Wednesday, February 15, 2017

This is how it happened - Les Misérables makes Tolstoy's thoughts swarm

From the “Chronology” of The Cambridge Companion to Tolstoy (2002):

1863, February 23: reads Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables – “Powerful”; “I went through my papers – a swarm of thought and a return, or an attempt to return to lyricism.  Lyricism is good.” (p. 10)

Leo Tolstoy was planning – actively writing – a historical epic about, eventually, the Napoleonic Wars that is meant to demonstrate an argument about the functioning of history.  Along comes a model by the “best nineteenth-century writer” (p. 31, quotation is a paraphrase of Tolstoy by the editor) that shows you can just plop your essays into the middle of the story.  The digressions account for maybe a third of the novel?  That’s fine.

I saw a strong “influence” of Les Misérables on War and Peace, but what do I mean by that?  (certainly not “lyricism”).  After all, “1863, June 2: ‘I’m reading Goethe, and thoughts swarm.’”  When you’re a genius like Tolstoy, that’s what your thoughts do.  Maybe I should be arguing for the influence of Elective Affinities on Tolstoy, too.  Now that I mention it – no, one at a time.  Much later, Tolstoy says that the influence of Hugo’s novel was “Enormous,” but that could mean anything.

I mean two things.  Not anything to do with battles.  Tolstoy had been a great war writer for a decade already.  The first influence is on the use and structure of the essayistic material.  I don’t think Tolstoy is nearly as good with this stuff as Hugo.  The French giant writes as a sage, so everything he writes is an expression of pure Hugoness.  Every aspect of the novel is suffused with hugolité.  Tolstoy write as if he is trying to invent social history or sociology or some other social science.  He struggles in the didactic sections.  Hugo does not.

If I remembered the arguments better – I have already forgotten Tolstoy’s, much less Hugo's – I might be able to see how or if Tolstoy adapts Hugo’s ideas about Napoleon and the chaos of the battlefield and the role of individuals in mass action and so on, but I don’t.  Instead, what felt like Hugo was Tolstoy’s use of epic similes as argument, such as the comparison of burned, looted, empty Moscow to a beehive (XI.11.) with a dead queen, a comparison that is clear immediately but goes on for a couple of pages, developing its own characters.

What really caught my attention, though, were moments in the narrative, not the essays, that sounded so much like Hugo, places where Tolstoy adapted Hugo’s signature devices, like the chapter-ending revelations of identity: “This man was registered under the number 9430, and his name was Jean Valjean” (Hugo, III.3.).  Even the long, essayistic Waterloo section ends with one of these.  In Tolstoy:

That night another wounded man was driven down to Povarskaya…  Mavra Kuzminichna concluded that he was a very important man…  He was conveyed… [Etc.]

This wounded man was Prince Andrew Bolkonski.  (XI.8.)

Another example: simple transitional sentences, like Tolstoy is telling the story: “This is how it happened” (XI.9.).

Another is the use of a series of blunt, single-sentence paragraphs.

Yet another is the transformation of Pierre Bezukhov into Jean Valjean, including his superhuman strength, in the section where Pierre is out in Moscow rescuing little girls from fires.  “Pierre was in such a transport of rage that he remembered nothing and his strength increased tenfold” (XI.16.) – then he goes to prison!

Why are all of these quotations from Book XI?  Not just because that is where I started to write them down.  No, I think much of the Hugo flavor is concentrated in this book, which contains the evacuation, occupation, and destruction of Moscow.  No battles as such, no parties, no ordinary daily life, but rather nothing but extraordinary events, one after another.  It is the most melodramatic part of War and Peace, the most ordinarily novelistic, where Pierre’s thread becomes something of an adventure story.  Thus it is here that Tolstoy turns to a great master of this kind of novel, to the example that has been on his mind for a number of reasons.

That is my guess.  The problem points to the solution.  It is interesting to witness.

Tomorrow, 100% Tolstoy.


  1. Wow, I hadn't noticed some of those technical tricks he borrows from Hugo. What I noticed (less dramatically in Hugo, both because he's French and because he's reserving his veiled fire for Napoleon III) is the positioning of Napoleon as a false ideal against which true heroism (in the eyes of the authors) is contrasted. Again, complicated in Hugo by Napoleon's defeat, since Les Miserables is the great epic of defeat.

    But there are so many little jabs at the false ideal of Napoleon, even if Hugo is kinder. ("Thus the superiority of Jesus Christ over Napoleon", "What could be greater?" "To be free") Cambronne, not Napoleon and not the British and Prussians, is the true hero of Waterloo for defiance in the face of certain defeat, and Jean Valjean is the hero of the novel for following his conscience at all costs.

    War and Peace more obviously uses the false ideal of Napoleonic glory and control of destiny to highlight the true heroism of selfless love and family life.

    And the scorn that's directed at Napoleon himself in W&P is directed at Thenardier who is in many ways a stand-in for Napoleon III (of uncertain Low Countries origin, spuriously appropriating Napoleonic glory, successful by the end in a worldly fashion, at the cost of others' liberty). I think Tolstoy would have been aware of that as Hugo was by then famous for his opposition to Napoleon III.

    This all ties back to Hugo's poem "The Expiation" for me, but I don't know if Tolstoy read that one.

  2. Oh, and another thing: Marius, like Andrei and Pierre, passes through a Napoleonic phase which raises them above the society they grew up in (Gillenormand, the soiree), but which gives way at last to a truer understanding of heroism.

  3. Ah, ideas, you meant ideas! You can basically assume that I always mean style. I am not so good with ideas. Your comment is quite helpful.

    I have wondered, pace the poem, why Tolstoy did not do more with the Russian winter. I guess he gets his business wrapped up before it really clobbers the French.