Wednesday, October 3, 2012


AC asks, "I recently read a polemic of tolstoy's that detailed his many criticisms of Shakespear, particularly his (in tolstoys view) plagiarism (tolstoy accused shakespear of making them worse, where others said he made them better) of earlier authors. With the majority of people who sing shakespears praises, in the literary world, I was a little shocked that tolstoy criticsed shakespear.

"What do you think of this polemic and of Tolstoy?"

Well, I haven't read Tolstoy on Shakespeare.

Works of art seem to me like wells.  I know I've gotten water from some wells - I've read some books and enjoyed them.  I've heard good things about other wells but haven't yet enjoyed drinking from them - others I respect have said they enjoyed some books although I haven't yet enjoyed them much. For instance, James Joyce, Robert Anton Wilson, and Michael Johnson have all gotten more from the well of Vico's work than I have.

T. S. Eliot said immature poets borrow, mature poet steal.  I have very little first hand knowledge of Shakespeare's sources, but I do enjoy what Shakespeare did with them.  Shakespeare has a such a vast reputation, I don't think Tolsoy's criticism will keep too many people from experimenting with reading Shakespeare.

I love Tolstoy.  I'd never finished any of his books until 2006.  I had become friends with Rafi Zabor the previous fall, and he encouraged me to read War and Peace.  I remember reading an interview with him online where the interviewer said he'd gotten her to read War and Peace as well.  I just searched for that interview and found this letter to The New York Times instead:

"If, Mr. Keller, you have read only the new translation, you may be mistaking characteristics of Tolstoy for those of his translators—he is never, well hardly ever, even in the Rosemary Edmonds translation I am startled fo find myself having read five times through, the smoothest and most fluent of writers. Often, when returning to him after long absence, I am amazed to find how clunky and foursquare he can be—and then, hardly noticing the transition, I fall under his spell—his curious spell that appears to dispell, with its overwhelmingly observed and constant realism, one’s own suggestibility to spells: suggestible, ensorcelled, moi? Why, sir, I am looking at reality unmediated and complete!
"It would be too easy to say of Tolstoy that he is, oh, less subtle than Proust, less spirited than Stendhal, and so on down a distinguished line, to finish by saying that he is the best all-rounder. This conclusion, while perhaps correct, seems well beside the essential point. I usually revert to Proust’s observation—it works to set a genius to catch a genius—that people mistake Tolstoy when they point to his powers of observation, especially the observation of human beings as they are, as the key to his power. No, says Proust, overstating the case in order to make it: his characters are not the product of an observing eye but of a thinking mind; Tolstoy has seen the general Laws of human nature, and renders them in their consequent particularities, and it is in recognizing this quality in him, intuitively or otherwise, that we are convinced by his art as by that of no other author. (I paraphrase and interpret, a little. If anyone can find the exact quote from Proust, I’d be happy to see it again.)
I got my copy of the P&V translation only recently, and have not yet read 100 pages, and so far I seem to be enjoying the ride despite the obvious bumps in the road. Better still, I am tumbling into Tolstoy again, and notice how, even very early on—in small details such as Vera Rostova observing her beauty in the mirror and becoming more calm and cold; in the circulation of characters around the matter of Count Bezhukov’s will; in the earliest observations of the Rostov children and the first conversation between Prince Andrei and Pierre—already we, or I (since I know what is coming), see these people in the round as I see no others in literature, and already begin to see emerging (or, having shown its essential character quickly, it has already entirely emerged) Tolstoy’s singular and I believe unmatchable portrayal of the action and evolution of human character in Time.
Other author’s characters—even perhaps Proust’s—are more predictable than Tolstoy’s: they respond to something impacting upon their lives somewhat in the manner of billiard balls, and you can follow their trajectory and understand the phsyics of their motion without too much intellectual exercise; but in Tolstoy there is a mysterious quality within each character that alters and transmogrifies such simple patterns, and imparts to their motion in time what seems the full complexity of human life as we experience it, although we have probably failed to recognize the Proustian “Laws” that produce this largely incomprehensible motion.
"Tolstoy convinces us that he has comprehended it, which is why, with him more than with any other great writer, that when we read a perhaps too happily debunking biography, we are so shocked and sometimes delighted to find that he lived so much of his life like an uninstructible idiot. Never mind: before reading even 100 pages of this new version of his masterpiece, I feel my consciousness being expanded again, as Tolstoy paints his enormous picture in which, as we progress through it, the earliest details remain clear in our minds as we encounter a thousand new details, the entire composition held in focus in the author’s massive consciousness and duplicated by analogy in our own.
"As for the translation, I’m not sure, but I don’t expect to return to Rosemary Edmonds’ fine, fluent version, and will rough-ride all the way to the finish with Pevear and Volokhonsky—unless, as may happen, I can’t put War and Peace down and will be compelled to take one of its less bulky avatars onto the F Train and into town. What a pleasure it is to be riding in Tolstoy’s great carriage once again!
— Rafi Zabor"
He says it better than I could.  I also loved Hadji Murat and some other short pieces I read.  (I can't figure out how to get out of italics.  So it goes.)  Tolstoy struck me as so different from my idea of the great novel I had formed largely from reading Joyce.  If feel like my ignorance of Russian blocks me from a deeper understanding of Tolstoy.  One can spend years and years reading an author and barely scratch the surface.  I feel that way about Joyce and Shakespeare.  I've barely begun to read Tolstoy.  I sometimes feel as though I've barely begun to read.
Thanks for the question.
P.S.  I forgot.  About the time I read War and Peace Robert Anton Wilson started calling himself the last Decembrist, and he encouraged people to google "Decembrists + Illuminati".  It delighted me when I finished War and Peace to learn that Tolstoy began writing the novel to explain the origin of the Decembrists.  I love that synchronicity.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the long and interesting answer, I was unnaware that you had answered this question, until now.

    The reason I came across this reply to my question is because I put Decembrist + illuminati in google, after looking through the atachments someone had sent me of some of RAW'S stuff... including the sylabus which had this as one of the things to do.