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Tolstoy Journal, March 7, 2017, “a chiel amang them”

The Selected Letters of James Joyce is not really one of my Tolstoy “travel books” but it is a source of that quote I was discussing yesterday in which Joyce praises Tolstoy. The original letter to his daughter, Lucia, was written in Italian but I will give the translation given in the book: “Dear Lucia:  . . . I hope you have received the volumes of Tolstoy. In my opinion How Much Land Does a Man Need is the greatest story that the literature of the world knows. I used to be very fond also of Masters and Servants even though a bit of propaganda perhaps enters into it.”

So there you have it. What Joyce calls Masters and Servants, I think is usually called Master and Man, and I agree with Joyce that propaganda enters into it in that the ending seems a bit contrived in order to drive home the moral.

I have read up to page 98 of Volume V, or Chapter XXIV of Part Eleven of War and Peace. The pages I read last night, though amazing, as Tolstoy’s almost always are, lagged a bit for me, which surprised me and makes me wonder if the fault is mine. They described how Pierre stayed behind in Moscow in a passive stupor, hiding like an ostrich in the library of his former benefactor who introduced him to the Freemasons, and then go on to describe how the workers have been left in the city to get drunk and fight, then wander around trying to figure out what’s going on. They gradually realize that the elite has left them behind and they try to catch the chief of police who initially cowers them.

I’m not sure why all this lagged a bit for me; all I can think of is that it’s because you don’t know any of the people, except Pierre, involved, they are totally new to the reader. And I had forgotten another amusing part of these pages–how Napoleon is overjoyed to see Moscow and keeps waiting for the deputation to come meet him, he fantasizes about being merciful to the Russians and how they will admire and obey him, but the problem is the deputation never comes, everyone but the workers and servants have fled, there is no deputation, no homage. What a let down! One wonders if this is a hint of Tolstoy’s future admiration of the doctrine of non-resistance of evil. What finally did Napoleon in was that no one fought him at Moscow. There was no one to conquer. However, I think the description of Napoleon is perhaps a bit exaggerated in its comedy. Again I was reminded of our Fearless Leader and how such men are driven by the need to be loved, at least partly so.

I was also reminded of Lenin and the revolution in 1917. These pages describing the workers wandering through the streets seemed to be a prophecy of future revolution.

The following is a passage that struck me as vintage Tolstoy. It describes workers singing in a pub, and one of them who becomes their leader:

“One of them, a tall, fair-complexioned young fellow, in a clean blue chuika, or peasant coat, was standing up as their leader. His face, with its delicate, straight nose, would have been handsome had it not been for the thin, compressed, constantly twitching lips, and the clouded, ugly-looking, unchanging eyes. He stood over them as they sang, and, apparently possessed by some fancy, he solemnly, and with angular motion, waved his white arm, bare to the elbow, while he tried to spread his dirty fingers to an unnatural extent. The young fellow’s sleeve was constantly coming down, and he kept tucking it up again with his left hand, as if it were especially important to keep that white, blue-veined, restless arm entirely bare.”

The last sentence is where Tolstoy shows his genius. I think any good writer could have written what comes before, but Tolstoy caresses the Nabokovian divine detail by mentioning the sleeve coming down and the man tucking it back up. That is something we all have done, wanting ourselves to appear a certain way, and developing a tic to do so. And the “white, blue-veined, restless arm” can’t be unseen. It’s the kind of behavior you notice but forget to write down.

Here are some more passages from Wilson’s Tolstoy:

“Tolstoy, like all true writers, carried his life about with him, created the very cocoon of observant detachment, indolence and sensuality in which a creative mind flourishes.”

“Like many detached minds, Tolstoy was perfectly capable of deriving enjoyment from the company of those he despised (and, conversely, capable of hating, in the pages of his diary, those whom in life he found congenial). It wa a gift which was to bring him torment when he married, but as a shy aristocrat, stuck in a mess with a miscellaneous group of men, it helped him through.”

“The officers began to be aware that there was a ‘chiel amang them’, noticing and observing and storing things in his memory.”

I had to look up that word “chiel” which I had never heard of. It means “fellow” or “lad,” and comes from the Scottish. Upon further research “chiel amang them” appears to be a common Scottish phrase.

“Yet he was not a leader. He seemed to be something of a joke. They were amused alike by the ugliness of their new companion, as by his manners; his surly silences were broken by passages of fluent and ultra-well-spoken ‘dinner conversation’ of a kind which would have been more appropriate at the table of a Moscow princess than in a mud hut in the Crimea. They were half amused and half troubled by his extreme moral vulnerability. Sometimes he would simply disappear and they did not know where he was. They would find him in old clothes sitting with the house serfs, or chasing girls, or playing cards.”


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