Tolstoy replays history

The first instalments of the text that would later be known as War and Peace were published 150 years ago in the journal Russkii vestnik (The Russian Herald), under the title 1805. With this title, Tolstoy emphatically shifted his focus away from the novel’s main characters or message to its temporal dimension. In fact, Tolstoy seems to have been the first major author in world history to have tried to make a year the protagonist of a novel (Victor Hugo’s 1793 appeared nine years later). Yet, as was evident to readers from the very beginning, the narrative was always destined to spill over to the following years, and thus the title of the novel was bound to change. The reader’s attention was to be focused not on the isolated period defined in the title, but on the flow of history itself.

Indeed, from the start of his work on the future War and Peace, Tolstoy was particularly eager to distinguish his venture from a conventional novel. In all three variants of the introduction that he drafted more or less simultaneously with the early versions of the first chapters, he insisted that his book defied generic categorization. Draft One: “Traditions both of form and content oppressed me . . . . I was afraid that my writing would fall into no existing genre, that it would be neither novel, nor tale, neither long poem, nor history”. Draft Two: “We Russians in general do not know how to write novels in the sense in which this genre is understood in Europe . . . . with a plot that has growing complexity, intrigue and a happy or unhappy denouement”. Draft Three:

“This work is more similar to a novel or a tale than to anything else, but it is not a novel because I cannot and do not know how to confine the characters I have created within given limits – a marriage or a death after which the interest of the narrative would cease. I could not help thinking that the death of one character would only arouse interest in other characters, and a marriage seemed to me more like a source of complication than something likely to bring about a diminution of my readers’ interest.”

With each version of the draft, Tolstoy became more and more explicit about the characteristics of the traditional novel which seemed to him incompatible with his plan. In short, he was averse to the narrative pattern so aptly recommended to the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland: “‘Begin at the beginning,’ the King said gravely, ‘and go on till you come to the end: then stop’”. According to Tolstoy, history did not have beginnings or endings and thus, neither death nor marriage could serve as a denouement. In one of the best studies of War and Peace, Gary Saul Morson’s Hidden in Plain View (1987), this perception is seen as the main clue to the mystery of Tolstoy’s masterpiece. Tolstoy’s efforts, Morson argues, were directed towards conveying a sense of the openness and unpredictability of the future, of the existence of multiple unnarrated alternatives to any single possible narrative, such that “it is this conception of characters and incidents that led . . . to the instinctive and unexplained feeling that War and Peace is more like the world in which we live than any other novel, a ‘piece of life’ rather than a piece of art”.

All this is, of course, true. However, it is against this background that we should see the thing that is so evident that it is rather rarely mentioned. As the Russian scholar Sergei Bocharov perceptively pointed out, contrary to everything that Tolstoy says in all versions of his introduction about the general conception of the book, War and Peace is a conventionally structured novel that has its denouement in marriage.

Tolstoy introduces his male hero in the first extended episode of the novel. The female protagonist appears in the second, and in the final episode they find each other and reunite after the enormous calamities they have had to endure, including Pierre’s unhappy marriage, Natasha’s unhappy engagement with Prince Andrei and even more unhappy infatuation with Anatole Kuragin, wars, battles, duels, political intrigues and assassination attempts. As in ancient Greek romance, the ordeals of the characters include the sudden captivity of one of the lovers. This lasts only several months, much less than in, say, Daphnis and Chloe, but still long enough to disentangle all the knots that separate them, to leave them free and yet to change their personalities completely.

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