Saturday, April 14, 2012

Diving Deeper 14 - War and Peace 10


It is interesting to note that Tolstoy himself, somewhat enigmatically, said of War and Peace that it was "not a novel, even less is it a poem, and still less a historical chronicle."  As we have seen large sections of the work, especially in the later chapters, are philosophical discussion rather than narrative.  This, I argue, was a characteristic of nineteenth century Russian literature.  He went on to elaborate that the best Russian literature does not conform to standard norms, and certainly War and Peace does not. Tolstoy regarded Anna Karenina as the first of his novels.

Library and Reading

Tolstoy in his study
Tolstoy was a prodigious reader.  In fact that library at his estate Yasnaya Polyana, long since his memorial museum, contained some 20,000 volumes.  So the following extract does not surprise us as it pertains to reading and study (as well as to alcoholic drinking - a common concern in Ireland as in Russia), and the character in question is Pierre, whom I have adjudged to show characteristics of Tolstoy himself along with Prince Andrei:

He read and read everything that came to his hand.  Returning home at night he would pick up a book and begin to read even while his valets were taking off his things... Drinking became more and more a physical and moral necessity alike.... Only after emptying a bottle or two did he feel vaguely that the terribly tangled skein of life which had appalled him before was not so dreadful as he had fancied.  He was always conscious of some aspect of that skein and with a buzzing in his ears he chatted or listened to conversation, or read his books after dinner or supper.  But it was only under the influence of wine that he could say to himself: "Never mind.  I'll disentangle it..."...

In the morning on an empty stomach all the old questions looked as insoluble and as fearful as ever, and Pierre hastily picked up a book, and was delighted if anyone called to see him. Sometimes he remembered having heard how soldiers, under fire in the trenches, and having nothing to do, try hard to find some occupation the more easily to bear the danger.  And it seemed to Pierre that all men were like those soldiers, seeking refuge from life: some in ambition, some in cards, some in framing laws, some in women, some in playthings, some in horses, some some in politics, some in sport, some in wine and some in government service. "Nothing is without consequence and nothing is important.   It's all the same in the end.  The thing to do is to save myself from it all as best I can, " thought Pierre.  "Not to see it, that terrible it."  (War and Peace, p. 636)

Engaging the Reader

All good literature, no matter what its provenance, engages the reader.  Novelists, if I may generalise here, are those lucky writers who manage to engage readers the most.  It is the literary genre most popular worldwide.  Novelists are lucky souls in my book, and to a great extent I envy them their success, not least their talent.  Now, what I love about good novelists like Tolstoy is that they engage the reader at the level of the soul.  That's why I say Tolstoy was a great existentialist writer, and I place him in the company of his fellow Russian writer Fydor Dostoyevsky, of whom I have written many times in these pages before, for their ability to engage the reader at a deep existential level.  In the above passage, it is very easy for the flesh and blood reader (if I may be somewhat ridiculously tautological here to emphasise my point) to identify with the thoughts and feelings of Pierre in the above quotation.  In other words, I have found with all the works of both these Russian authors that they have hooked me by these completely existentialist passages.  Indeed, we Irish are wont to sit in our public houses, and indeed at home more frequently these days, quaffing our alcoholic beverages while philosophising, theologising, sociologising or politicking or whatever.

Here endeth, dear reader, today's or tonight's meandering thoughts on Tolstoy's wonderful epic.  One could do worse than reading the above passage several times by way of a simple contemplation.

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