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.

2 thoughts on “Weaknesses”

  1. Reading Part One of the Epilogue to War and Peace is rather like listening to the end of Don Giovanni, after the Don has been dragged off to hell. Everything is pleasant and sweet, but all the depth has disappeared. Nothing compelling remains.

    Nobody judges Don Giovanni on the basis of the last minutes of happy music that conclude the opera. However it is not quite the same with the conclusion of War and Peace. Plenty of us are dissatisfied with the way Tolstoy finishes the book. After the war is over, and once peace returns, the surviving characters that appear at the end of the book are portrayed as living a good, almost an ideal life. I prefer the series of flawed or at least incomplete lives with which we began the book. Throughout the second half of War and Peace, it seems that Tolstoy changes roles; he shits from an artist to a rather sententious philosopher or even a preacher. The reader is naturally interested in the subjects Tolstoy takes on. He has made us interested. Yet in changing roles he looses passionate vitality that enlivens his art and this loss is not redeemed by anything else.

    His theory of history is a bit pompous and unconvincing. Even when this theory is fictionalized, as in the character of Kutuzov, it is unbelievable. His portrait of happy family life is unconvincing and rather overbearing. The life goes out of his writing as it becomes more didactic. Too bad.

  2. To some extent Tolstoy idealizes Nikolai Rostov and his wife, I agree. But Pierre seems to caught up in something similar in spirit of not in detail to what he had hoped Freemasonry would be; and Natasha considers that he can do no wrong, she has given up her judgment to him. On the one hand, Tolstoy implies that this is how a wife should be, on the other hand he weakens the case by showing Natasha as believing in the importance of Pierre’s projects, when he shows Pierre as a kind and good man, but impractical. The rest of the characters are certainly not idealized: the old countess goes on living because she is not physically ready to die; Denisov is retired and unhappy about it; Sonya is a poor cousin again. One wonders what might become of the young Prince Nikolai Bolkonsky.

    Nikolai Rostov appears to be efficient as a landowner. Practical men generally get good treatment in the novel: think of Tushin and Timokhin. He appears to be limited in his sense of anything beyond the practical, except as he perceives it through his wife’s doings. Does he, as a prosperous farmer, interest the reader as he did when a poor hussar? I think not. Tolstoy shows Princess Marya as truly good, and now with a more practical scope of charity. I think that she may show to less advantage with only her husband’s occasional ill temper to trouble her; her father’s eccentricities and malice made for more drama.

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