Read the chatscript from the November 5, 2014 #LitChat session with Dana Sachs and Andrew D. Kaufman here.
Twice in the last month, prominent authors have mentioned Leo Tolstoy in the New York Times feature “By the Book,” and they expressed strikingly different views of him. Maybe the most interesting distinction between these two writers, though, is not the difference in their views. It’s the fact that one of them has actually read Tolstoy (and loves him). The other hasn’t.
The novelist Jodi Picoult brought up Tolstoy first, in answer to this question: “Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?” In response, Picoult said, “The one genre I absolutely cannot stand is Russian literature. You need genealogy charts to just figure out the characters, every novel is a thousand pages and pretty much everyone dies. One year my son went on a Russian lit kick and tried to get me to read some Tolstoy, but I just couldn’t. Life’s too short. Which, come to think of it, is coincidentally the theme of most Russian literature, too!”
Two weeks later, the nonfiction author Atul Gawande brought up Tolstoy again, this time in answer to the question, “Who is your favorite novelist of all time?” Gawande, who has actually read Tolstoy, responded, “First, I should confess that while I’m an avid reader of fiction, I’m an amateur. I still have swaths to catch up on. But keeping that in mind, my all-time favorite novelist is Leo Tolstoy. He had this extraordinary capacity to see all the forces coming to bear on people at any given moment — desire, family, culture, history, accident — and to somehow bring the relevance of those forces alive without beating you about the head with it.”
Sachs and Kaufman Live in #LitChat
Besides the obvious lesson offered by these examples—don’t make generalizations about an author or genre you haven’t read—the fact is that, a hundred years after Tolstoy’s death, he remains absolutely relevant to our discussions about literature and its connection to our lives. With that idea in mind, I embarked on a free-ranging discussion of Tolstoy and War and Peace with Andrew D. Kaufman, literary scholar and author of the new book Give War and Peace a Chance: Tolstoyan Wisdom for Troubled Times. Please contribute your own thoughts about Tolstoy and his work in the comments section below. And we also invite you to join us November 5 (4 to 5 p.m. EST) in #LitChat when I lead a live Twitter discussion with Andrew Kaufman about Tolstoy and his work. You can follow #LitChat from Twitter or login to our dedicated channel at www.nurph.com/litchat. ~ Dana Sachs
DS: You’ve read War and Peace fifteen times yourself and you’ve dedicated much of your professional life to studying and writing about Tolstoy. Why this book? Why Tolstoy?
ADK: It’s difficult to pinpoint why exactly we fall in love, or stay in love, with a writer. I’ve heard it said that you know you love someone when you like yourself more around that person. Well, that’s what happens to me when I read Tolstoy—especially War and Peace. The novel just makes me feel good about being alive, about being a human being. There’s an optimism about life and about humanity that radiates throughout this book and of all Tolstoy’s works, even the darkest of them. Yes, there is brutality and ugliness everywhere in his fiction (just read the war sections of War and Peace). And yes, characters suffer and search and hit dead ends. Yet you still always feel that their lives are very much worth living. This spirit of optimism rooted in reality is captured in something Tolstoy one wrote in his diary. “Man is flowing. In him there are all possibilities. He was evil, now he is good. He was stupid, now he is clever, and the other way around. In this is the greatness of man.”
DS: How has your own reading of the book changed over time? Do you see different things in it now than you did on your earlier readings? Can you give some examples?
ADK: Absolutely. Every time I read it, it becomes a new book for me, resonating with whatever is most alive in me or whatever I’m dealing most with, at that point in my life. The whole theme of troubled times—which I now see as central to the novel—is one I never even really paid attention to in my younger days. I was finally able to hone in on this central aspect of the book, because I myself was living it. In 2008 my family and I went through a financial crisis, and all of a sudden I saw that War and Peace is, at its deepest level, a book about a society going through a time of rupture. Peoples’ lives are being turned upside down by the forces of war and change, and they have to figure out how to live and find fulfillment in such times. I tell my personal story in my book, Give War and Peace a Chance, and it’s probably no accident that one of the very first chapters I wrote was called “Rupture,” which ended up as Chapter 3. I can say that there are a few aspects of War and Peace that have resonated with me every time I’ve read it. Pierre, for instance, is a character I immediately resonated with when I first read the book as a sophomore in college, and he is still one of my favorite characters, figuring prominently into my own book.
DS: There are so many great literary epics. Is there something essential that you feel a reader would miss if they skipped War and Peace?
ADK: One of the things they’d miss is that spirit of optimism rooted in reality that I described earlier, that faith in human promise that is quintessentially Tolstoyan. They’d also miss out on a writer who captured the nuances of everyday reality more powerfully and precisely than any other writer I know. They’d miss out on a book that sets out to do nothing less than recreate what Tolstoy called “life in all its countless, inexhaustible manifestations.” And they’d miss out on an epic that deals specifically with Russia, a country that is both fascinating in its own right and also important for all of us to understand better—these days especially. To not read War and Peace during one’s lifetime is to miss out on one of the great personal, historical, and literary journeys a person will ever take.
DS: What was your goal in writing Give War and Peace a Chance?
ADK: I had three main goals. First, I wanted to offer a highly readable companion to the novel that would make it more accessible and enjoyable to readers—a companion that would make their reading of War and Peace both meaningful and fun. Second, I wanted to guide readers through the wisdom Tolstoy offers on a whole host of life issues (family, happiness, love, death, perseverance, etc.) that are every bit as important today as they were in his time. And third, I wanted to write a book that would inspire, entertain, and enlighten readers in its own right, regardless of whether they were going to read Tolstoy or not. One of the features of my book that I’m most satisfied with is how I interweave background information about the novel with characters’ stories, stories from Tolstoy’s life, and stories from my own 25-year journey with the writer. Many readers and reviewers have said that the braiding together of these different dimension was one of the things they most appreciated about my book.
DS: Members of our book club pointed to moments in War and Peace in which Tolstoy offers terrific revelations on human nature. For example, Jay noted how “Pierre, upon his inheritance, suddenly starts to sincerely ‘believe in his extraordinary kindness and his extraordinary intelligence, the more so because, deep in his heart, it had always seemed to him that he really was very kind and very intelligent’ [which] was a wonderful insight into the psychology of the 1%.” And Christie loved the moment when the old prince, discussing wives with his son, Prince Andrei, says, “They’re all like that, no use unmarrying.” I imagine that moments like these formed part of the inspiration for the subtitle of your book, Tolstoyan Wisdom for Troubled Times. Can you talk about that a little?
ADK: Yes, Tolstoy’s extraordinary talent as an artist is matched by his profound insight into human nature. And that was one of the main reasons I wrote my book—to offer readers a guide through the life wisdom Tolstoy offers us in the novel. I like that the two examples you give happen to be from the peace sections of the novel. In my view the phrase “troubled times” doesn’t just refer to war or social chaos, or even necessarily to the socio-political environment in which the events of the novel take place. It refers to those moments of hardship, struggle, crisis, and uncertainty that all human beings experience, whether in peace or in war. When the novel opens, Pierre is 20 years old, he’s just inherited the largest fortune in Russia, and yet emotionally he’s a mess. He is insecure and searching for his place in the world. What 20-year old can’t relate to that? As Tolstoy understood so well, even the 1% have their insecurities. That’s why he doesn’t judge; he simply portrays.
DS: As anyone who reads it realizes, War and Peace is not just a novel. In fact, Tolstoy didn’t even call it a novel. The book mixes a thrilling dramatic narrative with a philosophical treatise on the nature of history and war. He wrote the whole thing in six years, which seems fast considering its length, its quality, and the research involved. Can you give us some background on how he managed to create such a masterpiece in that amount of time?
ADK: Yes, in fact, one of his greatest struggles in composing this book was in how to define what genre it belonged to. Many of the early reviewers were scratching their heads, trying to figure out whether this book was a love story, a family chronicle, a war story. In response to those early negative reviews Tolstoy wrote that because such generic distinctions are not true to life, they have no place in literature either. “What is War and Peace?” he wrote. “War and Peace is not a novel, still less an epic poem, still less a historical chronicle. War and Peace is what the author wanted and was able to express, in the form in which it is expressed.”
In terms of the actual writing itself, Tolstoy had two important things going for him, in addition to his extraordinary talent and discipline. He owned a thousand-acre estate with 300 serfs. He didn’t have to work for a living, and had people to care for him and his family. He had the luxury of time, something most of us don’t have today. He had freedom to spend six years thinking and creating. And he had a devoted wife who copied the novel seven times. At the end of each writing day, Tolstoy would give that day’s writing to his wife, who would then repair to her boudoir until late in the night copying out Tolstoy’s prose in handwriting that was legible enough for him to read (which he himself often couldn’t.) Then it would all be waiting for him the next day at his writing desk.
DS: War and Peace is a grand-scale epic, but one of the things I love best about it is the richness of tiny telling detail, particularly in the individual human beings who populate the book. Tolstoy never wastes a chance to describe somebody, from the red blotches on Princess Marya’s face to the careful way that Platon, the prisoner, unwraps the rags around his feet. Is this earthy quality in Tolstoy’s style something that you see often in Russian literature? Is it particular to him? And how would you say that it affects the overall experience of the book?
ADK: There’s a famous book of Russian literary criticism by Dmitry Merezhkovsky who argued that Tolstoy and Dostoevsky represent the two poles of nineteenth-century Russian literature, with Dostoevsky being the great seer of the spirit and Tolstoy the great seer of the flesh. While I think that juxtaposition is a bit too schematic, it does capture something essential about Tolstoy’s art: that he was a writer who portrayed the physical and natural world as well as any other writer, Russian or otherwise. There are of course profound spiritual moments in War and Peace, but the whole book is infused with a love of the earth, the land, the physical details of everyday life to such a degree that it makes you feel almost as if you’re reading a slice of life, and not literature. In this respect Tolstoy represents the pinnacle of Russian realism. No writer before or after him captured reality on the page quite as well.
DS: In your book, Give War and Peace a Chance (p. 121), you mention that Russians, even after 150 years, remain besotted by the character of Natasha. In fact, you quote a Moscow taxi driver as saying about her, “Now, there’s a real Russian girl for you!” So, here’s a confession: I got tired of her self-absorption and conceit. When Tolstoy described Natasha one morning as “return[ing] again to her favorite state of love and admiration for herself,” (p. 477) I began to wonder if maybe Tolstoy was trying to put some negative shade on her character, too, making her a bit less perfect and, perhaps, more complicated and interesting. Do you think he was laughing at her a little?
ADK: Of course, Natasha is hardly an angel, and Tolstoy could have fun with her even while admiring her. But Natasha is real and alive to the world and mercurial, and that’s one of the qualities Tolstoy loved most about her. Some readers have even described her as nature itself. Tolstoy admires Natasha more than her sister, Vera, who prides herself on the fact that “’there can never be anything bad in my actions.’” Which, as far as Tolstoy is concerned, also means that there can’t be much that is alive or authentic in them either.
DS: One of the most exciting things about War and Peace is the way that characters change before our eyes, often again and again. I love the way that Pierre seems lost, finds himself, then falls apart again. And Prince Andrei vacillates between cynicism and idealism, between love and disdain. Other characters don’t necessarily change, but they reveal more of themselves over time, like the despicable Dolokhov, who turns out to be a devoted son. Is there a character that you find most complicated and compelling? Who and why?
ADK: I have always been drawn to Pierre, ever since I first encountered him back in college. That probably explains why I focus so much on him in my book. Pierre is constantly making mistakes, failing, hitting dead ends, and yet he picks himself up, always ready to believe again. There is something profoundly naïve—and endearing—about that approach to life. And, Tolstoy would say, there is also a deeper wisdom in it. Many of the socialites in whose circles Pierre runs early in the novel are rather cynical, and smugly confident that they have the world all figured out. Bumbling Pierre, by contrast, is rather clueless about how things are supposed to be, and for that very reason he is less handicapped, less predisposed to error, than the others. He’s a blank slate. He’s asking the big existential questions, searching for the right way to live, seeking to understand the deepest mysteries of life. That openness to life is part of what makes him a genuinely good person, responsive to the pain and suffering of others. It’s also what allows him to weather the hardship and turmoil of those years, whereas many of the other more “pragmatic” characters whom we meet at the beginning of the novel are washed out or wiped out by the end.
DS: And can we talk a bit about Sonya? Early in the novel, Tolstoy depicts her as both kind and alluring (during the Christmas scene in the countryside, Nicholas sees her and thinks, “what a lovely girl she is!” p. 528). It’s hard to connect that sparkling and vivacious personality with the Sonya we see at the end of the novel, who serves tea in the background, attracting no more attention than a servant. Many of the main characters change and grow throughout the novel. As I see it, however, Sonya doesn’t change so much but the depiction of her becomes less attractive. Tolstoy’s attitude about her seems to change. I got the sense that he didn’t quite know what to do with her and so he discarded her at the end. What do you think?
ADK: I don’t think he intentionally discarded her. Rather, the creative process took over and brought to him a place of harsh truth. Sadly, spinsters like Sonya didn’t have much of a chance at happiness in early nineteenth-century Russian society. In fact, there were a lot of debates at the time about the so-called woman question. Among the issues debated was that of the social role of women who don’t get married, either by choice of because of circumstances. Some people argued that there were many roles available to such women, such as working as maids, governesses, and the like. But Tolstoy didn’t buy it. He felt that such an outcome was a tragedy for a woman. An unmarried, childless woman could not reach her full human potential, he believed. I think that’s what he’s portraying in Sonya, whom he both loved and pitied. Of course, there is quite a male chauvinism in his view of women, as many readers and critics have pointed out over the years. But there is also pathos and empathy.
DS: At first, I had a hard time getting through the historical sections of the novel, but as the book progressed I found them more and more interesting and exciting. I feel like I learned a lot about the Napoleonic Wars, but does Tolstoy’s “history” really hold up against what scholars say about that period?
ADK: That’s a matter of ongoing debate. On the one hand, Tolstoy did extensive research into the period, reading nearly 300 books in preparation for the writing of the novel. That historical research is apparent in his precise and rich use of period details, which would be the envy of any historical fiction writer. However, some historians argue that Tolstoy distorts certain facts and events in order to promote his own ideological agenda in the novel. According to Dominic Lieven, for example, in his Russia Against Napoleon, Tolstoy underestimates the strategic acumen of the Russian generals in defeating Napoleon, and overestimates the intuitive native genius of Commander in Chief Kutuzov. Tolstoy may have done this in order to promote his beloved idea that history isn’t determined by the decisions of the so-called leaders, but by the complex interactions of millions of people and interlinked events far beyond the rational comprehension of any single individual. Given such a reality, an effective leader is the one who knows how little he knows, and rather than trying to affect the outcome of events, gets out of their way. A great leader also understands the spirit and culture of the people he leads, and knows how to harness that spirit and culture rather than impose his own ideas or visions. That’s what Tolstoy’s Kutuzov does so effectively in the novel.
So who was right? Tolstoy or the historians? That’s still up for debate. But the fact remains that with War and Peace Tolstoy has done more to shape Russians’ understanding of their past than a whole host of history books. At the time of Hitler’s siege of Leningrad during World War II, for instance, the Soviet government commissioned the printing of several hundred thousand copies of the 1812 sections of War and Peace, which were given to the Soviet soldiers in order to strengthen and inspire them. All of which suggests that sometimes myth is more useful than history.
DS: And here’s a confession. I skimmed through the last hundred pages, which left the story behind and focused on questions of history. Even though his ideas were often fascinating, I felt like he was saying the same thing over and over. My admiration for Tolstoy has no limits, but I do think he could have used an editor here. Is that opinion sacrilegious?
ADK: Not at all. Tolstoy himself sensed that those historical and philosophical essays could have been pruned, because he made the decision to remove them from the main section of the novel and put them into a separate Appendix for the 1873 edition of War and Peace. Yet when he was working on the novel in the 1860’s Tolstoy was a man on a mission. He wanted to make sure readers got his points about the futility of leaders and unpredictability of history—if not through the artistic sections of the novel then in the essays. I agree that he overdoes it. Apparently, in 1873 he came to a similar conclusion.
DS: I read your favorite translation, the Pevear and Volokhonsky version, which is very beautiful. Having read the book in the original Russian, what would you say we lose in translation? Can you tell us a bit about how the experience of the novel in Russian is different?
ADK: Of course, you always lose a little something in translation. In Tolstoy’s case, you lose a bit of his iconic style that combines stark realism with poetry, and awkwardness with elegance. All of these are present in the tone of War and Peace. Unfortunately, most translators before Pevear and Volokhonsky focus only the elegance and the realism of Tolstoy’s style, resulting in translations that sound more proper and Victorian than Tolstoy’s prose actually is. There’s an awkwardness, a feistiness to his writing that Pevear and Volokhonsky nicely capture. They don’t try to smooth out the rough edges, such as the repetition of exact words or even phrases multiple times in the same paragraph. Nor do they translate the French passages, which comprise about 2½ percent of the novel, into English, as many translators have done. They let the contemporary reader experience this book in all of its overflowing, charming clumsiness and poetry. In other words, Pevear and Volokhonsky do a good job at capturing what Tolstoy said art should always capture: “life in its countless, inexhaustible manifestions.”
DS: I’m looking forward to seeing a film version of War and Peace. You make some suggestions in your book. Why do you recommend those in particular?
ADK: I still believe that the 1967 Soviet adaptation of the novel directed by Sergei Bondarchuk is the greatest. It is the one most true to the novel itself, and with good reason. Bondarchuk knew that the audience for his movie would be Russians who grew up with War and Peace in their blood. With that kind of pressure, combined with the great financial support given to the movie by the Soviet government, he could not permit himself to deviate from the facts of the novel. Of course, he doesn’t try to fit everything in, but what he does include in the movie is exactly true to the novel. Secondly, the movie is sensually stunning. The natural imagery and sounds are terrific, and the war scenes are spectacular. The climactic battle of Borodino and subsequent burning of Moscow are a tour de force of cinematic art in their own right. Apparently, the Soviet government lent Bondarchuk thousands of Soviet soldiers as extras for those scenes. Finally, I think Bondarchuk is a great and sensitive reader of the novel. In the movie he avoids reducing the novel to a political message, as was often done in Soviet times, and instead he visually captures the universal humanity and philosophical depth of Tolstoy’s work more successfully than any other movie adaptation of the novel.
Andrew D. Kaufman, internationally recognized Russian literature scholar at the University of Virginia, is the author of Understanding Tolstoy and coauthor of Russian for Dummies. An award-winning teacher of Russian language, literature, and culture, he is a featured Tolstoy expert on Oprah.com and is frequently invited to discuss Russian literature and culture on national and international TV and radio programs
Dana Sachs is a contributing editor of LitChat and author of the novels, If You Lived Here and The Secret of the Nightingale Palace, as well as two works of nonfiction,The House on Dream Street: Memoir of an American Woman in Vietnam and The Life We Were Given: Operation Babylift, International Adoption, and the Children of War in Vietnam. Her translations of Vietnamese fiction have been published widely. Her articles, reviews, and essays have appeared in many publications, including National Geographic, Travel and Leisure Family, and The International Herald Tribune. In 2006, she served as a Fulbright Scholar in Hanoi. She teaches creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.