Tuesday, February 14, 2017

busy whispering something gladsome and mysterious - Tolstoy moves the point of view

I wonder how many thinking parts there are in War and Peace.  The major characters all have scenes shown from their point of view, and long passages describing their private thoughts, but Tolstoy is, in this novel, also a master of the sudden shift and quick dip into the mind of anyone else.  The Cossacks (1863) is a good place to see him use the technique.  That character has a single, obvious protagonist, but when he goes to the Caucasus the point of view flits away from him, landing in a number of interesting places.

The cinematic analogy is strong, even if the camera can’t do much with a train of thought.  But it accompanies a character, flies up in the air, wanders around, finally returning to the doe-eyed fellow with whom it started.  It is curious how naturally we attach and detach the point of view from characters, even knowing perfectly well that we are watching an edited series of filmed sequences.

Tolstoy’s technique is similarly natural.  Much of the first of the fifteen volumes is spent at parties, with a couple dozen characters almost flung at me, the perspective freely wandering among them and back to Tolstoy.  At the Rostov’s the characters have paired off to go to dinner.  They are all new, or were when I first read the book.  Mostly the camera just looks at them, records them.  “Pierre spoke little but examined the new faces, and ate a great deal.”  Sometimes there is more interpretation.  “Sonya wore a company smile but was evidently tormented by jealousy.”  And sometimes, the point of view moves inward:

The German tutor was trying to remember all the dishes, wines, and kinds of dessert, in order to send a full description of the dinner to his people in Germany; and he felt greatly offended when the butler with a bottle wrapped in a napkin passed him by. He frowned, trying to appear as if he did not want any of that wine, but was mortified because no one would understand that it was not to quench his thirst or from greediness that he wanted it, but simply from a conscientious desire for knowledge.  (I.9.)

Good comedy from a character who is never mentioned again (occasionally a crowd of “tutors” is mentioned).  But I am only on page 65 of 1,351!  How do I know that this is the poor tutor’s only scene?  The Maudes cheat a bit early on, with footnotes like “Natasha Rostova, the most important female character in War and Peace” (I.5.).  So pay attention!  But for the novelist, everyone is available.  Everyone:

The Emperor’s horse started at the sudden cry. This horse that had carried the sovereign at reviews in Russia bore him also here on the field of Austerlitz, enduring the heedless blows of his left foot and pricking its ears at the sound of shots just as it had done on the Empress’ Field, not understanding the significance of the firing, nor of the nearness of the Emperor Francis’ black cob, nor of all that was being said, thought, and felt that day by its rider.  (III.13.)

Actually, maybe not everyone.  It is possible that Emperor Alexander is only observed, except in the sense that his interiority is the negative space of his horse’s, or vice versa.

The extreme example, near the novel’s end, closing a scene featuring ordinary soldiers around a campfire:

They all grew silent.  The stars, as if knowing that no one was looking at them, began to disport themselves in the dark sky: now flaring up, now vanishing, now trembling, they were busy whispering something gladsome and mysterious to each other.  (XV.3.)

War and Peace is for the most part written in a plain style.  Not always.

8 comments:

  1. The use of the horse seems utterly ingenious. Vassily Grossman, in Life and Fate, actually goes for the point of view of the Emperor (in his case, Adolf Hitler), and the directness of that approach struck me as the least successful element in his entire War and Peace - sized and imitative (but still great) novel.

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  2. The other Emperor, Boney, is of course fair game, subject to any imaginative prying and indignities Tolstoy wants. Tolstoy gives him a cold.

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  3. Hmm, in Life and Fate I actually thought the Hitler pov was quite successful (not so much as an attempt to get at the historical Hitler, I found Grossman's pov on what Hitler's motivations unconvincing) but as a character in the story and as the "Bonaparte" of his Tolstoy tribute. It's the Stalin pov that's more like going for the Emperor, and it doesn't quite work because Grossman can't resist drawing back and commentating rather than committing to it as a pov. It's an artistic risk that doesn't pay off for me.

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  4. Loving all these Tolstoy posts - I *so* want to be reading War and Peace at the moment!

    kaggsysbookishramblings

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  5. As I plan the "wolf hunt" post for tomorrow, I too so want to be reading War and Peace. Which I guess in a sense I am. But in another sense, just starting over from the beginning (and maybe skipping a historical essay or two) is not a bad idea.

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  6. I suppose you're right, since the Hitler pov is at least memorable, whereas the Stalin one I can barely recall. But for Tolstoy to focus on the force that the Emperor rides and not on the Emperor himself - that makes an impression.

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  7. I'll note that in 1863 Tolstoy had written an entire short story, "Strider," from the point of view of a horse.

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  8. Hmm, in Life and Fate I actually thought the Hitler pov was quite successful (not so much as an attempt to get at the historical Hitler, I found Grossman's pov on what Hitler's motivations unconvincing) but as a character in the story and as the "Bonaparte" of his Tolstoy tribute. It's the Stalin pov that's more like going for the Emperor, and it doesn't quite work because Grossman can't resist drawing back and commentating rather than committing to it as a pov. It's an artistic risk that doesn't pay off for me.

    I think I agree with this, but it's been a while since I read the book (which probably means I should read it again).

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