Monday, June 13, 2016

`A Misplaced Button May Tell All'

Anxiety over not having enough to read has haunted me since I was a boy. I tend to pack too many books when traveling, afraid of running out. In 1968, on a family visit to Florida, I brought along all four of J.D. Salinger’s books, a paperback anthology of Tolstoy’s writings on pacifism, and Henri Troyat’s Tolstoy (trans. Nancy Amphoux, 1967), a bestseller I had ordered from the Book-of-the-Month Club. Call Salinger and the Tolstoy nonfiction youthful indiscretions, never to be repeated by the adult me. The Troyat volume was something else, the biography of a writer I already admired extravagantly that read with the drama and life-density of first-rate fiction. Reading it, I learned the word “solipsism,” which would certainly find frequent application later in life, and I resolved to someday visit Yasnaya Polyana. Tolstoy is a book I have often thought about reading again, and now, thanks to V.S. Pritchett, I am.

In Complete Collected Essays (1991), Pritchett’s review of the book is titled “The Despot.” Pritchett had an admirable weakness for the great Russians, as all writers and readers ought to. His opening sentences suggest why Pritchett may have been the last century’s finest English-language critic:

“The life of Tolstoy is a novel that might have been written by Aksakov in its beginning, by Gogol in the middle and by Dostoevsky in the years following the conversion. He was not so much a man as a collection of double-men, each driven by enormous energy and, instinctively, to extremes. A difficulty for the biographer is that while we grin at the sardonic comedy of Tolstoy’s contradictions and are stunned by his blind egotism, we are also likely to be infected by his exaltation: how is this exclamatory life to be brought to earth and to be distributed into its hours and days?”

Had Tolstoy not been a genius, had he been merely a Sholokov-like drudge, he would have been insufferable, worthy of banishment from our consideration, most likely forgotten or remembered only as a megalomaniac of world-class proportions. Instead, his is a life, like Dr. Johnson’s, in which each of us can read our own, but on a grander scale. Troyat has a way of seamlessly weaving details of daily life and the contradictory sensibility of Tolstoy into his narrative. His writing is novel-like without lapsing into outright fiction or psychological speculation. His own complicated and contradictory nature suffuses his characters. Pritchett quotes a marvelous passage by Troyat in which he describes Tolstoy’s love of quarreling, his endless promises to stop and failures to do so, which Pritchett calls “a sort of moral slyness.” Here is Troyat’s sentence:

“Impenitent old Narcissus, eternally preoccupied with himself, he blew on his image in the water, for the sheer pleasure of seeing it come back when the ripples died away.”

Pritchett goes on to say it is only during the “rippling stage” that Tolstoy is an artist. “He is watchful as an animal,” Pritchett writes, “that sees every surface movement, he builds his people from innumerable small details of things seen. A misplaced button may tell all.” Reading of Tolstoy’s childhood at Yasnaya Polyana reminds me of the country estate scenes described by Nabokov early in Ada (a novel parodically haunted by Tolstoy’s spirit). Tolstoy and his family moved to Moscow when he was not yet nine years old. Though he returned and wrote his best work there, his childhood (like Nabokov’s) took on the nostalgic life of its own. Here is Troyat:

“Winter evenings also had their charm. The entire family shut itself up, shivering, into the main house, isolated by snow and silence. The tile stoves crackled. Time passed with delectable slowness. Numb with contentment, little Leo told himself that no house in the whole world was more beautiful than the one in which he had been born.”

1 comment:

Di said...

From John Bayley's Tolstoy and the Novel:
“... Indeed we might make a distinction, in the context of Russian and Western literature, between the author who writes about himself and his experiences, and the author who exists. Gide writes about himself: Tolstoy writes about himself: but with the former we feel the will to create and impose upon us the idea of a unique and significant person; with the latter, only the transparent statement of an existence. It is the same with the comparison, made by Thomas Mann and others, between Goethe and Tolstoy. Both are supreme egotists. But Goethe is absorbed by himself because he is a national genius, a god-like apparition; Tolstoy, because he finds himself experiencing what all other human beings experience. Goethe’s self-preoccupation strikes us as perpetually narcissistic, incapable of disturbing its own image; Tolstoy’s is the egotism of a man like any other, but immensely more so.
[…] For surely the collapse of the sense of existence in Tolstoy is the surest proof both of how superb and how universal it had been? All of us are subject to such a temporary collapse: Tolstoy experienced it on an overwhelming scale. Tolstoy’s embodiment of a kind of universal physical existence would be nothing if it had not been so continually haunted and obsessed by the question of what there was, what there might be, outside himself. A Tolstoy who continued to write novels of the same kind would be an intolerable phenomenon, for his egotism seems to encompass all physical existence. But what grows with it, haunts it, and finally dominates it, is the admission of its limitations, the confrontation of self with what is not self, of life with death. Tolstoy is not ill, not perverse; he plays out in himself, and on his scale, the most universal and inevitable of human dramas. He is the state of our existence: he does not, like Goethe, attempt to conquer it and to put himself above it. Ultimately, as Thomas Mann comes near to admitting, Goethe cared for nothing but himself. Tolstoy was nothing but himself, and his sense of what awaited him, and what was outside him, is correspondingly more intimate to us all, and more moving...”