Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Early Reviews

Tolstoy in 1868, when WAR AND PEACE was released in Russia

Apparently, many of WAR AND PEACE's early readers were not impressed with its opening pages:
Publication of the first part of the book (Chapters I to XXVIII) began in February 1865, and at first even the most indulgent readers were disappointed by the slowness with which the story moved, the plethora of detail, the author's digressions and excessive use of conversation in French. His friend Botkin could scarcely hide his disappointment: "This is only a preface, the background of a picture to come," he said. Borisov told Turgenev, "I think Fet was not impressed by it." And Turgenev, whose verdict Tolstoy was impatiently awaiting, told Borisov in reply, "The thing is positively bad, boring and a failure. . . . All those little details so cleverly noted and presented in baroque style, those psychological remarks which the author digs out of his heroes' armpits and other dark places in the name of verisimilitude -- all that is paltry and trivial, against the broad historical background of a novel. . . . One feels so strongly the writer's lack of imagination and naivete! . . . And who are these young ladies? Some kind of affected Cinderellas . . . ."
(TOLSTOY, by Henri Troyat (1965), p. 295.)

Of course, after the entire six-volume bound edition had come out, after the critics had a chance to complete the entire novel, and after it had become a massive best-seller in Russia, the reception of the book changed entirely. Turgenev, who had been so withering in his criticism of the opening of the book, wrote to his friend Borisov in 1868: "There are passages in it that will live as long as the Russian language." (Id. at 315.)

By the way, I picked up the biography, TOLSTOY, by Henri Troyat, today at the library. Troyat was born in Russia to an Armenian family; they left Russia for France, where Troyat became a successful novelist and biographer, writing acclaimed biographies of Pushkin, Dostoyevsky, and Tolstoy. Troyat put a tremendous amount of effort into compiling his massive, 773-page biography of Tolstoy -- perhaps in an effort to live up to the effort and discipline Tolstoy himself put into his own masterwork, which, Troyat explains, was originally to be titled THE YEAR 1805:
Tolstoy spent the entire winter of 1863-64 familiarizing himself with the period he wanted to recreate in his book. His father-in-law sent him original source material from Moscow. He himself bought up, pell-mell, an assortment of books on the Napoleonic wars: Mikhailovsky-Danilevsky, Bogdganovich, Zhikarev, Glinka, Davidov Liprandi, Korf, the Documents historiques sur le sejour des Francais a Moscou, en 1812, the Souvenirs de campagne d'un artilleur, the Correspondance diplomatique of Joseph de Maistre, Marmont's Memoirs, Thiers' Histoire du Consulat et de l'Empire, etc. "You can't imagine the difficulties of this preparatory work, plowing the field I shall have to sow," he wrote to Fet toward the end of 1864. "Studying, thinking over everything that might happen to the future heroes of a very big book, devising millions of schemes of all varieties and selecting the millionth part of them, it's terribly hard work."
(Id. at 290.)

While immersing -- perhaps burying -- himself in historical documents and sources, Tolstoy found himself at times struggling to see the forest for the trees and to keep sight of the ultimate purpose of all of this research:
[H]e took advantage of his stay in Moscow to continue his search for source material, pawing through bookshops, borrowing books from Professors Eshevsky and Popov, hounding the Rumyantsev Museum library, obtaining, by special favor, important documents from the palace archives, questioning old people on their reminiscences of 1812. The wealth of material both delighted and alarmed him. He was afraid of drowning under the ocean of detail. He was continually forced to tear himself from historical data and return to his characters. "Napoleon, Alexander, Kutuzov and Talleyrand are not the heroes of my book," he said. "I shall write the story of people living in the most privileged circumstances, with no fear of poverty or constraint, fee people, people who have none of the flaws that are necessary to make a mark on history."
(Id. at 292.)

Troyat's account of Tolstoy's struggle to not get lost in the thicket of historical details he was accumulating reminded me of my own experience in the first few sections of W&P -- of feeling the balance between the particular and the universal that Tolstoy manages. Tolstoy took great pains to vividly recreate a time that was accessible only as history to him in the 1860's. At the same time, the characters he drew, for all of their historical trappings, were ones meant to be universal, to remain recognizable and sympathetic, through the vicissitudes of time. And it is because Tolstoy accomplished this balance with such art and skill that we are all reading this book here in 2010.


  1. It staggers the mind to imagine what Tolstoy would have done with google. Perhaps he would have wound up like D. F. Wallace, going mad in an American suburb parsing the extraordinary amount of detail available to him.

    Are you reading his biography on the side? If true, this is hardcore Tolstoyism and you're liable to be picked up and interrogated by the twitter police.

  2. I had the same thought about what Tolstoy would or could've done with the internet, digital files, etc.

    I'm poking through the Troyat biography, looking for tasty bits to share on the blog. The biography is highly acclaimed, so I may just read the whole thing eventually, though probably after reading ANNA KARENINA -- which I haven't read yet.