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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Saturday, January 2, 2010

Characters or characteristics?

Reading about General Kutuzov, the old serenity as they call him, and trying to recall to mind elements of Tolstoy's portrayal of GK: his eyes tear up, he is corpulent, he quotes pithy wisdom to Prince Andrei, advises Andrei to avoid making decisions (abstiner, fr.), his is blind (in one eye?), he hears poorly (ear stuffed with hemp) - these are just what I can recall, from the one chapter. These are "characteristics." I recall from years ago a writing seminar with John Barth in which JB advised that if you couldn't create a character just bestow a lot of characteristics and readers may mistake this for a character. That may have been a comic downfall of Barth's, but it was shrewd advice. Many writers get by with "characteristics," though few do it well (e.g., Dickens) - such severe and surprising and well-articulated characterstics that the need for character is almost obliterated. Tolstoy is not like this. His characteristics emerge from character and inform character. Kutuzov, for example, is a figure within a historical setting. We have seen him in action, in the battle at Austerlitz, which he lost nobly, and now he has been summoned to quell the many voices of the generals - too many generals from too many armies with too many opinions - and to defend Moscow. He seems weary from the weight of the entire empire on his shoulders. His apparent lethargy may be borne of necessity - his incapacity for action - 0r from genius, luring Napoleon deeper into the heart of Russia so as to entrap him.

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