Wednesday, September 26, 2007


I finished War and Peace over the weekend, and boy are my arms tired. I've been lugging this 1,300-page bastard around for over a month, and when you hold it open to read it weighs first on your right hand and then on your left, unless you can rest it against a nice firm table edge. Or you can bend it back and hold it in one hand. I think I've got Tolstoy wrist.

Maybe this is as it should be. Maybe a book of this length and this kind of ambition is supposed to wear you out, leave you with a little bit of an ache, as anything does when it takes over your life, which it is designed to do.

Here's an anecdote from late in the book:

A man on a thousand-mile walk has to forget his ultimate goal and say to himself every morning, "Today I'm going to cover twenty-five miles and then rest up and sleep." During this first stage of the journey the resting-place eclipses any idea of the ultimate goal, and all his hopes and desires are focused on that alone.

Tell me about it.

As long walks go, this one is beautiful, brainy, intense, bullheaded and dull; my views of it changed throughout. This is the occupational hazard of any really long novel: as good as it gets, there's also a chance it will overstay its welcome. Tolstoy's novel takes awhile to get going, then becomes a total page-turner, occasionally interrupted by wearying battle scenes which are interrupted by varyingly scolding and triumphalist editorials on the Russian soul, and lame and rather repetitive sermons on predestination, which finally swamps the book in the final stretch, which is strictly all work and no play. Tolstoy is like John Coltrane; he keeps going because he just can't quit.

Tolstoy apparently struggled with these dual roles of artist and ideologue: do I play divine watchmaker, keep myself out of it, or do I become as active and involved as the Old Testament God, fully exercising my prerogative to stomp into the story at will, say whatever I feel whenever I feel, even if it means stopping at key moments to argue with one forgotten historian after the next about Napoleon, finishing up with a 40-page sermon on how (as Jack White would sing 138 years later) you can't take the effect and make it the cause?

Actually, he tried to do both, as we are reminded by two separate translations published this season. I may as well let the recent New York Observer do the talking:

The first translation, out on Knopf in October, is by all-stars Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. It clocks in at 1,219 pages, and according to editor LuAnn Walther, it represents “what Tolstoy would have wanted us to read if he were alive today.”

The other one, translated by the lesser known Andrew Bromfield, will be published by Ecco in September; it is being marketed as the “original version” of Tolstoy’s classic, one that has never been seen in this country. This edition comes with pictures—illustrations commissioned by Tolstoy himself—and it is about four hundred pages shorter than Knopf’s.

Further down:

[The Bromfield version] of the book was based on three serialized chapters Tolstoy published in a Russian journal in 1865 and 1866. According to a note at the front of the Ecco edition—and the introduction by Nikolai Tolstoy, who is vaguely related to the author—Tolstoy used these chapters as the foundation for a draft he completed in December 1866. At that point, he is said to have written “The End” on the last page of the manuscript, but soon after, he changed his mind, left Moscow for his country estate, and for three years made extensive revisions that would lead to the publication of the complete work, totaling six volumes, in 1869. This version, for the most part, served as the basis for the widely used English translation by Louise and Aylmer Maude, published in the 1920’s.

I can't really comment on these matters, except to say that the very publication indicates Tolstoy himself had second thoughts as to just how little much or how much of himself he wanted to put into the novel, and to note that I hope to tackle the Pevear and Volokhonsky version, which arrived in the mail last week, in the very near future. The version I read was was the 2005 translation by Anthony Briggs, which I liked very much, although that doesn't mean much because I don't know Russian. I will say this, though: it had the same compulsive effect as the one by Ann Dunnagin, which I read twenty years ago. In either reading, I'd occasionally make a mental note that I needed more background on the wars between France and Russia, and in both cases I was too compelled by the book to ever put it down and consult an encyclopedia. I wanted to stay with the book, even in its lumpiest passages -- which, I guess, means little more than that the translations, whatever their faults, let Tolstoy be Tolstoy.

Now that it's over, I miss it, and I'm anxious to visit it again; it has this rather massive design to it that beggars increased attention. I may even want to hear Tolstoy barking in my ear, albeit not as pleasantly or as elegantly as he would go on to do in Anna Karenina.

There's a raw, powerful sense of desire and desperation to Tolstoy. I love his ambition, and I love him even more when I see him coming up against the limits of his considerable genius. The book isn't a total success -- he didn't think so either, apparently, as he dismissed it not long after as "wordy trash" -- but he puts absolutely everything he has into it, all that people love about him and all they can't stand.

I sometimes think Tolstoy modeled himself after God, and he certainly had the look for it. When you think of so many of those grandly ambitious geniuses -- Michaelangelo, Melville, Whitman, Tolstoy -- you see people who look like God used to look in Renaissance paintings: a big old man with a great white beard who made big things. There's nothing minimalist about these great bearded ones; they all had the weight of the world on their shoulders, and they dealt with big, big themes: life, death, love, war, peace. If Tolstoy isn't a complete success at wrapping his great mythy mind around things that are impossible to fully assess (which he more or less concedes), there is something else that I find weirdly God-like about him as an artist, that he can seem at once so stern and severe toward humanity and so sublimely understanding of humans, and that he can scope way, way out and then zoom microscopically in to small details. There's no one quite like him when it comes to capturing the dynamics of life, the flow of life.

Tolstoy is a marvelous storyteller, and -- after puttering around for a hundred or so pages -- he has a story that grows organically and which gives you, not just in its length but in its detail, in its sense of time, just what the weight of life feels like. Or maybe, again, that's my wrist talking.

I can only deal here, for the most part, with what interests me; there's a lot that eluded me or which I've simply ignored or forgotten, which is why I can't wait to take it up again, maybe even rewriting or rejecting what I'm about to dash off below.

It starts slow and somewhat conventionally, at Anna Scherer's soiree, where there's all this talk about the coming war, people bat back and forth the idea of "Buonaparte's" real or imaginary genius -- which will become far more of a target for Tolstoy than it ever needs to be -- and principal characters are gradually introduced. There are five families in the book and hundreds of friends, connections and enemies, so many that I constantly had to resort to the dramatis personae at the rear of the book.

In a sense, it's the template for big family novels, which tend to be set against the background of war: young people fall in love with people who either do or don't love them back, and war changes and complicates whether any of these multiple romantic plans will ever actually be realized.

At the center of the story are Pierre Bezhukov, the portly and tortured intellectual; Andrey Bolkonsky, a soldier who is set on a full military career; and Natasha Rostov, who will fall in love with both before all is said and done. That, however, is much further down the road, as Pierre first marries the conniving and beautiful Helene and Andrey marries Lise, who will die in childbirth, leaving the son Nikolay, who basically vanishes until the last few hundred pages. Natasha will then become engaged to Andrey, who will head off to fight Napoleon's forces at Austerlitz and beyond; in the meantime, Natasha has what passes in 19th Century literature for a hot, steamy affair with Anatole, Helene's equally conniving brother, temporarily ruining her for marriage to Andrey. Natasha's brother, Nikolay, will also become involved in Russia's military campaign, always looking for whatever glory he can find; he will also find himself torn between his lovely cousin Sonya and Andrey's ugly but deeply religious sister Marya, who becomes something of a model of the Christian life.

Aside from the fact that their lives are constantly interrupted by war, what all these characters have in common is the oldest theme in literature: the meaning of life. Sounds like a ridiculous, weighty cliche, the kind of thing Andrew McCarthy whined about in St. Elmo's Fire, but Tolstoy's characters are so sunk in the "unbearable lightness of being" that they can't think of much else. This is a novel where life is just as indeterminable as war; it's hard to plan, to direct, to shape and to find purpose. Life and war are both matters where a great amount of energy is expended on trivialities and waste, where what you thought was important, isn't, that much, joy and pain are doled out at random, and people pin their hopes on great revelations that don't always prove to be true.

They are burdened by the sense that for all one's efforts there's no real payoff in the end, no understanding. Andrey drafts a plan for army reform that comes to nothing, and winds up wondering "how on earth he could have spent so much time on such useless work." If there is an answer to life, it seems to have to do with love, either Christian or romantic. Andrey's sudden feelings for Natasha infuses life with richness, depth, and more questions:

He was aware of her only as an image, but this opened up the whole of his life before him in a new light. `Why do I go on struggling? Why do I keep on toiling at this narrow, cramped drudgery, when life lies open before me, the whole of life, with all its joys?' he kept asking himself.

Pierre, likewise, who falls under the influence of the Freemasons and commits himself to a good Christian life, which also involves reforming the measures by which he treats the people who work for him, finds himself pondering the "vanity of human life." When he falls in love with Natasha, who has given her heart at least for the moment to Andrey, the nagging question of meaning resurfaces:

Once again everything seemed meaningless on the scale of eternity; once again he faced the question, `What's it all about?' Day after day, night after night, he forced himself to concentrate on masonic work, hoping to ward of any evil spirits.

Natasha, too, at a family gathering, has that same sense of ennui, this "terrible sense of revulsion welling up inside her at the sight of all these people, disgusting in their inevitable sameness."

For almost everyone in the novel, life is a chaos of disintegration and a fruitless search for meaning. Natasha wonders "What's next?" "only to find there was nothing next. There wasn't any joy in life, but life was passing."

The great questions of life that dog all these characters don't have answers, of course, but death -- as was true in Tolstoy's magnificent The Death of Ivan Ilych -- has a way of bringing a sense of perspective. Andrey only begins to grasp life as he's about to lose it, first in a premonition of his death and then over several weeks dying from a stomach wound.

His whole life seemed like a magic-lantern show that he had been staring at through glass by artificial light. Now suddenly the glass was gone, and he could see those awful daubings in the clear light of day. "Yes, yes, here they are, those false images that I used to find so worrying, enthralling and agonizing," he told himself, giving his imagination a free rein to run over the main pictures in the magic lantern of his life, looked at anew in the cold, white daylight brought on by a clear vision of death.

As in Anna Karenina, Tolstoy has such a precise eye for capturing character, and -- in a way that brings to mind no one so much as Jane Austen -- a sense of the way character is revealed through the perception of others.

In one of the novel's great gorgeous passages, Andrey is at a ball (one of many) where he observes both the worldly Helene and the very innocent Natasha. Helene is pure sex, with the kind of female form that has been mentally undressed by many men and physically undressed by the rest. Natasha is nothing compared to her -- and everything:

Her bared neck and arms were skinny, quite unattractive compared with Helene's shoulders. Her little shoulders were narrow, her bosom was undefined, her arms wre slender. But Helene had been, so to speak, varnished by thousands of eyes that had caressed her form, whereas Natasha seemed like a young girl exposing her body for the first time, who would have been terribly embarrassed if she hadn't been assured on every side that it was all very necessary.

Later, Natasha falls passionately, impulsively in love with Anatole, who looks at her in such a way that it brings on a physiological change:

She liked this, yet she could feel the temperature rising and she was beginning to feel somehow cornered and constrained in his presence. When she wasn't looking at him she could sense him gazing at her shoulders, and she found herself trying to catch his eye to make him look at her face. But when she looked into his eyes she was shocked to realize that the usual barrier of modesty that existed between her and other men was no longer there between the two of them. It had taken five minutes for her to feel terribly close to this man, and she scarcely knew what was happening to her.

The plentiful war scenes didn't grab me. For me, it's the domestic side of the story that's really captivating. It's the sheer thickness of life between its covers that makes this such an extraordinarily generous, inspired and impassioned baggy monster, as well as an often tediously tendentious one. It's a novel of ideas that gets overtaken by the author's innate artfulness and genius, and neither artist or ideologue concedes an inch to the other without a fight. It's a novel that sinks its teeth into the meaning of war and finds itself wrestling with the meaning of life.

Tolstoy's great theory argues that God, rather than people, shapes history, and that great men are actually just hollow men, stuffed shirts who get caught up in a chain of events and fall under the illusion they influenced it; historians, likewise, are imbeciles who don't understand that war has nothing to do with brilliant strategies and everything with what we now call the "fog of war," where soldiers on the ground are reacting against chaos, and what seems to follow a pattern could actually go either way.

What we call history, actually, in Tolstoy's view, is God's unknowable design; what passes for "history" is just guesswork, and so is our own sense of life. Life on earth, either at war or in peace, follows a divine plan which can only seem formless and chaotic, a tale told by an idiot; free will is an illusion, and events follow patterns we only think we can discern. Just as historians think great men direct the flow of history, in truth events choose people, somewhat at random; people think they are the master of their own lives, when in in fact life is little more than a prolonged confusion over which we have little control. (In this regard, I think you could almost see Thomas Pynchon's phantasmagorical Against the Day as a kind of answer to Tolstoy, as his multitude of characters seek to avoid their destiny by chucking three-dimensional reality altogether.)

As philosophy, this is all rather watery, vague, aggravatingly circular, and (depending on one's view) maybe a cop-out; Tolstoy at times easily fits his own description of one of his minor characters: "one of those people who deliberately get themselves into the gloomiest circumstances in order to have the right to be gloomy." It's a novel of ideas that tries to convey a philosophical point of view by artistic means; the idea isn't much, the art is magnificent. At it's core -- and that's a huge core, with a dense magma of digression and rumination -- it is a masterful work of narrative art.


nnyhav said...

Never tackled W&P myself; on the list after Proust, which is to say a ways away. Is Shklovsky's latest on your list?

Anonymous said...

You mention the oft-quoted "wordy garbage" phrase usually attributed to Tolstoy--do you happen to have a source? I can't seem to find where, directly, Tolstoy said this--excepting a similar incident in a "personal letter" where he supposedly said "War and Peace" was loathsome.

Any help in my search would result in my being much obliged.