Thursday, October 11, 2012

Clusters of them, crushed by the wheels, lay in the dirt - invisible, distant Tolstoy

A fair amount of The Cossacks sounds like this:

It was August.  For days the sky had been cloudless, the sun scorched unbearably and from early morning the warm wind raised a whirl of hot sand from the sand-drifts and from the road, and bore it in the air through the reeds, the trees, and the village.  The grass and the leaves on the trees were covered with dust, the roads and dried-up salt marshes were baked so hard that they rang when trodden on.  (XXIX)

A new section begins with some establishing shots, some landscape.  Kinda plain.  Two sentences later some people enter the scene, generic ones, though, “the shouting of girls and boys bathing,” along with cattle and wild boars.  Mountains, air, sun.  Then activity, the grape harvest, and the sentence turn into close-ups:

Along the dusty road from the vineyards the creaking carts moved slowly, heaped up with black grapes.  Clusters of them, crushed by the wheels, lay in the dirt.  Boys and girls in smocks stained with grape-juice, with grapes in their hands and mouths, ran after their mothers.

The shot of the crushed grapes in the road is perhaps the first detail in the long paragraph that seems especially artful, that the more attentive writer thinks to include.  Now these little bursts of sensory detail proliferate with descriptions of clothing or movement or odors (“the smell of the emptied skins filled the air” or animals, all circling around the grapes.

This is not really all that cinematic but has something in common with a montage.  Or perhaps it is like watching a painter at work, putting down a base, working in some shapes, filling them in, adding lines, and finally getting out the finer brushes.  Thank goodness we do not have to enjoy paintings in this fashion.  Tolstoy’s page about the grape harvest is not that tedious, thankfully, although the method does require some patience.  Well, it is only a page – a minute and a half of patience – what am I complaining about – and then the characters and story wander back in.

This is the distant narrator, the Flaubert-like invisible narrator.  Objective is not a bad word, either, but of course the author is not really a camera or even a painter but is choosing every image from whatever possibilities his imagination can produce.  He likely observed most of this himself during his own time in the Caucasus, but he observed a million things he did not put in the book.  He makes himself visible as he goes along, just as he makes his setting and characters take shape by adding this piece, and now this one, and now this one.

The other mode of the novel is a clean limited third person, the other Flaubert-like narrator, but I am sure we are all tired of hearing about that.  To my knowledge, Tolstoy owes no debt at all to Flaubert but was working out similar aesthetic ideas on his own.  His powers of observation were so strong that they may not have seemed like ideas at all, just the obvious way to turn what he experienced and thought into fiction.


  1. For me the difference between Flaubert and Tolstoy is that the former was visual and the latter intimate. I've been thinking of the two, of MB and AK, and it occurs to me that he doesn't get inside Emma's head; Flaubert describes actions, movement, things. Tolstoy spends a lot of time with minutia, inside the characters' heads, meticulously registers every thought in a long logical chain of decisions, impressions and actions.

  2. Maybe I'll go into this a little bit today, since this bit has really been all about the visual, sensual side of Tolstoy, who, honestly, I think of as quite similar to Flaubert in the "actions, movements, things" category.

    Flaubert's characters are generally pretty shallow thinkers - I am not sure many would be capable of long logical chains! When we are in Emma's head, we get things like this:

    "Madame Bovary noticed that many ladies had not put their gloves in their glasses... The powdered sugar even seemed to her whiter and finer than elsewhere."

    While Olenin in The Cossacks (and Levin and Pierre and Prince Andrey) are thinking about the meaning of life and the possibility of happiness.

    1. But you see, there Emma is only noticing the visual aspect... the gloves in the glasses is an image. Tolstoy's characters would have used that as the start of a digression into something more spiritual. But I agree, Flaubert, deliberately, wrote shallow characters.

  3. That's a good point. Let me suggest a modifier, though - "some of Tolstoy's characters would..." etc. A Frenchified Vronsky or - who is Kitty's husband? - Stiva Oblonsky would fit in well in Sentimental Education. Tolstoy has his sensualists, too. But Flaubert does not have a Levin or Ivan Ilyich or anyone close. I don't think. Maybe Saint Anthony, but I doubt it - haven't read that one. His interior life is probably filled with flying devil snakes and temptresses and the like.

    I do think of Tolstoy as a "bigger" writer than Flaubert, and you are getting at why.

  4. I haven't read either of these two.

  5. Nana, I think you would find Tolstoy to be really interesting. He is about as universal a writer as I can think of. As I try to say, or at least hint at, in my new post, his way of writing about the mix of two or three cultures in this novel was unusually perceptive and sympathetic.

    And writing about a short book like The Cossacks might remind people that "reading Tolstoy" does not mean committing to giant books like War and Peace or Anna Karenina.