It may have appeared that, as with many things, I abandoned prematurely my plan to write about all the hoity-toity literature I’d been reading. Surprise! I’d just been reading even hoitier, toitier literature (indeed, the hoitiest) such that it delayed my blog post. I’ve been reading War and Peace.*
I’m probably not adding much value as a commentator to say that War and Peace is a long book, but it is a long, long, long, book: 1358 densely-typed pages in the edition I’m reading. Additionally, I think there’s a certain difficulty in reading works in translation in general, and works from an earlier time period (and different culture) in particular. It’s very clear as you read the book that the translator (Anthony Briggs) is not as good of a writer as Leo Tolstoy. You can see lurking behind the translator’s English prose a shadow of the electrifying Russian idiom of the author: you’ll read an English turn of phrase (“feathered his nest” say), that’s just ever so slightly off in context, and you have the suspicion that the original was just a bit better.
The numbed language of translation also weakens one of Tolstoy’s tremendous strengths, which is his forthright, almost blunt discussion of the human condition. Tolstoy makes definitive statements about his characters and their motivations that you don’t really see in American literature, descriptions of the primary forces driving the actions of his characters that most American authors would eschew as unsubtle. Take, for example, Pierre Bezukhov’s not-quite-love affair with his horrible wife Helene: “At that moment Pierre suddenly felt that Helene not only could, but must, become his wife — it had to be so…. How it would happen and when, he didn’t know. Neither did he know whether or not it would turn out to be a good thing. — he had an inkling that it wouldn’t — but he did know it was going to happen.” The book is literally filled with statements like that, judgments Tolstoy passes on the psychology of his characters, neglecting the ephemera of specifics for a monumental intonation of the permanent. To my modern ear, I think it sounds a bit off, the seeming epitome of tell-but-not-show. One of the great pleasures of literature can be reading the description of a character’s thought process that rings absolutely and specifically true to our own, and translation is a tremendous barrier to that. Additionally, Tolstoy writes before the modernists’ stream-of-consciousness, so he’s not describing his characters’ internal dialogue quite so much as something else, deeper and more foundational, sometimes to a modern reader, this can read as overly certain, unsupported, and, ultimately, like Tolstoy is just bullshitting and repeating bromides about human nature.
And yet, the magic of Tolstoy is just that he’s right. He describes characters’ motivations in terms that seem hopelessly broad and unsophisticated: surely the psychology of losing a fortune in a rigged game must be different and more nuanced than he portrays? one thinks. But then, when I reflect on my own life, and how my own decisions are made, Tolstoy’s terse pronouncements ring as true descriptors of the seismic forces running beneath and ultimately causing my stream-of-consciousness: the knowledge already embedded in our mistakes that we are wrong even as we pretend otherwise, the magnetic pull of love that we sense instantly at first and then only slowly allow ourselves to consciously recognize over time; how the deep imprints of pointlessness and purpose each fight their way back and forth throughout our lives, each giving way to the other in turns, over the span of decades.
Part of this is Tolstoy’s very modern understanding of psychology and motivation, which he sees as extremely context-dependent and motivated by external forces. Tolstoy, perhaps uniquely among authors I’ve read, makes his characters come alive as people while at the same time realizing that our fundamental attributes drive us less than they are swept up in the wave of life and history. It’s a hazard of literature to assume that a character’s internal experiences (the subject of fiction) are the primary causal force driving their actions, that we control our own destinies. Tolstoy makes no such assumption: his characters are caught up in a human experience that they can neither understand nor escape. Despite their tremendous intelligence and their virtues, Tolstoy’s characters find themselves dragged along by forces beyond thier control: the desire for glory, love, depression, laziness, propriety, fear. His great achievement, however, is that he does not let this rob his characters of their dignity. Instead, by patiently painting the way their lives are experienced, their struggles and passions and tragedies, Tolstoy demonstrates that freedom is not the source of dignity, that their existences are rendered meaningful not in spite of larger forces to which they are a part but because of them. In our individualistic culture, we think of great characters as being the ones that impose their mark on history. To Tolstoy it is the reverse: the great characters are the ones upon whom history’s imprint can be seen most indelibly.