Ac­count­ing for Tol­stoy’s world

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - An­dre van Loon

Give War and Peace a Chance: Tol­stoyan Wis­dom for Trou­bled Times By Andrew D. Kauf­man Si­mon & Schus­ter, 288pp, $45 (HB)

ONE learns to love one’s fel­low man on the Lon­don Un­der­ground, or at least to ig­nore him more ef­fec­tively. You sit typ­i­cally el­bow-toelbow, stand toe-to-toe and read­ing is a de­cid­edly so­cial ex­pe­ri­ence. Whether one has a pen­chant for Henry or EL James, some­one is right there with you. So I hope some of my fel­low pas­sen­gers en­joyed my wris­tach­ingly heavy re­vis­it­ing of War and Peace re­cently, as I set out to eval­u­ate how well Andrew D. Kauf­man writes about it in his new, per­cep­tive, adu­la­tory study. I cer­tainly got some cu­ri­ous looks.

Kauf­man, a Univer­sity of Vir­ginia lec­turer, is a rare beast: a Slavic scholar keen on a large au­di­ence. Many of his peers are se­ri­ous and de­voted — to Tol­stoy, Dos­to­evsky, Ler­mon­tov, Pushkin — with­out see­ing a spe­cial need to con­vert oth­ers. Af­ter all, much Rus­sian lit­er­a­ture has its own grav­i­ta­tional pull: once you love it, you don’t need some­one to tell you how great it is. Kauf­man, how­ever, starts from the premise that many sim­ply don’t know what they’re miss­ing. War and Peace may be world­fa­mous, yet its size and per­ceived for­eign­ness con­tinue to de­ter po­ten­tial afi­ciona­dos.

Kauf­man, in short, is not con­tent just to read War and Peace — he says he has de­voured it 15 times — but wants to en­sure that reg­u­lar folks know about its life-af­firm­ing vi­sion. He openly laments his own erst­while ob­scu­rity in pub­lish­ing in aca­demic jour­nals, when he could have talked to more people about what re­ally mat­ters. His am­bi­tion to be widely ac­ces­si­ble is ev­i­dent from his cur­rent po­si­tion as Tol­stoy ex­pert for Oprah’s Book Club.

His lat­est work, which fol­lows the aca­dem­i­cally fo­cused Un­der­stand­ing Tol­stoy (2011), has 12 chap­ters, on themes such as Ide­al­ism, Hap­pi­ness and Love. Rel­a­tivism, post­mod­ernism and other such “isms’’ fa­tally poi­son much con­tem­po­rary crit­i­cism, but Kauf­man is won­der­fully un­afraid to write like a John Bay­ley. In line with many of his fel­low Slav­ists, he does not buy the mod­ish re­jec­tion of aes­thet­ics and ethics. In­deed, it would take a con­fi­dent kind of per­ver­sity to dis­cuss char­ac­ters such as An­drei Bolkon­sky, Ro­dion Raskol­nikov or Grig­ory Pe­chorin in nar­rowly anti-hu­man­ist terms.

We thus get unashamed con­sid­er­a­tions of what char­ac­ters such as Pierre Bezukhov and Nikolai Ros­tov can teach us — emo­tion­ally, eth­i­cally and philo­soph­i­cally. Briefly, the ar­gu­ment is that both are par­tic­u­larly well-achieved ex­am­ples of the striv­ing, im­per­fect sin­ner. Ros­tov and Bezukhov can be mean or short-sighted, be­fore they re­alise hon­our and dig­nity come from self­less­ness and gen­eros­ity.

When Ros­tov, for ex­am­ple, loses a for­tune at the gam­bling ta­ble, his ini­tial de­spair is fol­lowed by his glimpse of tran­scen­den­tal beauty when he hears his sis­ter sing. He is still mas­sively in debt, of course, but his in­nate large-heart­ed­ness is demon­strated by his abil­ity to tap into life’s larger truths, even when he is in pain. Kauf­man dis­cussed this episode at some length, with a keen ap­pre­ci­a­tion of what War and Peace has to say about spir­i­tual no­bil­ity.

The study pre­sents Tol­stoy as an ide­al­ist, who could cel­e­brate beauty, love and mag­na­nim­ity in the face of huge po­lit­i­cal and so­cial up­heaval. Dur­ing the 1860s, when Tol­stoy and his wife (who fa­mously wrote out draft af­ter draft) were at work on War and Peace, many of their con­tem­po­raries be­came po­lit­i­cal rad­i­cals, even ni­hilists. Kauf­man, how­ever, has no time or feel­ing for this. His be­lief is that an ideal state is at­tain­able, if only we can be more char­i­ta­ble and lov­ing. This is what he means by “Tol­stoyan wis­dom for trou­bled times’’, with self­less­ness trump­ing all other qual­i­ties.

In the present day, we too could be bet­ter by em­u­lat­ing the spir­i­tual hon­esty of those he sees as Tol­stoy’s best char­ac­ters. While this is in­ter­est­ing, the ques­tion of why our present time is trou­bled is sim­ply not ad­e­quately ad­dressed. Just read War and Peace, the mes­sage seems to be, get to love it, and a bet­ter life will nat­u­rally fol­low. My guess is that Kauf­man, or his pub­lisher, was se­duced by the ti­tle’s res­o­nance, with­out then giv­ing it the proper thought it de­serves. The con­crete and po­lit­i­cally in­formed in­ter­pre­ta­tion of Tol­stoy sig­nalled in the ti­tle thus re­mains sadly un­writ­ten.

Some­what dis­ap­point­ingly, there is lit­tle to no dis­cus­sion of a host of char­ac­ters: Sonya, the Kura­gins, Anna Dru­bet­skaya, Berg, Denisov, the of­ten strik­ing Dolokhov. Even a ma­jor char­ac­ter such as Bolkon­sky is dis­cussed mainly in terms of how his life can be com­pared to the sup­pos­edly more spir­i­tual Bezukhov. Kauf­man is not par­tic­u­larly in­ter­ested in Bolkon­sky’s thoughts about duty, am­bi­tion, com­bat and love with­out claim­ing them for his own pur­pose. It is tempt­ing to spec­u­late what the proud Bolkon­sky would make of Kauf­man, if such a re­ver­sal were pos­si­ble.

Ul­ti­mately, to read Tol­stoy can be to live his fic­tion, to feel his eth­i­cal stances, and any crit­i­cism ar­gu­ing this is worth the ef­fort. Kauf­man is of­ten per­cep­tive and is right to stress that Tol­stoy could write beau­ti­fully about a wellordered, es­sen­tially good uni­verse. And yet, the pierc­ing thought that Tol­stoy knew more than this, and could be seized by ter­ror and a kind of wil­ful stu­pid­ity, seems to make Kauf­man un­com­fort­able. Tol­stoy may have been one of the wis­est writ­ers in mod­ern his­tory, but he was also deeply trou­bled, and trou­bling. To many, that makes him more, not less, worth the ef­fort, no mat­ter who is read­ing over your shoul­der.

Tol­stoy is pre­sented as an ide­al­ist

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