Crabby, Prickly, Bitter, Harsh

Michael Wood

‘If the world could write by itself,’ Isaac Babel said, ‘it would write like Tolstoy.’ The remark is quoted at the head of Richard Pevear’s introduction to this handsome new translation of War and Peace. I should like to think Babel meant that if the world was given to intricate thematic contrasts and parallels among its materials, to careful cross-cutting between city and country, high society and hunting, the salon and the racetrack, home and abroad, it would have written War and Peace and Anna Karenina. But I’m afraid he meant something simpler and more familiar: he was making the old, strange claim that Tolstoy, more than any other writer of fiction, reproduces the world just as it really, unarguably is. He is the world’s best secretary, this argument goes, better at the task than Balzac and Zola, also supposedly eager contestants, and certainly better at it than Dostoevsky and Dickens, who never applied for the job at all.

Tolstoy is too artful a writer for this claim to resist more than a second’s casual inspection, so the question is not whether it is true, but why it should stick so. Lionel Trilling, in an essay collected in The Opposing Self (1955), seems to repeat the claim but then makes a remarkable intellectual swerve. Tolstoy, Trilling says, is perhaps not the greatest of novelists but he is the ‘most central’:

It is he who gives to the novel its norm and standard, the norm and standard not of art but of reality. It is against his work that we measure the degree of distortion, exaggeration and understatement which other novelists use – and of course quite legitimately use – to gain their effects.

But then Trilling goes on to speak of ‘the illusion of objectivity’ in Tolstoy, and to offer a curiously compelling political and moral definition of reality, or of what we call reality and why we call it that:

We so happily give our assent to what Tolstoy shows us and so willingly call it reality because we have something to gain from its being reality. For it is the hope of every decent, reasonably honest person to be judged under the aspect of Tolstoy’s representation of human nature.

If the world was the home of justice and mercy, it would read like a Tolstoy novel. We take our norm from him not because he reproduces the world as it is but because the world fails to live up to his capacious vision. This is all the more important, Trilling says, because ‘to many of us the world today has the look and feel of a Dostoevsky novel,’ a place full of ‘the imagination of disaster’ – the phrase comes from Henry James – and not just the imagination, we might add. In this light, Trilling then says, we may feel that Tolstoy ‘gives us, after all, not reality itself but a sort of idyll of reality’.

This is very intriguing, and a long way – too far, probably – from the old claim made by Babel and so many others. It was much in my mind as I read this new translation of War and Peace, in which the work – Tolstoy didn’t call it a novel – seemed to me neither idyllic nor objective but intensely, brilliantly cruel, and I wondered whether this was the effect of the times or my mood or the translation itself. I felt I didn’t want to be judged under the aspect of this representation of human nature – I’d rather, on balance, be skewered by Jane Austen or Flaubert.

The most sympathetic characters in the novel are said to be ‘spiteful’, ‘unpleasant’, ‘disdainful’. Everyone at a posh soirée is invited to greet and then ignore a ‘totally unknown, totally uninteresting and unnecessary aunt’. Vanity and folly are ubiquitous, stupid people are celebrated as intelligent, intelligent people get lost among their theories or their prejudices. One of our heroes, Nikolai Rostov, is said to have the ‘common sense of mediocrity’: high praise indeed. A loving father tortures his loving daughter: he ‘knew not only how to insult and humiliate her deliberately, but also how to prove to her that she was always to blame for everything’. A mother is silent at the news of an engagement in the family: ‘she was tormented by envy of her daughter’s happiness.’ A playboy attempts to abduct a respectable young girl just for the hell of it: he is wittily and bleakly said be an instance of the male Magdalene, to be forgiven in much the same terms as his Biblical female counterpart – ‘for she loved much; and everything will be forgiven him, for he had much fun’. Here’s an admirable newly married couple, anxious not only to keep up with the Joneses but to be the Joneses: ‘Berg, judging by his wife, considered all women weak and stupid. Vera, judging by her husband alone . . . supposed that all men ascribed reason only to themselves, and at the same time understood nothing.’ And here’s a lovely family scene, where a hidden mutual dislike is easily the most positive aspect of the situation: a daughter-in-law experiences ‘fear and antipathy’ for her husband’s father, ‘though she was not aware of the antipathy, because the fear was so predominant that she could not feel it. On the prince’s side there was also antipathy, but it was smothered by contempt.’

Until the horrible mutual slaughter of French and Russian soldiers at the Battle of Borodino in 1812, war itself is seen mainly as a game or an opportunity for promotion, even by people who have risked their lives in it, and even though we casually learn of a decent artillery man driving his gun carriage ‘round or over the wounded’. A group of infantrymen look at a troop of passing hussars ‘with that special feeling of ill will, alienation and mockery with which different branches of the military usually meet each other’. A colonel announces the wounding of two of his men and the immediate death of another ‘with obvious joy’; he is ‘unable to hold back a happy smile, sonorously rapping out the beautiful phrase killed on the spot’.

Of course we recognise the real-life counterparts of these people and the writing is exhilarating. But there is not a lot of mercy here, and even the comedy is often cruel. When Natasha Rostov, the abductable girl mentioned above, receives a love letter from her new false friend, our author goes out of his way to tell us that the man had the missive written for him by a fellow playboy, which doesn’t prevent Natasha from finding in it ‘echoes of everything she thought she felt herself’. ‘Thought she felt’ is downright surgical, and Pevear and Volokhonsky are not at all far from Constance Garnett’s ‘seemed to her she was feeling’.

The new translation does play a role in this impression of ruthlessness, it turns out, since it harps a little on the words ‘spite’ and ‘spiteful’ where other versions (those of Louise and Aylmer Maude, Constance Garnett and Anthony Briggs, for example) have ‘wrath’, ‘fury’ or ‘virulence’ for the noun and a whole range of possibilities – ‘grim’, ‘angry’, ‘crabby’, ‘ill-tempered’, ‘malignant’, ‘malicious’, ‘harsh’, ‘prickly’, ‘bitter’ – for the adjective. None of the options is amiable, but their variety gives us a bit of a break, and ‘spite’ does have a peculiar smallness all of its own. I’m not in a position to check whether the Russian word is the same in each case, but I’m inclined to trust Pevear’s sense of the need for repetition in English where there is repetition in the source.

This is what he argues in Translating Music, a pamphlet in the Cahiers Series published by Sylph Editions in conjunction with the Center for Writers and Translators in Paris (other volumes in the series are pieces by Lydia Davis and Alan Jenkins and a forthcoming work by Paul Muldoon). One of Pevear’s test cases is a sentence in which Tolstoy repeats a phrase with apparent (or indeed perhaps real) carelessness: ‘Nine days after the abandoning of Moscow, a messenger from Kutuzov reached Petersburg with official news of the abandoning of Moscow.’ Other translators tidy this up a bit, replacing the second occurrence of the phrase with ‘the surrender of Moscow’, ‘that event’, ‘the surrender of the city’. Pevear’s theory is that if we can spot the problem, so could Tolstoy, and that ‘the repetition certainly makes felt the inevitable delay between an event and its official announcement, which comes as a sort of belated echo.’ You may feel, as I do, that this is an engaging but probably over-fancy excuse for a clunky sentence, and still agree with Pevear that if the repetition is there in Russian it should be there in English.

In the same essay – a talk given at a conference in 2006 – Pevear pours scorn on another recent translation of War and Peace, by Anthony Briggs for Penguin in 2005, or rather on what he sees as Briggs’s too amenable approach to translation. Briggs in his afterword suggests we might try ‘to imagine how the average Russian reads War and Peace and . . . try to recapture something similar in the translated text’. Pevear says he doesn’t know ‘what a translator would gain’ by this exercise, and makes clear his own preference for translations that do not go overboard for the ‘smooth’ and the idiomatic. ‘The phrasing may indeed be idiomatic, but where does the idiom come from?’ I’m sympathetic to Pevear’s argument, but it’s not without problems. In what world of English does a man address another as ‘my gentle’? Surely Briggs’s ‘what was left of the prince’ is better than Pevear and Volokhonsky’s ‘what had been he’?

It is true, though, that all translations split their readerships in interesting ways. If we don’t know the language in question we don’t know what we are talking about; and if we do know the language, the translation is not mainly meant for us. The consumer can’t judge, and the linguist is not a consumer.

If the new translation catches or even slightly exacerbates Tolstoy’s ruthlessness, it also does something else remarkably well. It shows us again and again another attribute of his writing, something that can sometimes feel almost like mercy: namely, an intricate understanding and assertion of a different norm, that of the ordinary incoherence of human feelings. We see instances of it in the examples above. The father who torments his daughter does love her: that’s why he torments her. The talkative colonel is not necessarily heartless: just talkative. And the persons to whom spite is attributed – Andrei Bolkonsky and Natasha Rostov principally – are not only spiteful, they have many other qualities, and a few other defects. Pierre Bezukhov, another of our heroes, at one point feels a loathing for everything around him, but also gets ‘a sort of irritating pleasure’ from his loathing.

Tolstoy’s famous and much disputed theory of history seems to begin here, in the complicated and unreliable human heart, where moods and even whole lives change without any apparent external reason. The widowed Andrei and the all but seduced Natasha emerge from the darkest, grimmest gloom not because of anything they think or say or do, or anything that happens to them, but because time shifts, and, to their own astonishment, they are different. ‘Something long asleep . . . suddenly awakened,’ Tolstoy writes of Andrei’s returning interest in the world of others. ‘And suddenly a causeless springtime feeling of joy and renewal came over him.’ One way of describing this change is to say that Andrei has met Natasha and fallen in love with her. But he doesn’t know that – ‘it did not occur to him that he was in love with Miss Rostov’ – and it’s not the whole story. We could just as easily say he has fallen in love with life again and Natasha is merely life’s agent. In people, in families, in nations and in war, the unintended, the inexplicable, the groundless is for Tolstoy what instigates action and produces results; and we understand these results, if we understand them at all, only long after they are achieved and over. The unconscious rules Tolstoy’s world, but is not Freud’s zone of repression: it is the realm of everything we don’t know about ourselves, about all the real, multifarious and inaccessible causes and effects we childishly simplify and pretend to understand, as if a plan could decide a battle, or a mere promise of virtue protect us from the ambush of desire.

Tolstoy has many things to say about this realm and our inevitable if often poorly understood submission to it. He is a masterly muddler of different issues, as if to keep us from grasping which of his arguments he is most devoted to, but they can all be focused around a single effect in the reader’s mind: an uneasy but unshakeable knowledge of what used to be the future. This is obviously the case with battles and treaties and the fates of historical personages. We read of the comet of 1812, and however thin our sense of history, the date must ring a few bells for us, even if they only say Tchaikovsky: after Borodino, there is scorched earth, an emptied and burning Moscow and the long French retreat, the beginning of Napoleon’s end. But Tolstoy manages to make us feel we have this sort of knowledge even about his fictional characters. We become increasingly sure that things will almost always go wrong for them, and that they will always be surprised by this. We believe, correctly, that affections will be broken like armies, abandoned like Moscow; that neither Nikolai nor Natasha Rostov will marry the persons they are so devotedly engaged to; that happiness comes too soon if at all, and never returns; that death neither arrives nor holds off when you want it to. We also believe, shifting back to the historical plane, that war is nothing but confusion disguised as conflict; and that the Russians and Austrians cannot win the battle of Austerlitz, in spite of all their pomp and bravado and planning, because it is already over, had been over for more than sixty years before a reader could pick up this book, and the French had already, famously won. Whoever heard of a railway station named after a national defeat? This is not a matter of hindsight, since as readers we are not revising an earlier view, we are seeing a past world from a categorically distinct vantage point, effectively from another planet.

In a renowned essay first published in 1953 Isaiah Berlin distinguished entertainingly between writers who were hedgehogs, knowing one big thing, and foxes, knowing many things. Dante is a hedgehog, Shakespeare is a fox and various other figures fall easily into place: ‘Plato, Lucretius, Pascal, Hegel, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Ibsen, Proust are, in varying degrees, hedgehogs; Herodotus, Aristotle, Montaigne, Erasmus, Molière, Goethe, Pushkin, Balzac, Joyce are foxes.’ The distinction was fragile and questionable – if Nietzsche was a hedgehog I’m a walrus – but in any case was only a set-up for an argument about Tolstoy. Hedgehog or fox? Why is it so hard to say? Does it matter? Berlin’s canny answer is that ‘Tolstoy was by nature a fox, but believed in being a hedgehog.’ And later: ‘a fox bitterly intent upon seeing in the manner of a hedgehog’. The proposition makes excellent sense for Tolstoy’s later life and work but for War and Peace we have to adapt it. He was a fox who knew how to pretend to be a hedgehog; or a fox whose characters were either failed foxes (too clever and too inconsistent) or failed hedgehogs (endlessly looking for the absent big idea). The failed hedgehogs are his favourites.

Of Pierre Bezukhov, Tolstoy says: ‘He experienced the unfortunate ability of many people, especially Russians – the ability to see and believe in the possibility of goodness and truth, and to see the evil and falsehood of life too clearly to be able to participate in it seriously.’ Pierre is often said to be modelled on Tolstoy himself, but the remark is obviously a diagnosis rather than a confession. Pure hedgehog thinking. Goodness and truth versus evil and falsehood, the two sides separated by the size and vagueness of their representatives, with a convenient paralysis as a result. This is exactly the opposite of Tolstoy’s complex and precise understanding of the vagaries of the heart and mind and the role of the unconscious.

Still, he can play the same game in his own voice. Historians look for causes of human affairs, he says, but are content with insufficient causes, and too few of them: the greatness of great men, the vanity of other men and women, the unfortunate wording of a memorandum, Napoleon catching a cold. ‘For us descendants,’ he says, picking up the view from another planet, ‘who are not historians . . . and therefore can contemplate events with unobscured common sense . . . a countless number of causes present themselves.’ He makes this point again and again: the real mystery, the unending bafflement or self-delusion of those who don’t have the good fortune to live sixty years later or to be reading a novel about their own lives, stems from an excess or an infinity of causes. Nothing magical or spiritual here, and not the least opening for a hedgehog. ‘Unobscured common sense’ is opposed to what Tolstoy sees as the partiality and ideology of all historians, certainly, but mainly it is the privilege of delay, and Tolstoy’s insistence on such knowledge is only a way of illuminating the painful helplessness and ignorance of anyone living in their own time. ‘It is now clear to us what, in the year 1812, was the cause of the destruction of the French army. No one will dispute that the cause . . . was, on the one hand, their advance late in the year . . . into the depths of Russia, and, on the other hand, the character that the war took on with the burning of Russian towns and the hatred of the foe aroused in the Russian people.’ I’m sure historians can and have disputed this, but Tolstoy’s chief point is not really historical at all: it’s philosophical or poetic, a kind of extended epigram or paradox about the living actors of that crucial year. Not only did no one foresee ‘what now seems obvious’, Tolstoy says, ‘but all efforts on the part of the Russians were constantly aimed at hindering the one thing that could save Russia, and, on the part of the French . . . all efforts were aimed at . . . doing the very thing that was to destroy them.’ There is a similar epigrammatic flourish, and a similar philosophy, in the beautiful sentence about Napoleon that begins ‘He did nothing to harm the course of the battle’ and ends ‘calmly and worthily fulfilled his role of seeming to command’.

Tolstoy talks about the disabling excess of causes in many ways. ‘It all occurs by chance,’ he says, suggesting that a determinism that couldn’t count its causes would be pretty much the same thing as a faith in fortune. Or destiny. He is also quite happy to tell us that ‘the course of world events is predestined from on high, depends on the coincidence of all the wills of the people participating in those events.’ Actually, according to his own theory, it depends on more than those wills, on all kinds of things over which no will has any control. This is why ‘fatalism in history is inevitable for the explanation of senseless phenomena (that is, those whose sense we do not understand). The more we try to explain sensibly these phenomena of history, the more senseless and incomprehensible they become for us.’ There is a hedgehog trying to break into these sentences, and he has managed to take over a clause or two: ‘whose sense we do not understand’, ‘senseless and incomprehensible . . . for us’. Ah, so the phenomena are not senseless in themselves, only unintelligible for us. There is a God, even if he won’t talk to us and enjoys our disarray. Tolstoy, for the moment, and very confusingly, calls this God ‘history’, which now has ‘purposes’ unknown to us. ‘Man lives consciously for himself, but serves as an unconscious instrument for the achievement of historical, universally human goals.’ At one point Tolstoy does appeal to ‘the will of Him who governs people and worlds’, but even then it’s not entirely clear that this is not a casual religious paraphrase of the notion that what happens happens.

We shouldn’t underestimate the muddle in these arguments, although this time I am with Pevear and inclined to attribute it to provocative craft rather than carelessness. Tolstoy is talking in several different philosophical (and religious) idioms at once, and is just as apt to attack his own claims as to rely on them, but the inconsistency arises only when he tries to draw consequences from our helplessness, which remains constant. Chance, determinism, destiny, fatalism and God don’t all overlap by any means, but different people do reach for all of those words some of the time. We might want to say that if the phenomena are senseless to us they just are senseless, and Tolstoy as I read him is always saying that as a first and unalterable basis for argument. The next move, or the absence of a next move, is a matter of temperament. For some of us it’s enough – it’s inordinately useful – to know where attainable knowledge ends, and not to imagine other beings who have all the knowledge we lack: our God or our posterity, for instance. For others, for Adorno as well as for Tolstoy, it’s merely cowardly to remain silent just because we can’t speak securely; and it is here that Tolstoy makes what seems to me his wildest intellectual gesture, and what to others may seem like an almost necessary step: ‘Every person bears his own purposes within himself and yet bears them in order to serve general purposes that are inaccessible to man . . . The higher human reason rises in the discovery of these purposes, the more obvious for it is the inaccessibility of the final purpose.’ The translators’ resistance to ‘smooth’ translation clouds the meaning of the second sentence a little. Garnett has ‘The higher the human intellect rises in the discovery of such aims, the more obvious it becomes that the final aim is beyond its reach.’ Even here, though, Tolstoy takes away with one hand what he gives with the other, and it may seem that the word ‘purpose’ is left to do all the work: to assert the principle of an intelligibility which can never be found but can’t be abandoned, the ghost of the hedgehog’s old dream.

Tolstoy’s philosophy (or anti-philosophy) of history is often seen as a distraction from the warm human interest of War and Peace, its ‘triumphant affirmation of human life in all its richness and complexity’, as Orlando Figes puts it in an afterword to Briggs’s translation. As we have seen, the human interest may not be so warm, and I find it hard to see an affirmation of life in the book, as distinct from an immense understanding of it – even with the serenity of the several happy endings. But more important, the philosophy is everywhere in the work, not only in its most visible and voluble manifestations. Tolstoy’s sense of comedy, for instance, is very close to Proust’s – perhaps we should put this the other way round – since it rests on double vision, a sense of how things look and how they turn out to be, a version of the helplessness of historical actors and the ‘unobscured common sense’ of later generations. Or even present generations, since what matters to Tolstoy is not the time but the irony of the multiple insight. Here is Natasha Rostov at an opera she can’t concentrate on, the prose miming the way she sees, implying the view of everyone else:

In the middle of the stage sat girls in red bodices and white skirts. One, very fat, in a white silk dress, sat apart on a low stool with a piece of green cardboard glued to the back of it. They were all singing something. When they finished their song, the girl in white went up to the prompter’s box, and a man with tight silk breeches on his fat legs, and with a feather and a dagger, came up to her and began singing and spreading his arms.

‘They were all singing something’ is wonderful, a masterpiece of what later came to be called ‘estrangement’. Tolstoy can even reverse the relation between past and present, as in a hilarious rewriting of Thiers’s account of Napoleon’s meeting with an ignorant and flustered Cossack. The Cossack didn’t know he was talking to Napoleon, Thiers said, because Napoleon’s simple manner couldn’t possibly indicate the presence of a sovereign to an Oriental imagination. When the Cossack was informed of the imperial presence he was bowled over, ‘saisi d’une sorte d’ébahissement’, and couldn’t utter a word. Pure French fantasy, Tolstoy says. Of course the Cossack knew this was Napoleon, and of course he wasn’t a bit bothered by the emperor’s greatness, because he was too sly to be bothered by anybody. When he was told what he already knew he realised how he was supposed to feel, so ‘instantly pretended to be amazed, dumbfounded, goggled his eyes, and made the same face he was accustomed to make when taken off to be whipped’. History in this case believes in its own legend, and the supposedly historical Cossack, in fiction, becomes the emblem not of what we know but of what any sensible and informed (Russian) person would know.

Another version of the same joke has Napoleon talking to hear himself talk, and finally realising he needs to finish his little speech with a sharp definition, something for the history books. ‘Do you know,’ he says to his adjutant Rapp, ‘what the art of war is? . . . It’s the art of being stronger than the enemy at a certain moment. Voilà tout.’ The dazzling irony of the staging of this little scene is that the emperor expresses precisely if crudely Tolstoy’s own philosophy of history and war, except that Tolstoy sees in it a dilemma, a failure of reason and a potential lesson in humility and wisdom. Tolstoy also understands there are many kinds of ‘strength’. Napoleon merely mistakes a platitude for an original idea, and counts on the (historical) fact that whatever he says will be memorable, or at least remembered.

With the Russian general Kutuzov, in so many ways the hero of the military portions of the book, Tolstoy takes a different tack. Kutuzov knows what Tolstoy knows, but is it appropriate for a commander-in-chief to be such a tired philosopher? ‘It was obvious that Kutuzov despised both knowledge and intelligence, and knew something else that was to decide matters . . . He despised them with his old age, with his experience of life.’ This is just the sort of thing Tolstoy himself says when he gets on his anti-intellectual high horse: ‘If we allow that human life can be governed by reason, the possibility of life is annihilated.’ And yet a few pages after the remark about old age and experience, Kutuzov is said to have acted ‘involuntarily and senselessly’ at Borodino, and we realise, looking back, that the perception of Kutuzov’s contempt is filtered through the mind of Andrei Bolkonsky, who is keen to find meaninglessness wherever he can. ‘Despised’ is Pevear’s and Volokhonsky’s word, consistent with their earlier use of ‘spite’. But then the Maudes and Garnett have ‘despised’ too; Briggs has ‘had no time for’ and ‘his distaste was . . . based on’. Kutuzov is less deceived than most and he knows how to wait, but he is not an exemplar of wisdom. When Napoleon is retreating Kutuzov devotes his sleepless nights to the exercise of the despised knowledge and intelligence, picturing ways of encompassing Napoleon’s destruction. ‘He thought of them all, just as the young men did, but with the difference that he based no suppositions on them and saw not two or three of them but thousands. The longer he thought, the more of them he imagined . . . but the one thing he was unable to foresee was the thing that happened.’ We recognise the structure, the irony. Even Kutuzov, able no doubt to foresee his failure to foresee, couldn’t act on his failure of foresight, and had to act on something.

All this is to say Tolstoy was a great novelist, whatever he thought War and Peace was if not a novel, and the pleasures of reading him have to do with his extraordinary sense of the shifting grounds of human behaviour: not as inexplicable as he claims, because he couldn’t write about them if they were, but always subject to surprise and difficulty and contradiction. A remarkable and moving instance of a philosophical question that is also a novelistic detail is the expression on the dead face of the little princess, Andrei Bolkonsky’s wife, when she perishes in childbirth quite early in the book, or rather the expression that Andrei, who had come to despise her as his father did, and couldn’t wait to get away from her and go to war, sees on that face. ‘I loved you all and did nothing bad to anybody,’ it says, ‘and what have you done to me? Ah, what have you done to me?’ Andrei is haunted by the question ever after, except for its suspension during his happy and then ultimately disastrous engagement to Natasha Rostov. He’s done nothing to the little princess except get her pregnant and fail to love her, but maybe that’s enough. His failure to love her hasn’t caused her death, but she couldn’t have died in childbirth if she wasn’t pregnant, and that’s how Tolstoy’s infinite causes work, always real enough and always colonised by other causes. ‘What have you done to me?’ is the right wrong question, and Tolstoy is inviting us to think about, to live through, not its answer but the consequences of its asking.