I have read today’s travel book, A History of Russian Literature: From Its Beginnings to 1900 by D.S. Mirsky, once before and look forward to reading it again. Nabokov praised it and he hardly ever praised anything. Speaking of whom, I am wondering whether to get his Lectures on Russian Literature. Today I finished my re-reading of The Hedgehog and the Fox by Isaiah Berlin. I very much liked it and will continue copying out underlined passages with my comments.
I have read up to page 225 of Volume VI of the Works, that is, up to Chapter XVI of the Epilogue of War and Peace. These pages are about the families of Nikolai/Marya and Pierre/Natasha, about both their internal relations, between husbands and wives, and between each other, and between the women with one another, and so with the men, not to mention servants, etc., all what Tolstoy calls “microcosms” of the families. I can really think of nothing to quote here, nothing that stood out to me. These pages are not exactly boring but there is some urgency left out; maybe it is that he is attempting to describe basically happy families.
The only note of discord is that Pierre has been in Petersburg talking politics with other like-minded intellectuals. You can feel the beginnings of the Decemberist plot taking place. Pierre and his companions see the Russian government becoming more and more corrupt and domineering. Pierre wants to do something but Nikolai loses his temper and says if you rebelled and the government told me to put you away, I would do so.
Here are some more quotes from Berlin:
“History does not reveal causes; it presents only a blank succession of unexplained events. . . . Like Marx (of whom at the time of writing War and Peace he apparently knew nothing) Tolstoy saw clearly that if history was a science, it must be possible to discover and formulate a set of true laws of history which, in conjunction with the data of empirical observation, would make prediction of the future (and ‘retrodiction’ of the past) as feasible as it had become, say, in geology or astronomy. But he saw more clearly than Marx and his followers that this had, in fact, not been achieved, and said so with is usual dogmatic candour, and reinforced his thesis with arguments designed to show that the prospect of achieving this goal was non-existent . . . ”
“Throughout the 1850s Tolstoy was obsessed by the desire to write a historical novel, one of his principal aims being to contrast the ‘real’ texture of life, both of individuals and communities, with the ‘unreal’ picture presented by historians. Again and again in the pages of War and Peace we get a sharp juxtaposition of ‘reality’–what ‘really’ occurred–with the distorting medium through which it will later by presented in the official accounts offered to the public, and indeed be recollected by the actors themselves–the original memories having now been touched up by their own treacherous (inevitable treacherous because automatically rationalising and formalising) minds. Tolstoy is perpetually placing the heroes of War and Peace in situations where this becomes particularly evident.”
“And so Tolstoy arrives at one of his celebrated paradoxes: the higher soldiers or statesmen are in the pyramid of authority, the farther they must be from its base, which consists of those ordinary men and women whose lives are the actual stuff of history; and, consequently, the smaller the effect of the words and acts of such remote personages, despite all their theoretical authority, upon that history.”
“‘Only unconscious activity bears fruit, and the individual who plays a part in historical events, never understands their significance. If he attempts to understand them, he is struck with sterility.’ To try to ‘understand’ anything by rational means is to make sure of failure.”
“This, then, is the great illusion which Tolstoy sets himself to expose: that individuals can, by the use of their own resources, understand and control the course of events.”
“Utterly unlike her as he is in almost every other respect, Tolstoy is, perhaps, the first to propound the celebrated accusation which Virginia Woolf half a century later levelled against the public prophets of her own generation–Shaw and Wells and Arnold Bennett–blind materialists who did not begin to understand what it is that life truly consists of, who mistook its outer accidents, the unimportant aspects which lie outside the individual soul–the so-called social, economic, political realities–for that which alone is genuine, the individual experience, the specific relation of individuals to one another, the colours, smells, tastes, sounds and movements, the jealousies, loves, hatreds, passions, the rare flashes of insight, the transforming moments, the ordinary day-to-day succession of private data which constitute all there is–which are reality.”
Which reminds me that Virginia Woolf is listed as one of the translators of Talks With Tolstoy. Which made me want to see if VW said anything about Tolstoy in her Writer’s Diary. What I found were some passages wherein she says Joyce comes nowhere near Tolstoy (she was probably unaware how much Joyce would have agreed with her), how he is a woman-hater (distressing), and this in 1940: “I read Tolstoy at breakfast–Goldenweiser that I translated with Kot in 1923 and have almost forgotten. Always the same reality–like touching an exposed electric wire. Even so imperfectly conveyed–his rugged short cut mind–to me the most, not sympathetic, but inspiring, rousing: genius in the raw. Thus more disturbing, more ‘shocking,’ more of a thunderclap, even on art, even on literature, than any other writer.”
Well, that was worth looking up. Will have to read any of her essays on Tolstoy. Like especially that “rugged short cut mind” and “genius in the raw.” Makes me glad, too, that I am reading his Works.
Berlin: “Tolstoy’s purpose is the discovery of the truth, and therefore he must know what history consists of, and recreate only that.”
“The problem of historical movement is directly connected with the ‘power’ exercised by some men over others: but what is power? How does one acquire it? Can it be transferred by one man to another? Surely it is not merely physical strength that is meant? Nor moral strength? Did Napoleon possess either of these?”