is ill-fated. With the old Prince Nikolai disapproving (the Rostovs are broke, if respectable), Andrei agrees to tour Europe for a year before the wedding. Everything is going swimmingly—Natasha might not be exactly happy about their separation, but she is devoted to Andrei in a way she has never been before (this is love; the others were just crushes) and there’s no question of her fidelity. Until! Enter Prince Anatole Kuragin, longtime and well-known womanizer, brother of the shiningest star in high society and, secretly, husband to a Polish peasant woman whose father (unlike others’) was clearly smart enough to know when to grab a shotgun. Kuragin has an amazing ability to turn Natasha’s head, beginning with a ridiculous scene at the opera (where Tolstoy would have you believe women in the audience end up topless by the second intermission*). Natasha breaks off her engagement to Prince Andrei and attempts to elope with Kuragin (who has not, of course, mentioned that he already has a wife).
Long story short: Prince Andrei is crushed but proud; Natasha tries to kill herself and spends months in a deep depression; Kuragin is run out of Moscow by his brother-in-law, a friend of the Rostovs, who helps hush up the whole affair as much as possible. And when the next Russian campaign against Napoleon rolls around, Prince Andrei is ready to go fight once more. At Borodino, he is struck by shrapnel, and in the field hospital, through intermittent bouts of unconsciousness, realizes that the man next to him, who’s just had a leg agonizingly amputated, is none other than Anatole Kuragin—the man who ruined his life.
Prince Andrei remembered everything [Kuragin’s affair with Natasha], and a rapturous pity and love for this man filled his happy heart.
Prince Andrei could no longer restrain himself, and he wept tender, loving tears over people, over himself, and over their and his own errors.
“Compassion, love for our brothers, for those who love us, love for those who hate us, love for our enemies—yes, that love which God preached on earth, which Princess Marya taught me, and which I didn’t understand; that’s why I was sorry about life, that’s what was still left for me, if I was to live. But now it’s too late. I know it!”
“‘My God! What is this? Why is he here?’ Prince Andrei said to himself” as he realized who his neighbor was, and I ask the same question: why is Kuragin here? Which is to say, why is Kuragin in the novel at all? Briefly, Prince Anatole Kuragin is used as a sort of generic depraved character, with purposes half didactic and half entertaining, but his role in the novel becomes significant only when he becomes part of the Andrei–Natasha plot. Here, he is a pretty simple tempter (with Natasha, painted as somewhat naïve or sheltered, an easy mark), and you could say he simply gets his comeuppance (not only does he get his leg hacked off, he dies afterward). But why does he tempt her to begin with? Why break up the happy engagement of Prince Andrei and Natasha Rostov—they are in love, they are waiting to be together again, why are they not a right couple for each other? Here we have what is for me Tolstoyan hand-waving: Andrei has not yet found God, and, lacking peace, cannot successfully enter into marriage with Natasha.
But Prince Andrei will be redeemed by the end of the novel. He claims to know it’s too late in the field hospital, but he makes it to Moscow, and he makes it through the retreat from Moscow, which he makes with the Rostovs (by chance, of course). Natasha discovers him and spends weeks nursing him, until shortly before his sister arrives and he has accepted death. Too far above the cares of Natasha and Marya now, Andrei is upsetting to be around and then simply expires. Death is very much a part of the redemption, as well—it is the only real way to find peace.
So: the Prince Andrei storyline accomplishes principally the redemption of Prince Andrei. His redemption has the following side-effects: Natasha Rostov nearly has her reputation ruined, nearly dies, nearly sulks away her life hopelessly depressed, and loses a fiancé she is in love with; little Nikolai (who mostly exists for this purpose) is left fatherless and Princess Marya nearly alone in the world shortly after the death of her father; Anatole Kuragin (who only exists at all for this purpose) undergoes surgery without anaesthesia and dies in great pain; even old Prince Nikolai dies in pain because of the whole affair. Oh, and Prince Andrei dies too, of course.
So ultimately, we have this despicable chain of characters being used as means to an end, turtles all the way down. And this may sound like a somewhat common complaint, that characters are bad people, that they use each other, and that we shouldn’t like such people. So let me be clear: it’s not that Tolstoy’s characters are using each other, it’s that he‘s using them—grotesquely pulling the wings off flies, to prove that flies can only suffer.
Of course, this all fits in with Tolstoy’s fatalistic worldview. We are all players in a show we do not understand, stage-managed by an incomprehensible and mysterious God. Hmm, it looks like I’ve gotten myself into some ideas again!
Title quote from Vol IV, Part One, Chapter XV.
*”When the second act was over, Countess Bezukhov got up, turned to the Rostovs’ box (her bosom was now completely bared)…” Vol II, Part Five, Chapter IX of Pevear & Volokhonsky, and a line I’d like to check against a couple other editions.
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.
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!)?!?
Both of the Tolstoy titles included in the Art of the Novella series are later works. The Death of Ivan Ilych was published in 1886, 11 years after Anna Karenina and 17 years after War and Peace. And while The Devil wasn’t published until the twentieth century, it was apparently written around 1888, the same time Tolstoy was working on The Kreutzer Sonata. I don’t know exactly where I would put a “break” in Tolstoy’s work, where I would say it comes under new management, to paraphrase a comment by Amateur Reader, but the two novellas, like The Kreutzer Sonata, have the polemicist out in full force, doing his best to drown the novelist.
Here, with The Devil, my impatience with this late Tolstoy feels unfair. The story is one near to the author’s heart: a young landowner, recently inheriting an estate, goes to live on it and, unused to being away from the sexual services readily available in the city, arranges to have meetings with a peasant woman whose husband is away in town. Stepanida is described as a “peasant” in this Louise and Aylmer Maude translation, and it’s not immediately clear from the novella (at least to me) when it’s set, and therefore whether she is simply a peasant or really a serf.* When Tolstoy himself had such relations and similarly impregnated a country woman who wasn’t his wife, she was a serf—that is to say, all but his chattel slave.
Yevgeny, our young landowner, feels very badly about what he’s done. He’s addicted to sex, addicted to Stepanida, and even his truly angelic wife can’t keep his mind set firmly on hearth and home. There’s nothing for it, he must forcibly separate himself and Stepanida so they can never again see each other—sex is that powerful. And he wants to be a respectable family man, not constantly racked with guilt.
What’s wrong with all this, then? To be sure, I don’t advocate adultery and deception, and if Tolstoy wanted to encourage young men to avoid debauching their servants and taking such advantage of their social position to ruin the lives of those dependent on them, good for him. But it’s how it’s done. Yevgeny is revoltingly weak-willed; God help us if all men are so. Stepanida is all but “asking for it” every time she looks at him with those playful eyes of hers. And there are other signs of Tolstoy’s obsessions. Yevgeny’s wife isn’t simply “an angel in the house,” she’s an obvious contrast to women like Ivan Ilych’s widow and the wife in The Kreutzer Sonata, suppressing as much of her hysteria around childbirth as humanly possible, or something. Here are some of Tolstoy’s—sorry, I mean the narrator’s—thoughts on “the gift which furnishes the chief delight of a relationship with a loving woman”:
[I]mmediately after marriage his wife decided that Yevgeny Irtenev was superior to anyone else in the world: wiser, purer, and nobler than they, and that therefore it was right for everyone to serve him and please him; but that as it was impossible to make everyone do this, she must do it herself to the limit of her strength. And she did; directing all her strength of mind towards learning and guessing what he liked, and then doing just that thing, whatever it was and however difficult it might be.
…[T]hanks to her love of her husband she penetrated into his soul. She knew his every state and his every shade of feeling—better it seemed to him than he himself—and she behaved correspondingly and therefore never hurt his feelings, but always lessened his distresses and strengthened his joys. And she understood not only his feelings but also his joys. Things quite foreign to her—concerning the farming, the factory, or the appraisement of others—she immediately understood so that she could not merely converse with him, but could often, as he himself said, be a useful and irreplaceable counselor. She regarded affairs and people and everything in the world only through his eyes….
Besides all this she had very good taste, much tact, and above all she had repose. All that she did, she did unnoticed; only the results of what she did were observable, namely, that always and in everything there was cleanliness, order, and elegance. Liza had at once understood in what her husband’s ideal of life consisted, and she tried to attain, and in the arrangement and order of the house did attain, what he wanted.
Can you blame me for allowing things like this to bring out my sarcastic side (never too far buried)? Yevgeny is a despicable child. Tolstoy may want me to despise him, but he seems to make it so only by infantilizing all men. Amateur Reader asked, regarding The Death of Ivan Ilych, whether the story was meant to be universal. It’s a good question, and that means a hard one. For Ivan Ilych, I might have to re-read to say more assuredly, but here I think there is no real evidence, and not much suggestion, that Yevgeny’s vices are universal to men (leaving off the epigram, from the Book of Matthew). And yet there is so much outside evidence—shout “inadmissible!” all you like, and I’ll agree with you, but also note that you just can’t un-know things—that Tolstoy did consider these problems absolutely pervasive between men and women.
Some of this outside evidence comes from his biography, but much of it also comes from his other work—for example, The Kreutzer Sonata. For the most part, these complaints don’t really speak to aesthetics. Tolstoy was a very good writer. But not always—in Kreutzer, I’ve argued, there is a very real danger of interpreting the novel contrary to authorial intent because of a highly unreliable narrator that it turns out Tolstoy agrees with at every turn based on extratextual evidence. And there, that evidence is an afterword he wrote specifically to clear that question up.
*Yevgeny does seem to be under the impression that he can decide where Stepanida and her husband live, at least to some extent, maybe, but this is the best evidence I can find.
The Death of Ivan Ilych, Leo Tolstoy’s 1886 novella, has some scenes that are first-rate: well-constructed and affecting. Anthony points to the Kafkaesque qualities of scenes like the one at the sick bed before the family goes to the opera; this is certainly one of them. Ivan Ilych is consumed by his illness and full of hate for all the well people around him, and they are full of discomfort at having to deal with illness like his. It’s enough to make you ill watching it all.
The beginning of the novella, where a few of Ivan Ilych’s colleagues attend his funeral, is also very good. Pyotr Ivanovich, all the while reminding himself that though such a painful death “could happen to me at any moment,” for now at least, it’s happened to Ivan Ilych and it’s best not to have such important thoughts, speaks with the widow Praskovya Fedorovna. But what she says isn’t what she means, and what he says isn’t what he means, and Tolstoy lays out the exchanges between the two in terms of what each understands, what each is after, and how they go about it.
Her questions cenetered on how she might refer to the death of her husband in requesting a grant from the government. She couched her questions in terms of seeking his advice regarding her pension, but it was immediately apparent that she knew everything there was to know on the subject—certainly far more than he did—and what she actually wanted was to find a way of getting more money. Pyotr Ivanovich tried to think something up but couldn’t, and after—as a courtesy—condemning the stinginess of the government, he concluded that getting more was impossible. She sighed loudly and began obviously working to get rid of him. He understood, put out his cigarette, stood up, pressed her hand, and headed out to the front room.
The whole scene of the funeral is extremely artificial: the members of an artificial society coming together for a ceremony that must be even more artificial than usual if they are to continue their artificial lives without bursting at the thought of such a death. It’s a fitting preparation for hearing of Ivan Ilych’s artificial life and the only real thing in it, his illness and death.
The narrator here isn’t intrusive like Gogol’s, outright talking about himself and what he likes or doesn’t like and does or doesn’t want to spend time on. But Tolstoy still intrudes, at least for a reader like me who is a bit familiar with his life and some of his work. Ivan Ilych’s marriage begins to go downhill when his wife is pregnant, when “something new emerged, something so unanticipated and nasty, so heavy and indecent, that it could never have been stopped, and there was no way out of it.” There are even, “[w]ith the birth of the child, various attempts at feeding her, many of which failed, and…illness real and imagined of child and mother alike,” which I have read almost word-for-word before.
And toward the end, when we are closely focused on the last days, last hours even, of Ivan Ilych, the narrator’s morality becomes categorical. Ivan Ilych wonders if he could be suffering so because he did not live as he should have, “before promptly dismissing this only solution to the riddle of life and death as something absolutely impossible.” There seems to be little for the reader to do here; Tolstoy is heavy-handed and manipulative, and if you think there is some other solution to the riddle of life you can be sure it won’t enter in here. Most of the novella is unrelentingly grim, and while the end should be—and for many will be—otherwise, if you are not running along with this strong-willed narrator and the artist who engineered the whole thing it may be even more depressing.
Leo Tolstoy’s Confession is an extended essay on his conversion from a typical debauched Russian aristocrat/artist to a rather unusual strain of Christianity, with a stopover in the Russian Orthodox Church along the way. It’s a rather typical conversion story: he thought he was in the right, and such-and-such is how he justified his actions, but was unfulfilled, and then he found God and learned the errors of his previous thoughts and ways. He struggled with finding God, but ultimately gave himself up to the mystery, and whatnot. In its broad structure the kind of conversion story you could hear from someone today.
This is perhaps its most disappointing aspect. If Tolstoy is really “the greatest Russian writer of prose fiction,” as Nabokov would have it in his Lectures on Russian Literature, you’d expect something at least a little bit spectacular, even if it isn’t fiction. But this is almost spectacularly ordinary.
Tolstoy’s youth and youthful misunderstandings are ordinary; he notes, mocking his former rationalizations of immoral behavior, that “I was paid money for doing this. I was provided with excellent food, lodgings, women, company, and I was famous. It must then be the case that what I was teaching was very good.” I find it hard to believe that the man who wrote Anna Karenina and War and Peace was foolish enough at that time to think that success in the market indicated some kind of moral good. But then I also found it hard to believe that he categorized mathematics as “experimental knowledge,” in contrast to philosophy. And assumed economic activity to be zero-sum. Also the sophistry involved in this whole question of “why we are here,” a question Tolstoy wiggles and changes and massages so that he continually tries to answer something else, then is disappointed in his answer, never once asking himself whether his question even should have an answer.
His philosophizing leads him, midway through things, to the views, basically, of Schopenhauer. He believes his life is meaningless and has no purpose. But he is afraid of death, and can’t bring himself to commit suicide though he believes he should. Here he begins to sound a bit like Pozdnyshev:
I can now see that if I did not kill myself it was because of some vague awareness that my ideas were mistaken. No matter how convincing and irrefutable I felt my train of thoughts to be, as well as that of the wise ideas that had led us all to the conclusion that life is meaningless I still had some obscure doubts as to the validity of the final outcome of my deliberations.
It was expressed as follows: I, that is my reason, have acknowledged that life is irrational. If there is nothing higher than reason (and there is not, and nothing can prove that there is), then reason is the creator of life for me. Without reason I can have no life. How then can reason deny life when it is the creator of it? Or looking at it another way: if there were no life my reason would not exist, which must mean that reason is the offspring of life. Life is everything. Reason is the fruit of life and yet this reason rejects life itself. I felt that something was not quite right here.
I too feel that something is not quite right here, but it’s Tolstoy’s facility with deductive logic. “If there is nothing higher than reason, then reason is the creator of life for me”? Your conclusion does not follow from your premises, sir; this is the kind of squishy argument that I didn’t expect to find but found in abundance. In any case, even if reason is the fruit of life, it can still reject the value of life; just because Tolstoy is afraid to die doesn’t make it “not quite right.”
This all leads to a kind of reverence for the noble peasants, who toil honestly and believe simply in the value of life despite its pain and suffering. Tolstoy rejects the idea that such people simply haven’t asked themselves the questions at hand, and equally rejects the idea that he and Schopenhauer might be more intelligent. The peasants have asked all the questions of philosophy and they are answered by “irrational knowledge.” The same irrational knowledge that stopped him from killing himself, I’m sure.
There is some good in A Confession. It’s the first time I’ve understood someone’s explanation of why he believes “God is life,” and there are passages of interest. But the essay is strewn with inapt metaphors and analogies, misplaced worship of “the herd,” and a general sense that Tolstoy was in these regards a genuinely troubled but rather unimpressive man.
In The Kreutzer Sonata (c. 1889), a man traveling on a railway carriage finds himself eavesdropping on and then inserting himself into a conversation between some of the other travelers about marriage, love, and divorce. This man, our narrator, is then approached by another party in the carriage, Pozdnyshev, whose strong opinions on the subject put a bit of a damper on the original conversation. Pozdnyshev proceeds to tell the narrator the story of how he came to believe what he believes, namely that in real life (not in novels!), love doesn’t last and thus cannot sanctify marriage, which institution is a sham.
Pozdnyshev’s enlightenment came “only after the suffering I endured,” that is, only after he lived a debauched life, got married, had a family, and killed his wife. He recounts the story of his sexual exploits, engagement, and marriage, noting that things started to go downhill immediately on the honeymoon because of his “pigsty” lifestyle. This was inevitable, basically, as soon as he ever had sex:
I had become what is known as a fornicator. Being a fornicator is a physical condition similar to that of a morphine addict, an alcoholic or a smoker or opium. Just as a morphine addict, an alcoholic or a smoker of opium is no longer a normal individual, so a man who has had several women for the sake of his pleasure is no longer a normal person but one who has been spoiled for all time—a fornicator. And just as an alcoholic or a morphine addict can immediately be recognized by his features and physical mannerisms, so can a fornicator. A fornicator may restrain himself, struggle for self-control, but never again will his relation to women be simple, clear, pure, that of a brother to a sister. A fornicator can be instantly recognized by the intent look with which he examines a woman.
Ultimately, this failure to relate to his wife as a brother would to a sister causes this fornicator to stab her in a jealous rage, suspecting she’s having an affair. To get from point A to point B, the narrator sits through hours of talk, both general and particular, that is disorganized and self-contradictory. Pozdnyshev is frantic, furtive, in general, acts like a madman (David McDuff, in the introduction to my Penguin Classics edition of The Kreutzer Sonata and other stories calls him “Dostoevskian”). He has all the hallmarks of an unreliable narrator; Pozdnyshev seems generally crazed, and the real narrator of the story rather aloof. Quite aside from the fact that most contemporary readers would simply disagree with Pozdnyshev, they would believe Tolstoy disagreed with him too if they based their beliefs only on the text. But based on extratextual evidence, that belief would be quite wrong.
When The Kreutzer Sonata was still being revised, illicit copies of the text began to circulate around the drawing rooms of Russia and it became quite a topic of conversation before Tolstoy had truly finished it. His contemporaries apparently also had trouble believing the story promoted the views of Pozdnyshev, because Tolstoy felt compelled to add a postface explaining the tale in more explicit terms.
I will not be afraid of Tolstoy: The Kreutzer Sonata is a failure. Pozdnyshev is utterly unbelievable—not “as a character,” but as a source of knowledge. Take the passage above on fornicators. What is “a normal individual” when practically everyone is a fornicator by this definition? And what are those physical features and mannerisms of fornicators? These are questions that will not be answered; Pozdnyshev is full of assumptions and generalizations with no or insufficient evidence.
He is also full of contradictions. He complains about the marriage market among the upper classes of Russia: “At least under the old system [of matchmaking] the rights possessed by both parties and their chances of making a decent match were equal, but nowadays a woman is like a slave in a market or a piece of bait for a trap.” Girls must sit “waiting,” hoping men will choose them. Not only is this contradicted by contemporary analyses of the marriage market, it will be contradicted by Pozdnyshev himself less than 20 pages later: “the ideal of every girl, no matter how well educated, will be to attract as many men, as many males, as she can, so she can make her choice from among them.” Who is choosing whom, again?
Pozdnyshev also challenges readers by claiming first that sex is unnatural because children and “uncorrupted young girl[s]” don’t know the mechanics of a practice that’s been studiously hidden from them, and then proceeds to the naturalistic fallacy that therefore sex is wrong. Eating, on the other hand, “is natural. Eating is something joyful, easy and pleasant which by its very essence involves no shame. But this is something loathsome, ignominious, painful.” Don’t bother looking for any evidence of this loathsomeness, and try to ignore the fact that Pozdnyshev has already told you how immoral eating is as well, because all it does is whet the appetite for sex.
When Pozdnyshev really starts getting into his theme, that men must give up carnal love altogether and that even marital sexual relations are unacceptable, he also asks the listener to follow the strange logic that learning won’t be helpful here, but that somehow, perhaps magically, successive generations of men will reach their goal without having had to go through the process of being wrong and then correcting themselves:
Imagine if God had created human beings in order to achieve a certain goal and had created them either mortal, but without the sex instinct, or immortal. If they’d been made mortal, but without the sex instinct, what would the result have been? They would have lived for a while, and failed to attain their goal; in order to achieve his aim, God would have had to create a new human race. If, on the other hand, they’d been created immortal, let us suppose (though it would be more difficult for beings of this sort to correct the error of their ways and approach perfection than it would for new generations to do so) that after many thousands of years they attained their goal…what good would they be then? What would be done with them?
Got that? A single generation without a sex instinct can’t reach the goal (some kind of mushy “unity” of all mankind), but a brand new generation could do better than a race of immortals who have all eternity to learn. And then once they’ve reached the goal, “what then”? Does this inspire confidence in the speaker?
But this new generation, Pozdnyshev doesn’t really want that either, because he doesn’t want to reproduce. He spends plenty of time toward the beginning of his monologue talking about how the end of marital sex won’t be bad because it means the end of reproduction, because that doesn’t really matter anyway. But then he refers to maternity as “sacred work” to “give us perpetuity” that must not be “violated” by contraception, which is “too dreadful even to contemplate!” Maternity is the only salvation of women for Pozdnyshev, especially the direct processes of pregnancy and nursing, but even these are wrong and damned elsewhere.
As Pozdnyshev gets into the particulars of the tale of him and his wife, he only becomes more and more suspect. He explains his thought processes in terms that can only make him seem unreliable. After her first child, his wife has trouble nursing and hires a wet nurse on the advice of her doctors. Pozdnyshev is greatly upset by this, partly “because when I saw with what ease she threw aside the moral obligations of a mother, I correctly, though unconsciously, drew the conclusion that she would find it just as easy to throw aside her obligations as a wife, especially since she was in perfect health and, in spite of what the dear doctors told her, subsequently breast-fed all our other children herself, and did it excellently.” He couldn’t have known then that she would be able to breast-feed later; thank goodness for all his magical unconscious knowledge.
He jumps on things his wife says, when “she’d come out boldly and half seriously, completely oblivious to the fact that an hour ago she’d said the exact opposite”—how can this do anything other than reflect back on all the contradictions Pozdnyshev has been making in his own speech? When he meets the violinist he later believes has an affair with his wife, he notes that “from the very first day, the very first hour of our meeting, my attitude towards him was such as it ought really to have been only after what eventually took place.” Later, when the violinist is practicing duets with his wife, “it was obvious that the piano-playing was meant to drown out their voices, and perhaps their kisses, too.” Paranoia, anyone? And when his wife denies his accusations, saying “nothing” happened, it’s “what she had just said—from which I drew quite the opposite conclusion, namely that everything had taken place between them” that only confirms his beliefs. And in the fatal scene when Pozdnyshev surprises his wife and the violinist together, there is still no real evidence of an affair other than his extremely strong suspicions and paranoia.
It should be noted that Tolstoy isn’t necessarily holding Pozdnyshev killed his wife over a real, actual love affair; it is not necessary for the wife to have cheated because everything was made inevitable by the “piglike” nature of their marital sexual relations from the beginning. So the fact that Pozdnyshev may be wrong about the affair is not fatal to his case against sex. But that is just one piece of a monologue that screams “madman” from the top of its lungs; Pozdnyshev does nothing to engender the reader’s trust or respect. His behavior is strange from start to finish. He makes weird noises, thinks people recognize him and know he has killed his wife, and keeps himself hopped up all night on tea that the narrator says is as thick and dark as tar.
And yet any reader familiar with Tolstoy’s life history will suspect that this man is to be taken somehow seriously, but how? Maybe there is a clue in Tolstoy’s postface:
This is the substance of what I was trying to say, and of what I thought I had indeed said, in my story. It seemed to me that while one might argue about the best way of remedying the evil designated in the above propositions, it was impossible for anyone not to agree with them.
Impossible not to agree with what, you might wonder? Let’s just say, with a bunch of stuff enormous numbers of people disagree with now and, it seems very safe to assume, at least some disagreed with in the late nineteenth century. Was there some failure of imagination so total on Tolstoy’s part that he did not realize Pozdnyshev just did not work, that this novella just did not work? I’m leaving out here so many of the objectionable claims, the misogyny, the absurd and all-encompassing asceticism, because I don’t want to get involved in the fact that readers now, so far removed from Tolstoy’s personal brand of Christianity, would have a very hard time going along with him. Trying to put that out of my mind as much as possible, the text is still saying not to listen to this crazy wife-killer. I can’t see a way out of that.
So this doesn’t work for me. Quite unlike its namesake, Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata, which is so successfully affecting that Pozdnyshev doesn’t think it should be allowed in drawing rooms.