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Tolstoy Journal, February 20, 2017: Getting You Up Off Your Chair

I have now reached page 90 of Volume IV, or Chapter XVIII of Part IX of War and Peace. The fragile peace is over, war has started again, and Prince Andrei and Nikolai Rostof are back in the saddle. Pierre’s jaded wife returned to him and Natasha fell for Anatol Kuragin thus breaking her engagement with Prince Andrei. I could go on about the plot, which is tremendous–there are parts in both the descriptions of the war and the descriptions of the “peace” that are so powerful, I almost have to stop reading because it gets too emotional for me.

There is a quote from Carolyn See’s Making a Literary Life wherein she describes how while reading Stendahl’s The Charterhouse of Parma (which Tolstoy read and admired, especially the war scenes) at a certain scene she had to put the book down and walk around to recover her equilibrium. Here is her quote: “Somewhere in the middle of The Charterhouse of Parma, I had to take a walk around the house, during a battle scene. I hadn’t expected to. I was getting ready for qualifying exams in graduate school. I’d thought I was having a pretty miserable time reading, but Stendahl got me up off my chair.” Tolstoy can get you up off your chair.

One thing I find interesting while reading War and Peace is the sense of time passing. You see the characters go through their lives over years, decades. You live the life they are living. Things and people, change. For instance when you read about Prince Andrei wounded and looking up at the sky and realizing nothing and no one compares to that sky, that Napoleon is a little man, in more ways than one, you think he will keep that realization, that now he knows what life’s about; at least, I thought that.

But now Prince Andrei is back in the army and you read this: “In a new country, and under new conditions, life began to seem easier to Prince Andrei. After the faithlessness of his betrothed, which had affected him all the more seriously from his very endeavor to conceal from all the grief that it had really caused him, the conditions of life in which he had found so much happiness had grown painful to him, and still more painful the very freedom and independence which he had in times gone by prized so highly. He not only ceased to harbor those thoughts which had for the first time occurred to him as he looked at the heavens on the field of Austerlitz, which he so loved to develop with Pierre, and which were the consolations of his solitude at Bogucharovo, and afterwards in Switzerland and Rome; but he even feared to bring up the recollection of these thoughts, which opened up such infinite and bright horizons. He now concerned himself solely with the narrowest and most practical interests, entirely disconnected with the past, and busied himself with these with all the greater avidity because the things that were past were kept from his remembrance. That infinited, ever-retreating vault of the heavens which at that former time had arched above him had, as it were, suddenly changed into one low and finite oppression, where all was clear but there was nothing eternal and mysterious.”

Here are some more quotes from the Simmons biography:

pp. 78-79, “Hitherto Tolstoy had scribbled a fair amount on philosophy, music, and rules of conduct. In the meantime, the artist’s urge to understand and describe life had been imperceptively [sic] growing within him. In a sense, the diary he had been keeping on and off for four years was an unconscious apprenticeship in the novelist’s art of selection and analysis. Although dealing primarily with his own inner experiences, the diary reveals at this early stage one of the principal features of his process of creation: his intense, interest in fixing upon the semiconscious, suppressed motives of his actions. Even the unique rational approach to the study of his own nature, everywhere apparent in the diary in his love for classifications and subdivisions of all manner of human attributes, suggests his later talent for conquering the subconscious by an application of lucid understanding. Indeed, the transition from the self-analysis of the diary to his dissection of imaginary characters was an easy and natural one.”

This is a fascinating quote to me because I recently read and reviewed, for Washington Free Beacon, a volume of Reiner Stach’s biography of Kafka in which he noted the same thing about Kafka. You can get to my review via this link: A Portrait of Kafka’s Age I wrote there, quoting Stach, ” Like Thoreau, whom he resembles in some ways, Kafka learned to be a great writer in his diary, “a secret writing school of an utterly different provenance with only a single pupil, whose progress was not verifiable.” And this is important to me because the way I started writing was when I was a fresh born-again evangelical and I used to write down thoughts about my Bible reading and prayers into spiral-bound notebooks, and off and on, but very on since 2004, I have been an inveterate journal keeper. I’m hoping this translates to a particle of the greatness of Thoreau, Kafka, and Tolstoy, in my own writing, and it’s at least encouraging to know others have done the same before me.

Here is another Simmons quote:

pp. 79-80, “This fragment [A History of Yesterday] is a unique performance for a beginner. In its infinite detail, concerned largely with a minute analysis of his conscious and subconscious thoughts and feelings reacting to particular situations, the work has the distinct flavor or Proust and Joyce. The immediate model, however, was Sterne, whose influence is clear in the frequent digressions, in the mixture of trivial observations with commonplace aphorisms, and in the transformation of all the unexpected and confused associations of thought that enter the hero’s head as he falls asleep. The young Tolstoy reveled in his newly discovered power of analysis, but this exuberant abandon never again appeared in his fiction.”


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