Monday, September 5, 2011

Tolstoy on 'hidden histories'

I mentioned in a May 26th post that I was then about 1/3 of the way through Tolstoy's War and Peace, behind schedule if I was to have any chance of finishing this classic work in a year -- which was my intention when I began it at the tail end of 2010.

Well, I'm still reading. I've slipped a little further behind, but mon dieu ... what an amazing work of fiction.

I'm now immersed in the opening pages of Volume III, that is, in Tolstoy's meditations on great movements of history in relation to the motives and ambitions of humanity's rank and file. It's odd and wonderful to be reading Tolstoy's observations on this topic little more than a week after I wrote of Hidden histories here on One Finger Typing, with no way to know what was coming next in War and Peace.

I would never presume to compare myself to an author whose work towers over all literature, as Tolstoy's does; I only shiver a bit to read words vaulted out of the mid-19th century and see that what mattered to the great Russian novelist then still matters 142 years after he published them.

I do not share Tolstoy's view of the inevitability of history, of "fatalism in history" as Pevar and Volokhonsky translated his words. But here, from Tolstoy's description of the forces leading to the French invasion of Russia in 1812 -- III.1.i, p605 in the edition I'm reading -- is what I meant to get at in my post of 26 May:

The actions of Napoleon and Alexander, on whose word it seems to have depended whether the event took place or not, were as little willed as the action of each soldier who went into the campaign by lot or by conscription. This could not be otherwise, because for the will of Napoleon and Alexander (the men on whom the event seemed to depend) to be fulfilled, the coincidence of countless circumstances was necessary, without any one of which the event could not have taken place. It was necessary that millions of men, in whose hands the actual power lay, the soldiers who shot, transported provisions and cannon -- it was necessary that they agree to fulfill this will of isolated and weak men and be brought to that by a countless number of complex, diverse causes.

Perhaps the most amazing aspect of this sprawling novel is one of which I am conscious precisely because I am reading it slowly, in fits and starts, interleaved between other novels, magazine articles, and all manner of miscellaneous reading. It is this: no matter if I've set War and Peace aside for a day, a week, or even a month, whenever I return to the story I am instantly immersed again in the flow of the story and the lives of the characters. Each chapter, each page, is rendered so fully, in such rich and true and quintessentially human focus, that returning to this novel is like taking up a life I had been living myself when I last visited its pages. Of course I remember where I was in the story ... because that is where I was. Right there in the room with Pierre, and Natasha, and Prince Bolkonsky.

At this rate it's going to take me sixteen months to make my way through War and Peace. I can tell already that on the day I come to the last page I'm going to be sad to leave this novel behind.





Thanks to Tschäff for an image of Ilya Repin's painting, "Leo Tolstoy in His Study," 1891, The State Literature Museum, Moscow, Russia.

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