Tuesday, January 22, 2008

James Wood on Tolstoy

James Wood's recent review of the new translation of War and Peace touched upon that book's vision of war (one which, arguably, grew to cause Tolstoy's conversion to a nonviolent form of Christianity and to abandon the novel as a form for many years, almost until his death). Tolstoy's rejection of the great man theory of history, and his refusal to glorify (or even make sense of war), is underscored by Wood's reading:
Tolstoy is never greater in this novel than when, like Natasha at the opera, he refuses to make sense of warfare. Again and again, he reverses the martial tapestry and shoves the clumsy, illegible tufts of thread at us. Nikolai Rostov, standing on a wooden bridge in Enns, hears a rattling “as if someone had spilled nuts,” and a man falls beside him. A bullet sounds as if it were “complaining about something.” In one of the most beautiful of the novel’s scenes, Nikolai’s younger brother, Petya, riding with his comrades Denisov and Dolokhov, and some Cossack soldiers, foolishly gallops into a storm of French fire and is felled. His dying is described as if by his comrades, who cannot make sense of what is happening: “Petya galloped on his horse across the manor courtyard, and, instead of holding the reins, waved both arms somehow strangely and quickly, and kept sliding further and further to one side in his saddle.” Eventually, he falls heavily onto the wet ground. Denisov—he of the short, hairy fingers—approaches the body and, as he looks at Petya, “irrelevantly” recalls him once saying, “I’m used to something sweet. Excellent raisins, take them all.” There follows this extraordinarily moving sentence: “And the Cossacks glanced around in surprise at the sounds, similar to a dog’s barking, with which Denisov quickly turned away, went to the wattle fence, and caught hold of it.”

It is a very modern piece of writing and a very ancient one, as is so often the case with Tolstoy. Stephen Crane learned a great deal from Tolstoy about this kind of writing; in “The Red Badge of Courage,” a man with a shoeful of blood “hopped like a schoolboy in a game.” Ian McEwan uses a similar technique in the Dunkirk section of “Atonement.” But, if the hacking lament that sounds oddly like the barking of a dog is an example of modern estrangement, that young man gripping the wattle fence in grief and those startled Cossacks—especially the transfer of the emotion from the mourner to the Cossacks, from the involved audience to a less involved audience—seem almost Biblical. (In Genesis, when Joseph, in disguise, meets his brothers, “he wept aloud: and the Egyptians and the house of Pharaoh heard.”)

Though it has been said that the title War and Peace could also be translated as War and World (since the Russian word мир means both "peace" and "world"), that slippage is suggestive of the ways in which, for Tolstoy, the world always contains within it the possibilities of peace:
But the novel argues that no one understands war—indeed, that no one understands history. Napoleon says, on the eve of the battle of Borodino, “The chessmen are set up,” but a few pages earlier Pierre has likened war to a game of chess, only to earn Andrei’s scorn: “Yes . . . only with this small difference, that in chess you can think over each move as long as you like, you’re outside the conditions of time.” It is not, of course, a small difference; it is everything. If no one can understand war, then simply to fear for one’s brother, and to be horrified, is precisely to understand what can be understood of war. It is the right response, within the possible “conditions of time.” War has its “conditions of time,” and peace does, too.

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