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Posts Tagged ‘russian literature’

Things are quiet round here because I am reading War and Peace and not much else this month. It is, of course, wondrous and absorbing in the best way; I will be lucky this year if I read another book as good as this one. April is the cruelest month, a month full of difficult anniversaries, but Tolstoy is a fine antidote. Bakhtin hated Tolstoy for being monolithic, and while the thinly-veiled Tolstoys-by-another-name that populate his books are a little obvious it’s never stopped me from loving them (Levin!). Actually, the monolithic surety of Tolstoy’s worldview is part of what I love about reading him. Everything feels concrete, fully-realized, nourishing. It seems a slight to describe anyone as a mere character–they feel like people. In just a few sentences Tolstoy can capture something essential about a person, as in this very early description of Prince Vassily and salon hostess Anna Pavlovna:

Prince Vassily always spoke lazily, the way an actor speaks a role in an old play. Anna Pavlovna Scherer, on the contrary, despite her forty years, was brimming with animation and impulses.

Being an enthusiast had become her social position, and she sometimes became enthusiastic even when she had no wish to, so as not to deceive the expectations of people who knew her. The restrained smile that constantly played on Anna Pavlovna’s face, though it did not suit her outworn features, expressed, as it does in spoiled children, a constant awareness of her dear shortcoming, which she did not wish, could not, and found no need to correct.

I’ve known people just like this! I just didn’t realize it, would never have thought to understand them in this way, until I met Anna Pavlovna.

He’s wonderful at the more sprawling character introductions, too. I am enamoured with Prince Nikolai Andreevich Bolkonsky (with all of the Bolkonskys, really), who, the footnotes inform me, is modeled on Tolstoy’s own grandfather:

He used to say that there were only two sources of human vice:  idleness and superstition; and that there were only two virtues:  activity and intelligence. He occupied himself personally with his daughter’s upbringing, and to develop the two chief virtues in her, gave her lessons in algebra and geometry and portioned out her whole life among constant studies. He himself was constantly occupied, now with writing his memoirs, now with higher mathematical calculations, now with turning snuff boxes on a lathe, now with working in the garden and supervising the construction work that never ceased on his estate. As the main condition for activity was order, so the order in his way of life was brought to the utmost degree of precision. His coming to the table was performed under the same invariable conditions, and not only at the same hour, but at the same minute. With the people around him, from his daughter to the servants, the prince was brusque and invariably demanding and thus, without being cruel, inspired a fear and respect for himself such as the cruelest of men would not find it easy to obtain. Though he was retired and now had no importance in state affairs, every governor of the province in which the prince’s estate lay considered it his duty to call on him and, like the architect, the gardener, or Princess Marya, to wait at the appointed hour for the prince to come out to the high-ceilinged waiting room. And each person in the waiting room experienced the same feeling of respect and even fear at the moment when the immensely high door to the study opened and revealed the small figure of the old man, in a powdered wig, with small dry hands and gray beetling brows, which sometimes, when he frowned, hid the brightness of his intelligent and youthfully bright eyes.

Perhaps–beyond just plain delightful cadence–what makes these descriptions seem so good to me is the constant presence of social context. Prince Bolkonsky is eccentric but not unbelievable; he is the opposite of so many modern characters who are little more than a bundle of quirks vibrating neurotically in a void, disconnected from everyone. How a person interacts with and exists within their environment–physical and social–is bound up in a first description off them. Look, the book says, here is the world. And here is a person within that world. And here is the web that connects this person to all other people. Sometimes, as with poor Anna Pavlovna, the interpersonal world enacts distortions upon a personality; sometimes, as with Prince Nikolai, it’s the opposite. But it is always there, intertwined throughout everything.

I would not say that every author should make Society as much a theme as Tolstoy does, but I do wish that a more acute awareness of its centrality to human existence were found in modern fiction. I wonder why it is so unusual–something about technology and the narcissism of postmodernism, perhaps? (It is only going to get worse.) I digress. Tonight, while trying half-seriously to convince a friend that she should pick up the book as medicine for her own April, I said that I need someone to gossip with about the characters. This is part a joke but also quite true in that my primary impulse at any plot point is to call someone up to tut-tut over a disastrous marriage or form pacts of vendetta against certain people. I get like this with long books sometimes, sure. But Tolstoy particularly invites this response; the careful social positioning of everyone invites it because it ensnares the reader as well. It’s easy to feel complicit in the dynamics of those St. Petersburg soirees. This is interesting, but perhaps a bit too easy–is this why Tolstoy can be a comfort read whereas Dostoevsky would never serve that purpose? It really is all so easy. One never forgets where the characters stand in relation to one another, where Tolstoy stands in relation to them, and where you, the reader, are meant to be positioned by the author’s firm hands.

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