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Tolstoy Journal, August 3, 2017: “War & Peace is in my opinion the best novel”–C. S. Lewis

The featured image is of another book I bought in Houston, The Portable Nineteenth-Century Russian Reader edited by George Gibian. I bought this because I love the photograph on the cover (entitled Tolstoy riding, Yasnaya Polyana by Karl Karlovich Bulla) and because I thought it would give me a good overview of the literary context of Tolstoy’s time. Also because I wanted to read some of the poems by Tyutchev which Tolstoy loved and wept over. Here is one of them:


Down from her head the earth has rolled

the low sun like a red-hot ball.

Down went the evening’s peaceful blaze

and sea waves have absorbed it all.


Heavy and near the sky had seemed.

But now the stars are rising high,

they glow and with their humid heads

push up the ceiling of the sky.


The river of the air between

heaven and earth now fuller flows.

The breast is ridded of the heat

and breathes in freedom and repose.


And now there goes through Nature’s veins

a liquid shiver, swift and sweet,

as though the waters of a spring

had come to touch her burning feet.


I am on track with my reading but have no new quotes to share from Tolstoy. But I did have a dream which included the writer Sheldon Vanauken, who wrote the moving A Severe Mercy. I exchanged a few letters with him way back when and always regretted not driving down to Virginia to visit him before he died. But dreaming of him got me to thinking of C. S. Lewis’s views of Tolstoy, so I am going to include a few of those today. All I can remember is that I read Lewis writing that he had read War and Peace three times and that reading Tolstoy always made him think in a different way than he had before.

Here is a passage from a letter Lewis wrote to Dom Bede Griffiths, who went on, interestingly enough, to found a Christian ashram in India:

War & Peace is in my opinion the best novel–the only one wh. makes a novel really comparable to epic. I have read it about three times. What we lose (I’m told) in our translations is the humour wh. is an important merit of the real book.”

There is another letter wherein he discusses art that also teaches. Lewis writes “that art can teach (and much great art deliberately set out to do so) without at all ceasing to be art.”  He dislikes Wells’s and Thackeray’s didactic novels because they are bad not because they teach. He includes Tolstoy in with writers who can teach without hurting their art.

Then in another letter to Griffiths he writes, “I have a taste for Dickens but don’t think it a low one. He is the great author on mere affection . . . : only he & Tolstoi (another great favourite of mine) really deal with it.”

I dug out my Collected Letters and find the following in a letter to Arthur Greeves:

“The most interesting thing that has happened to me since I last wrote is reading War and Peace–at least I am now in the middle of the 4th and last volume so I think, bar accidents, I am pretty sure to finish it. It has completely changed my view of novels. . . . [Here follows a paragraph about how he distrusts novels for their ‘narrative lust.’] Tolstoy, in this book, has changed all that. I have felt everywhere–in a sense–you will know what I mean–that sublime indifference to the life or death, success or failure, of the chief characters, which is not a blank indifference at all, but almost like submission to the will of God. Then the variety of it. The war parts are just the best descriptions of war ever written: all the modern war books are milk and water to this: then the rural parts–lovely pictures of village life and of religious festivals in wh. the relations between the peasants and the nobles almost make you forgive feudalism: the society parts, in which I was astonished to find so much humour–there is a great hostess who always separates two guests when she sees them getting really interested in conversation, who is almost a Jane Austen character. There are love-passages that have the same sort of intoxicating quality you get in Meredith: and passages about soldiers chatting over fires which remind one of Patsy Macan: and a drive in a sledge by moonlight which is better than Hans Andersen. And behind all these, and uniting them, is the profound, religious conception of life and history wh. is beyond J. Stephens and Andersen, and beside which Meredith’s worldly wisdom–well just stinks, there’s no other word.

“I go on writing all this because my pen runs away with me: meanwhile perhaps you have read the book long ago and even advised me to read it! If you have not, I strongly advise you to try it. Its length, which deters some people, will not frighten you: you will only rejoice, when the right time comes,–say after tea some day next autumn when fires are still a novelty–at that old, delicious feeling of embarkation on a long voyage, which one seldom gets now. For it takes a book nearly as long as War and Peace to seem as long now as a Scott did in boyhood.”

Interesting that he forgets, in the later letter to Griffiths, how he had got the humor the first time he read it. Reading these letters reminds how much I like reading Lewis because of his love of reading. Here is an excerpt from a letter which mentions AK briefly.

“And can one forget what sheer misery comes out of the divine (i.e. demonic) pretensions of romantic love–from Tristan & Anna Karenina down to the last poor little suicide pact in the ev. paper? And is it Being-in-love that really makes the happy marriage work? Isn’t it something different–higher? Eros won’t do without Agape.”

More of these tomorrow.



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