Blog Post

Tolstoy Journal, March 6, 2017, “a callous Homeric eye”

Today’s “travel book” is The Kreutzer Sonata, which I have read once. I think Tolstoy was channeling Dostoyevsky when he wrote it; it’s a powerful disturbing look at jealousy and misogyny.

I did read some Tolstoy this weekend, got up to page 73, Chapter XVIII of “Part Eleventh.” All about Pierre since the Battle of Borodino and the Rostof family’s evacuation of Moscow.

Tolstoy is just incredible. There is a chapter, devoted to Pierre falling asleep and dreaming after the battle, which is a small masterpiece. I despair of describing it adequately: it just gives that sense of fluidity you feel when dreaming and then the breaking in of reality, then the slip back into the waters of sleep. And, again, according to present day creative writing orthodoxy, you are not supposed to describe dreams, do flashbacks, etc. ad nauseam.

But Tolstoy keeps you interested, I’m convinced, not only through skill, but through sincerity. Caring about what he’s writing, which is life. That is: what is the meaning of it all? He asks the obvious questions, the childlike questions we stifle. Why are these men killing one another? Why are we ignoring the wounded men struggling past our house?

Here is a taste of the dream chapter, Chapter IX: “Pierre had hardly laid his head on his extemporized pillow before he felt himself going off to sleep; but suddenly, with almost the vividness of reality, he heard the bumm! bumm! bumm! of the firing, he heard cries, groans, the thudding of missiles, he smelt blood and gunpowder; and a feeling of horror and the terror of death took possession of him.

“He opened his eyes in a panic, and lifted his head from his cloak. All was quiet in the dvor. Only at the gates, talking with the dvornik, and splashing through the mud, some one’s man was walking up and down. Over his head, under the dark under side of the shed roof, the pigeons were fluttering their wings, startled by the movement which he had made in raising himself. The whole dvor was full of that powerful barnyard odor, which, at that instant, delighted Pierre’s heart–the odor of hay, of manure, and of tar. Through a chink in the shed roof he could see the clear, starry sky.”

The other wonderful part of the pages I read was the description of how the Rostof family packs up all their belongings, or as much as they can, the rugs, silverware, books, furniture, but then there are the wounded limping by the house. The count decides to let the wounded displace the possessions on the wagons, but his wife berates him for this. They are already so much in debt, how will they ever pay it off if they have no possessions? He doesn’t know what to do. But Natasha, who has recovered from her post-Anatol trauma, confronts her mother and the countess gives up; the possessions are unloaded, the wounded loaded. And though all concerned understand the countess’s wish to keep their possessions, all are elated when the possessions are given up. The joy of giving, of doing the right thing.

“All the household, as if grieved because they had not got at this work more expeditiously, took hold of it with a will, and made place for the wounded. The wounded men dragged themselves down from their rooms, and their pale faces lighted up with joy as they gathered around the teams.

“The rumor spread to the adjoining houses that the teams were going to start from the Rostofs’, and still more of the wounded came crowding into the Rostofs’ yard from the other houses. . . . So they gave up also the wardrobe wagon, and let the wounded from two neighboring houses have the use of it. All the household and the servants were full of happy excitement. Natasha had risen to a state of enthusiastically happy emotion such as she had not experienced for a long time.”

A lot is made of how Tolstoy changed from being a writer to being a moralist, but as Wilson will write about in the following passage, Tolstoy always had a strong moral facet to his work, it’s just that it came to the fore in his old age.

Here is the A.N. Wilson passage from his Tolstoy biography:

“We are often invited to think of Tolstoy as someone who spoilt his ‘art’ by trying to develop as a moraliser or a thinker. But in The Raid [his earliest completed story], there is no such division. It is because he can so cram his short story with detail of every human and natural kind–the captain lighting up a pipeful of cheap tobacco at the mention of his mother, the flocks of wild pigeons whirling above the broad ravine, the crickets and grasshoppers and thousands of other insects filling the roadside grasses with sound–it is all this massing of detail which leads naturally to the ‘moralising’. War is not an abstract thing. In The Raid we see a battalion of well-trained Russian soldiers, actual people with lives and personalities who are completely real to us, harrying some pathetic tribesmen. ‘Can it be that there is not room for all men on this beautiful earth under these immeasurable starry heavens? Can it be possible that in the midst of this entrancing Nature feelings of hatred, vengeance, or the desire to exterminate their fellows can endure in the souls of men?’ To know, to know deeply and closely, is to sympathise. And at the same time, there is a callous Homeric eye in Tolstoy which can see the behaviour of the soldiers who are looting the little village and recognise this too as an emanation of nature, of life.”

This passage with the mention of the “immeasurable starry heavens” reminds of me Prince Andrei’s vision of the blue vault of the sky on his first battlefield. It also reminds me of the story about James Joyce in Richard Ellmann’s biography: well, I couldn’t find it there, but I did find it at the James Joyce Centre website: “In a letter to his daughter Lucia in April 1935, Joyce mentioned having sent her some books by Tolstoy, and he told her that ‘How Much Land Does a Man Need’ was ‘the greatest story that the literature of the world knows,’ though he added that he also liked the story ‘Master and Man.’ Early in May he sent her more Tolstoy, including ‘Two Hussars,’ and told her he thought Tolstoy’s name meant ‘great’ in Russian.”

There are some other great quotes of Joyce about Tolstoy, one of them about how Tolstoy’s use of interior monologue inspired him.

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