I previously read War and Peace (1869) for a Tolstoy class, mixed undergraduate and graduate, mixed language – I was in the easy division, under- and English – twenty-six years ago, using the Norton Critical Edition of the Maude translation, the same book I just finished.
The professor, a Nabokov scholar, wanted the entire text available for class discussions, so we had double reading for the first third of the class – reading and discussing the novellas in The Great Short Works of Leo Tolstoy while simultaneously reading War and Peace, then reading Anna Karenina while discussing War and Peace, and finally re-reading for our papers while discussing Anna Karenina. The bare minimum reading load for a respectable literature class, yes? That was a good class.
War and Peace is hardly the piece of worked-up art that Anna Karenina is, and how could it be? It is so big. That Leo Tolstoy could handle the mass of material as he did was his first achievement. Many subsequent writers of historical fiction have written books – or series – of comparable, or greater, size and complexity, paralleling and criss-crossing the lives of a small (or large) number of characters across a big historical landscape, having them wander into “real” scenes populated by Napoleon Bonaparte and the equivalent.
Tolstoy only had the one example in front of him. This was my single great “discovery” about War and Peace, the influence of Victor Hugo. Save that for later. The bigness of the book is a real achievement, and a real difficulty for me, since it is hard to remember so many details across so many pages.
Vladimir Nabokov called War and Peace “a rollicking historical novel written… specifically for the young” (1969 interview in Strong Opinions, p. 148 – he also says it’s “a little too long,” snort), which is dismissive but insightful. The beauties of the novel – or, more accurately, my guess is that the beauties of War and Peace – do not depend so much on the kind complex motifs of which Anna Karenina is built, but on a more direct feeling for the reality of the characters, even on an identification with them.
As languagehat wrote in 2009, after he had completed the novel in Russian, “I get mad at Prince Andrei with the same sort of exasperated affection I direct at my own brothers, not with the distanced feeling of irritation I experience with, say, Proust’s Marcel.” Oh, let’s not get into Marcel – that guy gets on my last nerve. Maybe Tolstoy’s novel is best read with the immersive identification of childhood. I am not just watching Natasha Rostov at her first ball or Nicholas Rostov at his first battle, but for a time I am Natasha, I am Nicholas. Not that the identification is always that close.
Two characters, Nicholas and Prince Andrew Bolkonski, are if anything too empty, too generic, early in the novel, their characters kept a bit blank to allow me to more easily wander around the Battle of Austerlitz in their bodies, akin to the officer in Sevastopol Stories (1855) who gives me a semi-fictional tour of the besieged fortress.
[Prince Andrew] is monotonous, boring, and merely un homme comme il faut in the whole first part. That is true, but I am to blame, not he. I intend not only to depict characters, their actions, and their encounters, but also to work history in. This greatly complicates my task, and I’m not succeeding at it, or so it seems. (letter to the poet Anafasy Fet, 1866, p. 1361 of the Norton edition)
But this all gets fixed pretty fast. All five main characters – or six, counting His Supreme Highness General Kutuzov? – are good company. I never cared which thread of the story I was reading – was never eager to get back to someone else’s story – as long as it wasn’t a section featuring that blowhard amateur historian Leo Tolstoy.
I feel that given the bulk of the thing, I ought to be able to spend a month with War and Peace, but I think it will just be the rest of the week. My notes say: point of view, Victor Hugo, the wolf hunt, death.
Oh, how I love War and Peace!ReplyDelete
Aside from the highly skippable Second Epilogue, which I read this time only because it had been so long, and I thought I should remind myself what is in it.ReplyDelete
Yes, someone else who gets the Victor Hugo influence! Hooray! Tolstoy alas is not as good at digressions as Hugo is, though he makes up for it in other ways. But yeah, Les Miserables and War and Peace are deeply linked.ReplyDelete
(I still haven't managed to properly read War and Peace, but the influence absolutely jumped out at me from what I read)
Interesting what Tolstoy thought about what he was doing with Prince Andrei's character. I thought he was kept a bit blank at first because he's so reserved and repressed, and we are finally let into his energy on the eve of battle (but maybe I'm just remembering how it's done in the Russian film, that monologue is given great intensity).
Weirdly, Confessions of an Italian has some similarities, despite predating both books.ReplyDelete
I remember those undergraduate days fondly. Wildly ambitious reading lists. One class on Dickens had us reading one novel a week, which is fine with Hard Times and Great Expectations but try Little Dorrit and Dombey and Son back to back. I loved it. I still miss it, too.ReplyDelete
Why were we in college if not to read, and then read some more. I wish I had taken a Dickens class.ReplyDelete
I first thought the resemblance to Hugo was like that of Nievo - similar rhetorical strategies for similar purposes. But at certain points, the imitation was so blatant. It is reassuring that others have seen the same thing. You are right that Tolstoy is fighting with his digressions, while for Hugo they are natural, they are part of who he is.
I wonder if Andrei's monologue in the film is something more interior in the novel. I don't remember a monologue! That is what I mean by the problem of the size of the novel. It exceeds my capacities.
The monologue I'm thinking of is an internal monologue about glory at Book 3, Ch 12, on the eve of Austerlitz.ReplyDelete
I'll be curious to see your thoughts on the Hugo imitation when you post them!
If I could have written my senior English thesis on Dickens, I would be teaching Dickens to grad students today. Instead, I became a history major, made a tiny pot of money in insurance, and retired at age 52. Now I "teach" Dickens, Hardy, and others for fun, and haunt the highly literate blogs like this one, seeking the like-minded.ReplyDelete
I guess I built my own Dickens class, with the help of what the people teaching Dickens thought to publish. That's mostly the way we all do it now, I suppose.ReplyDelete
The new post prepared me for the Hugo post. All right.
Well, now I have to reread Les Miserables -- it's been decades, and it never occurred to me to consider it in relation to Tolstoy.ReplyDelete
Vladimir Nabokov called War and Peace “a rollicking historical novel written… specifically for the young”
The older I get, the less patience I have for VVN's obiter dicta about literature. I never took them that seriously, but I used to think they were pungent summaries of deeply held views. Now (having spend years immersed in internet culture) I suspect they were simple trolling.
Argh, "having spent." And me a copyeditor.ReplyDelete
Yes, trolling - jokes, some of them pretty inside.ReplyDelete
I'll write about the use of Hugo today. Wee'll see if it makes sense.
Loathe though I am to admit Nabokov has a point--I find his public personality grating--he's right that it's "specifically for the young". Not because it's so "rollicking" but because it's a Bildungsroman. At three different ages and stages of life for the main characters. I think part of Tolstoy's point is we're never really done coming of age--until we die.ReplyDelete
he's right that it's "specifically for the young".ReplyDelete
I strongly disagree, unless the phrase is meant in the technically correct but pointless sense "specifically for the young, the old, and everyone in between." To my mind, to say a book is "specifically for the young" is to say it is only for the young, and for those whose appreciation of literature never advances beyond the youthful. I would put J. D. Salinger in that category (though obviously many would disagree); to put Tolstoy there would be absurd. I have read W&P in my teens, thirties, and fifties, and I have appreciated it more every time (setting aside the Second Appendix and other flaws such as are unavoidable in any great, sprawling novel); I do not expect it to let me down in my sixties, seventies, and on up (should longevity favor me to that extent).
You probably have a better sense of what Nabokov meant by "specifically for the young" than I do--I'm 24 and a reviewer of children's books, so I have a somewhat skewed perspective. But I do see it as fundamentally a coming-of-age novel, dealing with issues particularly though by no means exclusively urgent to young people--in contrast to, say, Anna Karenina, which is by no means a better book, just different.ReplyDelete
Well, get back to me in a few decades!ReplyDelete
I should include the intervening insult that I hid behind the ellipses:ReplyDelete
War and Peace, though a little too long, is a rollicking historical novel written for that amorphic and limp creature known as "the general reader," and more specifically for the young.
The insight I got from this line is not about the value of the book, but rather, as Maya suggests, its rhetorical strategies.
What Nabokov meant, of course, was that it could not be shoehorned into his preferred Flaubertian/Nabokovian mode. Artists are generally hard on art that doesn't follow their own personal preferences. This is why (as I think I have said before) I pay attention to writers' recommendations and ignore their negative comments, which usually can be reduced to "doesn't do things the way I do."ReplyDelete
Right. That is my preferred mode, too. But even aside from that, I gain insights from negative comments, sometimes even those that are untrue. So now way am I going to ignore them. The negative comments define the aesthetic position as much as the positive.ReplyDelete
Have been reading up on the genesis of the Prince Andrei character and was amused to find that Tolstoy intended to kill him off at Austerlitz--had even created Maria Bolkoskaya before even thinking of Andrei--, but then got interested in him and "pardoned" him--temporarily. This may explain the "blankness" you noticed at the beginning.ReplyDelete
Andrei and Nicholas both have a lot in common, at first, with the point of view characters in Sevastopol Sketches. Their role as observers matters more than the specifics of their personalities.ReplyDelete
In the long novel, what they observed then becomes part of the interesting ways their characters develop - the Bildungsroman aspect. Sevastopol Sketches has no room to explore that.