Back in the saddle after a mini-vacation. I did not get any travel books on Tolstoy and fell behind on my reading, but have caught up this morning so that I am on page 170 of Volume VIII of the Works or up to Chapter V of Part Fourth of Anna Karenina.
The above photo, of Nikolai Gogol by Nabokov, is one of my last few travel books. I have read this at least twice and hope to share the underlined passages in this blog sometime this year. Here is a foretaste: “Impressions do not make good writers; good writers make them up themselves in their youth and then use them as if they had been real originally.” I’m not sure what that means but have no time to meditate on it right now. I think it maybe has to do with the truth Flannery O’Connor was getting at when she said anyone who has survived the first five years of life has enough memories to be a writer.
Once again I have been fighting with Resistance (see Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art) with regard to this Tolstoyan project. I should be writing “original” work, this is hugging the shore, etc. No one reads this anyway, how the hell will you turn it into a book and even if you do, no agent or publisher will want it, etc. And as Van Gogh said (see Brenda Ueland’s, If You Want To Write), the only way to quiet that voice is to work.
But I read 30 pages of AK and am once again amazed: by Tolstoy’s description of nature, by his descriptions of communications between family members, by his unflinching gaze at the realities of life. Unlike most humans, he could bear very much reality.
Nature: “Having accomplished all that he wished, he returned at nightfall, wet from the rivulets that trickled from his waterproof down his neck and inside his high boots, but in a happy and animated frame of mind. Toward evening the storm increased; the hail pelted so violently the drenched horse, that she shook her ears and her head, and went sidewise; but Levin, protected by his bashluik, felt comfortable enough, and he cheerfully gazed around him,–now at the muddy streams running down the wheel-tracks; now at the raindrops trickling down every bare twig; now at the white spots where the hail had not yet melted on the planks of the bridge; now at the dry but still pulpy leaf, clinging with its stout stem to the denuded elm.”
Family: “These two men [two brothers] were so related to each other, and there was such a bond between them, that the slightest motion, the sound of their voices, spoke more clearly than all the words that they could say to each other.
“At this moment both were thinking the same thought,–Nikolai’s illness and approaching death–dwarfing everything else into insignificance. Neither of them dared make the least allusion to it, and therefore all that either of them said failed to express what really occupied their minds–and was therefore false. Never before had Levin been so glad for an evening to end, for bedtime to come. Never, even when obliged to pay casual or official visits, had he felt so false and unnatural as that evening. And the consciousness of this unnaturalness, and his regret, made him more unnatural still. His heart was breaking to see his beloved dying brother; but he was obliged to dissemble, and to talk about various things as if his brother was going to live.”
Reality: “Death, the inevitable end of all, for the first time appeared to him with irresistible force. And death was here, with this beloved brother, who groaned in his sleep, and called now upon God, now upon the devil. It was with him also: this he felt. If not to-day, then to-morrow; if not to-morrow, then in thirty years; was it not all the same? And what this inevitable death was,–not only did he not know, not only had he never before thought about it, but he had not wished, had not dared, to think about it.”
A novel that includes such passages cannot be any better. Which reminds me that I did read a bit of George Steiner’s Tolstoy or Dostoevsky during my vacation and there was an interesting passage contrasting Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina, and saying that the latter was superior to the former, which assessment I agree with. You feel that Flaubert could come close to the above passages but that somewhere in them would be a sneering tone; there would be a revulsion rather than a plain sadness or mystery or awe. I don’t remember feeling awe at any point while reading Madame Bovary.
But here is Steiner: “Both novels are masterpieces of their kind. Zola regarded Madame Bovary as the summation of realism, as the supreme work of genius in a tradition going back to the eighteenth-century realists and to Balzac. Romain Rolland believed it to be the only French novel which he could match against Tolstoy ‘by virtue of its power to convey life, and the totality of life.’ Yet the two achievements are in no manner equal; Anna Karenina is incomparable the greater–greater in scope, in humanity, in technical performance. The similarity of certain main themes merely reinforces our sense of differing magnitudes. . . .
“There is a famous anecdote about Flaubert and Maupassant. The master instructed his disciple to choose a given tree and to describe it with such exactitude that the reader would mistake it for no other tree in the vicinity. In this injunction we may discern the radical flaw of the naturalists tradition. For in succeeding, Maupassant would have done no more than rival a photographer. Tolstoy’s use of a withering and flowering oak in War and Peace is a contrasting instance of how enduring realism is achieved through magic and the supreme liberties of art.”
I talk about this oak tree in one of my previous blogs and will search for it tomorrow. But Steiner’s words here, can be summed up by what Babel said: “Maupassant, he has no heart!”