Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Genius in a small package

A few weeks ago, I described The Death of Ivan Ilyich as a snack, unsatisfying to someone who’s looking for Tolstoy’s universal sympathy and understanding. I firmly believed that to get a real sense of Tolstoy’s genius, a person would have to read Anna Karenina or War and Peace.

Having on Sunday read Tolstoy’s last writing, Hadji Murat, I now know I was wrong. In 125 pages, Tolstoy packs in a novel’s worth of characters, events, and description. Hadji Murat was a Muslim war leader who defected to the Russian side during one of Russia’s seemingly perpetual efforts to dominate and subdue Chechnya; the book works through the consequences of that defection for everyone from a lowly soldier to Tsar Nicholas himself. Tolstoy introduces dozens of characters and gives each a moment of attention, of real distinction.

It’s that ability to create and differentiate minor characters that sets Tolstoy apart for me. While Dickens, whom Tolstoy greatly admired, created memorable secondary characters, he almost always employed some elements of caricature to fix them in the reader’s mind; Tolstoy, on the other hand, places them much more subtly, through the presentation of living—and loving—detail. Yet such detail never seems forced. When a private on overnight guard duty lose the bowl of his pipe, and his comrades help him fashion a pipe using the stem and the frozen ground, all the characters in the scene—which is utterly unnecessary to the plot of the novel—come to life. Tolstoy’s realism, made of carefully chosen detail, seems instead made of randomly ordered reality, as if nothing has been chosen but everything shown; the balance between the contingent and the necessary seems the same as in real life.

And the realism extends not just to characters, but to the whole, it seems of Russian life and landscape. Here is a military ball, more or less from the view of Hadji Murat:
The next day was a Monday, the evening when the Vorontsovs usually entertained. In the large, brightly lit reception hall, music was coming from a source unseen in the winter garden. Women, young and not so very young, in clothes that revealed both their necks and their arms, and almost their breasts, twirled in the embraces of men in bright dress uniform. By the mountain of the buffet footmen in red tailcoats, stockings and shoes poured champagne and carried sweets around to the ladies. The wife of the chief, similarly half-naked, despite her years, walked among the guests, smiling amicably, and said a few kind words through the interpreter to Hadji Murat, who was surveying the guests with the same indifference as the day before at the theatre. After the hostess, other naked women also came up to Hadji Murat, and all, without any shame, stood in front of him and, smiling, kept asking him one and the same thing: how he liked what he saw. Vorontsov himself, in gold epaulettes and aguillettes with a white cross around his neck and a sash, went up to him and asked the same thing, obviously certain, like all those who asked, that Hadji Murat could not but like everything that he saw. And Hadji Murat replied to Vorontosov too as he replied to everyone: that they did not have this—without saying whether it was a good thing or a bad thing that they did not have it.

And Tolstoy is just as adept at depicting troops heading off on a raid:
The detachment assigned to the raid consisted of four battalions of infantry, two hundred Cossacks, and eight guns. The column marched along the road, while on both sides of the column in an unbroken line, going up and down across gullies, went chasseurs in high boots, sheepskin jackets and sheepskin hats, with rifles on their shoulders and cartridges on cross-belts. As always, the detachment moved across hostile ground observing silence as far as possible. Only occasionally did the shaking guns clatter over ditches, or an artillery horse, which did not understand the order for quiet, snort or neigh, or an angry officer shout in a hoarse, restrained voice at his subordinates because the line had become too extended, or was too far from, or too close to the column. Only once was the silence broken when from a thicket of thorns located between the line and the columns there sprang a nanny-goat with a white belly and behind and a gray back, and a similar billy-goat with small horns curving onto his back. The beautiful, frightened animals swooped so close to the columns in great leaps with their forelegs tucked up, that some of the soldiers, shouting and laughing, ran after them, meaning to bayonet them, but the goats turned back, slipped through the line, and, pursued by a few horsemen and the company dogs, flew off like birds into the mountains.

Amidst all this detail, there are patterns and doublings and careful organization, even a sense of inevitability, as Hadji Murat tries to determine the best of his limited options. Tolstoy works with themes of struggle, and determination, and the ways in which people can see or mistake their burdens and their possibilities. But ultimately, what matters are the people themselves, and the access Tolstoy gives us to their thoughts and lives, and how the time we spend there enables us to think about our own.

If you’ve balked at the length of War and Peace or Anna Karenina, pick up Hadji Murat. If you like it, you’ll like Tolstoy, and discovering that is worth an investment of a couple of hours of anyone's time.

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