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Tolstoy Journal, March 13, 2017: The Puritan and Epicurean

The above “travel book” is a Penguin edition of Tolstoy’s first novel translated by Rosemary Edmonds. I am including other translations of Tolstoy in my travel books just for another way of seeing; I hope to read them, as well, but priority goes to the other travel books about Tolstoy.

I have read up to page 184 of Volume V, or Chapter IV of Part Twelve of War and Peace. These pages were about Pierre’s waking up and walking through the streets of the burning Moscow and his rescuing of a little girl and then helping an Armenian family. The French arrest him and put him in prison. The other events are that his wife Ellen dies–of a heart attack or overdose–we’re not quite sure how, so far, and the news of the retreat from Moscow reaches the Tsar in St. Petersburg.

What struck me was again, Tolstoy’s view of Pierre’s inner mental life as he makes his way through Moscow, and then the elation he feels when liberated from his inner brooding life by action.

Here is the finest passage about this: “The noise of the crackling and the crash of falling walls and ceilings, the hissing and snapping of the flames, and the excited cries of the people, the spectacle of billowing, whirling clouds of smoke now thick and black, now dotted with gleaming sparks, now lighted up with solid, sheaf-shaped red and golden-scaled flames lapping the walls, the sense of the heat and the smoke, and the swiftness of motion, all served to produce upon Pierre the usual exciting effect of fires. This effect was peculiarly powerful upon him, because suddenly, at the sight of this fire, he felt himself liberated from the oppression of his thoughts. He felt young, gay, agile, and resolute.”

When we go from this scene to the soirees of St. Petersburg’s high society, the contrast is immense. You feel disgust, not so much at the comfort, etc., but that the people are talking about the war as if they are experts, when, really, they know nothing about it.

I can’t help feeling good that Ellen died. She was the closest thing to evil–well, her and her brother, Anatol–that Tolstoy portrays here: totally sensual beings who appear to have no inner life and see other people only as means to their enjoyments.

Here is a paragraph about their father, Prince Vasili, who had tried to steal Pierre’s inheritance from him, reading a declaration from the Russian Orthodox metropolitan to the sovereign at one of the soirees: “On the seventh of September, the same day as the battle of Borodino, Anna Pavlovna gave a reception, the flower of which was to be the reading of a letter from his eminence the metropolitan, sent to the sovereign together with a sacred picture of his holiness Saint Sergii. This letter was considered a model of patriotic, spiritual eloquence. It was to be read by Prince Vasili himself, who was renowned for his skill as a reader. (He had even read at the Empress’s!) His art of reading consisted in pouring out the words, now in a loud tone and now a tender murmur, absolutely independent of the significance of the words, so that it was wholly a matter of chance whether the roar or the murmur fell on one word or another.”

Forgive me, but this reminds me of some of the lectors one hears reading in some Catholic Churches.

Here are some passages from Rosemary Edmonds’ introduction to her translation pictured above:

“Tolstoy produced no work which did not contain a portrait of himself.”

“He is little interested in invention: his concern is with the experienced and the perceived. . . .”

“‘ [this is Tolstoy writing] . . . because at the time of writing it I was far from being independent in my forms of expression but was strongly under the influence of two writers: Sterne (his Sentimental Journey) and Topffer (La Bibliotheque de mon oncle).’

And, reminding me of Henry James’s dictum that sincerity is the main requirement for writing the novel, Tolstoy disliked the latter parts of his book because of “their insincerity: their ‘desire to put forward as good and important what I did not then consider good and important, namely, my democratic turn of mind.”

“We have Tolstoy the moralist who regarded life from beginning to end as a ‘serious matter’ to be lived accordingly; Tolstoy the fanatical seeker after God and justice among men, though an early period of scepticism had brought him to ‘the verge of insanity’.”

” . . . we live the conflict in Tolstoy between Puritan and Epicurean. At a very early age he recognized that his ‘tendency to philosophize’ was to do him’ a great deal of harm’, the weary mental struggle yielding nothing save an artful elasticity of mind which weakened his will-power, and a habit of perpetually dissecting and analysing, which destroyed spontaneity of feeling and clarity of reason.”

“We are caught up in the violence of the storm, we feel the ‘sublime moment of silence’ before the thunder-clap; we smell the damp smell of rotting leaf-mould in the orchard, hear the anxious twittering of the sparrows disturbed in the bush overhead and peer up and see the round green apples, ‘lustrous as bone’, hanging high on the old apple-tree, close to the burning sun.”

The following is a passage from a letter Druzhinin wrote Tolstoy about his writing: “One can say with assurance that all the pages you have written with love are admirable–but as soon as you grow cold your words get entangled and diabolical forms of speech appear . . . Above all avoid long sentences. Cut them up into two or three; do not be sparing of full-stops . . .Do not stand on ceremony with the particles, and strike out by dozens the words whichwho, and that.”

I included that last passage because it was good advice for any writer but also because of how Druzhinin uses the words “love” and “diabolical,” moral terms in his writing. You can’t get away from moral judgments in criticism.


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