Accounting for Tolstoy’s world
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