Reading left to right

August 26, 2020

Nearing the end of a two-week vacation, I’ve managed now to reach the midway point of “War and Peace”, having started over from the beginning. I reached the end of the novel but there were many chapters I had skipped, and I’m sweeping through now, from the beginning, to read those.

Wonderful to find the hare-chase, in this run-through, right after the wolf-hunt.

And that sledge race, with all the kids in drag, is a new highlight of the book for me.  Imagine what a movie could have done with it.  On the page, it’s as fun and enchanting as anything I’ve ever read.  Yes, Tolstoy obviously set out to make it a scene about the magic of youth, but it succeeds wildly.

Up to now I had read only the “highlight scenes” of the novel’s first half, so I would have missed this scene if I hadn’t decided to go back and sweep up everything.  It has no place in the plot; Natasha at this time is just bored and waiting for Andrey.  It’s there just because Tolstoy wanted it.

Imagine, too, what a movie could have done with that Russian cavalry charge at Austerlitz, which Nikolai is unable to escape.  (Was this in Bondarchuk?)  Tolstoy makes this so vivid, I felt like I was watching Rohan’s charge again.  But nothing compares to his simple statement, ending the story, that there were only 18 survivors of this great host.  Tolstoy gives them to us in their glory, and barely reports the aftermath, which makes the fact land like a shock.

Natasha has three great scenes in which her singing deeply affects, in turn: Nikolai after his night of losses at cards; Andrey as he’s falling in love with her; and her mother during the foreboding Christmas season in which Andrey is missed most.  Only the Nikolai singing is featured in the BBC series and it’s completely forgettable there.

Reading through like this I also discovered something critical about Andrey.  He has a way of thinking that to our ears sounds primitive, reactionary and occasionally heartless.  Read, for example, what he says about peasants, shortly before boarding that ferry on which he has his famous whats-it-all-about conversation with Pierre.  I had read his comments about the peasants in my first run-through the book, and I had figured that the movie predictably left it out because his words are so unfashionable.  But reading everything now, I see that Andrey freed his serfs, actually gained a reputation as something of a liberal, and even accomplished with little effort all those reforms that Pierre talked about and failed to put in place.  So in the book, this puts a new light on Andrey’s reactionary-sounding words.  You start to suspect that his practical side, his side of “action”, works differently, more expansively, than his intellectual mind.  To put it simply, he’s a better man than his mere words. And that’s interesting. 

Tolstoy doesn’t make him a cynic-with-a-heart-of-gold; he doesn’t work that angle at all.  He just reports Andrey’s practical actions and their results, and this leaves interesting questions about his character.

It also raises questions about the nature of reform, and about change in general.  Tolstoy tells us how Pierre’s grand plans fail, and he does so in such remorseless detail that it leaves you discouraged about the possibility of change.  He made me think that, well, real change is complex, and systematic.  Pierre allows mothers who have children to not work the landlord’s land; but Tolstoy tells us that this left the women having to work even harder on their own lands.  Point taken:  these problems are systematic, and a mere decree by one individual won’t do.  Maybe it takes a lot of individuals banding together – and maybe even that would not be enough, if met with widespread resistance.

But it turns out that Andrey, on his own estates, accomplishes reforms with comparatively little effort; and Tolstoy says this is because Andrey, unlike Pierre, follows through, without flitting away to some new project. 

So one good man, at least in his own sphere, can do quite a lot.

And maybe Pierre is not the best of men – something we can too easily forget of the “hero” of any novel.

I was mildly surprised that the first half of the novel is entirely narrative.  It contains none of those historical essays-within-the-novel that “War and Peace” is so famous for. Those begin with Napoleon’s invasion of Russia.

One advantage of reading in this sequence is that I can clearly see when Tolstoy is foreshadowing something.  I’ve been able to link up passages throughout the novel that have common themes.

If I had read strictly left-to-right, going straight from page 1 to the end and not going back for anything, I would have come to Nikolai’s rescue of Princess Marya in the second half of the novel, and there is no way I would have remembered a similar but far more minor episode hundreds of pages before, when Nikolai rescues a nameless Polish woman and her daughter.  In both scenes he pushes back briefly against officers who want to abuse the vulnerable women; but I would not have remembered the first.

I think these little touches, even subconsciously, if you don’t consciously remember them, make the reader accept the people in his novel as real, believable characters.

Incidentally all this foreshadowing in Tolstoy reminds me of Tolkien.  I’ve heard Tolkien criticized for foreshadowing certain things in order to get across certain lessons, as when Gandalf and others say early on, and repeat later, that Gollum may yet have some role to play, hence the importance of taking pity on all beings: and then, exactly as foreshadowed, Gollum has a role to play in the Ring’s destruction.  You can see similar things with Tolstoy: how his characters talk about the importance of fellowship and forgiveness; and then fate brings Andrei and Anatole together, in time for Andrei to forgive him.  Viv Groskop, the reviewer I linked to earlier, says about such scenes that Tolstoy is “just so didactic.”

I’d always assumed that Tolkien was a lesser writer than the true giants of literature (such as Tolstoy), and that his on-the-nose foreshadowing was one sign of this.  But it turns out that Tolstoy does this too.  And that means that, sure, Tolkien might be lesser than Tolstoy, but if so, the foreshadowing and the didactic morality are not the reasons.  These qualities in a novel make it great.  Certainly, if the novel is crude about it or gives you some lesson that feels false, then those are genuine weaknesses.  But if the lesson is a great one and it is infused into the characters and made to come alive in what they go through, that is something worth having. 

I think the problem some have here is merely that any novel that arranges the story of human existence, in such a way as to highlight anything, is going to feel, perhaps, didactic.  Anything that is not the mere “neutral” recording of unvarnished life is going to feel like an effort to shape experience in a certain mold, for certain purposes.  But isn’t that effort what we call art?

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