Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The world that narrates itself

Readers always feel that Tolstoy is both an intrusive narrator—breaking in to explain things, telling us what to think, writing essays and sermons—and a miraculously absent one, who simply lets his world narrate itself. As Isaac Babel put it, “If the world could write by itself, it would write like Tolstoy.” There is a sense in which Tolstoy is saying to us—to dare a Tolstoyan reading of Tolstoy, for a minute—“I will gladly help you read Natasha’s or Pierre’s or the little princess’s face, but, really, anyone could do it. You don’t need me. For these are the largest, most universal, most natural emotions, not the precious little sweets of the stylish novelist.” The old prince, ignoring his son Andrei’s efforts to tell him about Napoleon’s designs, breaks into croaky song, and sings “in an old man’s off-key voice.” A few pages later, we see “the old prince in his old man’s spectacles and his white smock.” An old man with an old man’s voice and old man’s spectacles: Tolstoy pushes such characterization toward the simplest tautology: What was the old man like? He was like an old man—that is to say, like all old men. What is a young man like? He is like a young man—that is to say, like all young men. What is a happy young woman like? Like all happy young women. The Austrian minister of war is described thus: “He had an intelligent and characteristic head.” A character will tend to look characteristic in both senses of the word: full of character, and somehow typical.

There is a powerful tension in Tolstoy’s work between persons and types, the particular and the general, freedom and laws. The quintessential Tolstoyan atmosphere is one in which highly particularized characters, with their hairy fingers and short lips, experience universal emotions that might easily be transferred from one character to another. This is why the minor characters are as alive as the major ones. In the novel’s epilogue, Nikolai Rostov’s aged mother, the Countess, hears the conversation around her and suddenly perks up. She had finished her tea, Tolstoy writes, “and clearly wished to find a pretext for getting angry after eating.” Now, that is a very Tolstoyan observation, but it is not unique to the Countess. Almost anyone of a certain age in this novel might have felt the same way. (Chekhov, who learned so much from Tolstoy, is comparably subtle, but without the urge to generalize.)

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