Friday, January 15, 2010
Which side are you on?
Just a note here about War and Peace as I'm now about 3/4ths of the way through the book and still really enjoying it. I can't say that I'm totally lost in its world, as sometimes happens with a tremendous and tremendously compelling novel, but that's might fault in that I'm reading it pretty slowly and have not had one of those long cold nights when you dive into a few hundred pages at a stretch. One observation though that's somewhat strange and surprising: I don't know that much about Tolstoy's life, though I think he is well known for his liberal attitude toward the serfs and I think he did free the serfs on his own estate. But it seems to me that his novel is very much confined to the POV of his own social class. The occasional peasant, of muzhik as he often calls them, and even the working-class and the footsoldiers, are always just past-throughs, fixtures, part of the furniture, living machines. The only characters who have an inner life and an intellectual life are the nobility and the highly educated. I can't fault someone for writing about his world, about what he knows, and writing beautifully and intelligently is always an accomplishment, and I'd even say that I respect him for not sentimentalizing the peasants or writing about them in a way that would be dishonest. But within a book that is often justly praised for encompassing a whole world, the entire scope of Russian society, it's important to realize that the "whole world" is just an illusion - it's still, inevitably, part of a world and bound by the limitations of the character's vision and, more important, the author's.