Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Hadji Murat

From Energy of Delusion: A Book on Plot (1982), by Viktor Shklovsky
Tolstoy was writing Hadji Murad.

As though a continuation of his analysis of The Cossacks.

When the arches of such a writer as Tolstoy finally join, many unused pieces are left strewn on the ground.

And this is just the same as if man was fashioning a horse on the third day of creation, the horse that was created by God, and now being re-created by man; here stands man, and around him on the ground lies what seems like extraneous material, what man, unlike God, wasn't able to unify the way God would have.

He can only see the uniqueness of God's creation, which never repeats itself.

Because we don't have Tolstoy's strength and ability to construct the temple of the human soul.
Most of the time I want to read criticism that is direct, to the point, wasting no effort in limning the essential qualities of a work of art. Edmund Wilson can be like that; V. S. Pritchett, too, and James Wood at his best. But then there are moments (often late at night) when that seems like the wrong approach--it's as if I'm watching the critic stab the artistic specimen through the thorax, then type the label that will slowly yellow beneath it while the art it describes wriggles hopelessly and dies. To be fair, that feeling is rarely a legitimate response to the critic's work; rather, it's a reflection of the incalculable, constant minor shifts between reader and what's read, a measure of an exact, momentary state of the relationship of my reader's soul to my favorite works.

Viktor Shklovksy's essay on Tolstoy's last fiction, Hadji Murat, is a work of that late-night uncertainty. {Here's where my lack of proper academic training trips me up: how much of Shklovsky's approach is unique to him, and how much is common to Russian Formalism? I worry I'm getting into deep waters here, blithely ignoring big signs that warn, "Danger: Misinterpretation Ahead!"} Hadji Murat is not my favorite Tolstoy, nor are my contrarian impulses strong enough that I'd consider declaring it his best. But it is nonetheless brilliant, and an investment of mere hours in reading it can provide a refreshing refill of Tolstoy's genius. Despite running to a mere 120 or so pages, Hadji Murat contains, in brief, all that is peerless in Tolstoy; it is Tolstoy as bullion cube, each scene packed with the telling details that, for him, comprise and create the world.

It also serves, for me, as as an argument in favor of a less direct criticism. Its aims and effects can doubtless be explained, its relationship to the rest of Tolstoy's ouvre made clear--and those analyses have their place. But the work in itself is so short, so compact and effective, that such criticism can easily seem superfluous. And so long as the circle of Hadji Murat fans remains as small, relative to the ever-growing circle of those who, understandably, are swept away by Anna Karenina, I am inclined instead towards the occluded yet inviting character of Shklovsky's approach, which, rather than risk killing a book under a suffocating critical superstructure, instead builds an amenable, understanding, parallel company of suggestive words.

Whereas my instinct is to simply, straightforwardly, thrust the volume into your hands and say, "Read it. Read it," Shklovsky instead offers sidelong, elliptical insights that can range from the declarative--
Heroes die, or they go mad
--to the personal and tangential:
Once, when I was young and could easily cross a mountain pass without even noticing it--and the ice arches left from winter are good bridges over the river--during one of my journeys into the far lands I had been talking to a woman and when I was leaving, she said: "Are you leaving? I'm in love with you."

My guide, a stern man from another Georgian tribe, consoled me: "Forget her and don't remember her with a sigh. She was being polite to you, she knows she'll never see you again. "

And then I learned by heart that it's difficult to drawn in the Caucasian river; it's so powerful that it swirls the stones and creates nests at the bottom. The river breaks you, it doesn't drown you. It can kill you and fling you out.

There are no mermaids in that river.
From Shklovsky you get not the place and construction of Hadji Murat, but the feel of it--and an inescapable sense that you should read it.

Read Hadji Murat. You won't regret it.


  1. "Read Hadji Murat. You won't regret it."

    I will, and have just requested it from the library.

    BTW I was going to recommend E.B. White's book on New York to you... until I realized I was reading your about-to-leave post AFTER you already had. It's a book I've taken along with me to NYC on several occasions. I always love how it sends me back to that earlier era, especially during early morning walks (pre crowds and traffic) when its easier for me to see or at least imagine earlier layers of time....

  2. I hope you think as well of it as I do. It doesn't have the sweep--or the ability to sweep you away--of Anna Karenina, nor will it take over your world for a week like that book will. But it's full of those little moments of breathtakingly believable life that make Tolstoy such a master, and the range of people and experience he brings in is impressive.

    As for E. B. White, I didn't actually take that with me to New York because I didn't get around to picking it up. But I got lucky and found a remaindered copy of an essay collection of his in the Strand my first night there. I took it as a sign that I was going to have a great trip!

  3. Was it ONE MAN'S MEAT?