Weaknesses

Most of the fine things said about Tolstoy are true. However, Tolstoy does have his weaknesses, and the scope of War and Peace gives him room to display them.

There is his Russian populism, accompanied by assertions about every Russian:

.. this slender, graceful countess, brought up in silk and velvet, so foreign to her, who was able to understand everything that was in Anisya, and in Anisya’s father, and in her aunt, and in her mother, and in every Russian.

(Volume II, Part Four, VII). Or

that clear, unostentatious, and meek voice in which only clergy reading in Slavonic read and which affects the Russian heart so irresistibly.

(Volume III, Part One, XVIII). Perhaps, but I suspect that when Tolstoy’s heart was so affected he made a quick recovery; he doesn’t give the clergy in general much time. (And how does Natasha understand this prayer from the synod if it is in Slavonic; and if it is in Russian, then how does the priest manage the voice?) One hears about the dumb but vital nationalism of the muzhiks, who did not bring hay to the French in Moscow. Yet the muzhiks of Bogaruchovo seemed to need some hussars to make them think right.

There is his military nationalism, which for example presents the Prussians and Austrians as quick to surrender. Neither, particularly Prussia, had a hinterland the size of Russia’s. Felix Markham writes in his life of Napoleon that it was the Austrian resistance at Wagram that first caused Napoleon to doubt that battle was always the answer. There is at least a hint of Russian distinctiveness in the scorched earth policy and brutal partisan warfare; both were prefigured in the Peninsular War. Nowhere does he mention the massive subsidies Britain gave to Russia, and without which Russia could not have brought nearly so large an army into the field. That doesn’t make for interesting fiction, I agree.  Yet the reader who remembers history finds the picture of Russia against the world incomplete.

There is his view of women. Tolstoy is very good on girls (Natasha, Sonya), and good to very good on some mothers, notably the senior countess Rostov and her daughter-in-law Princess Marya. I don’t find Natasha as mother much of a presence. We hear that she is devoted to Pierre and her children; we hear that she breast-feeds her babies. But there isn’t much there, and he insists that there shouldn’t be. He is not good, in War and Peace, on fast women. One gets no sense of what, looks apart, attracts anyone to Elena Bezukhov. We can stipulate that men are easily pleased, and will represent as witty and clever any sufficiently attractive woman. Yet Tolstoy doesn’t make us feel that. In fact, he does not show us her stupidity, just leaves us to take Pierre’s word for it. And he shows women who aspire to think much in the way that Fielding shows them: they are a bit ludicrous, they are sterile.

Well, Randall Jarrell quotes somebody’s definition of a masterpiece as “a great work of art that has something wrong with it.” There is enough wrong with War and Peace. If I read it again, I will probably skip the tedious stretches of historical reflection. I will roll my eyes at many of the Kutuzov passages. But I suspect that whole dozens of pages will seem as remarkable as when I first read them years ago.

Tolstoy and Pascal

In Volume I, Part One, VI, Pierre and Prince Andrei are talking:

“Well, what makes you go to war?” asked Pierre.
“What makes me? I don’t know, I have to. Besides, I’m going . . .” He paused, “I’m going because this life I lead here, this life–is not for me!”

In Part II of The Pensees, “The Misery of Man Without God”, Pascal writes

One would not buy commissions in the army at such a price, if it were not found intolerable to remain in the city.

Which leads to the consideration that the revolution in Pierre’s character after his captivity perhaps comes from his discovering perforce “how to remain quietly in a room”, the inability to do which Pascal regards as the source of all human misfortunes.