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“Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” Alice Murno, from the intro to Moons of Jupiter

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?.

Monday, September 16, 2013

The World Perspective in War and Peace: Tolstoy’s Genius for Integrating Multiple Perspectives

            Sometime around the age of twenty, probably as I was reading James M. Cain’s novel Mildred Pierce, I settled on the narrative strategy I have preferred ever since. At the time, I would have called it third-person limited omniscient, but I would learn later, in a section of a class on nineteenth century literature devoted to Jane Austen’s Emma, that the narrative style I always felt so compelled by was referred to more specifically by literary scholars as free indirect discourse. Regardless of the label, I had already been unconsciously emulating the style for some time by then in my own short stories. Some years later, I became quite fond of the reviews and essays of the literary critic James Wood, partly because he eschewed all the idiotic and downright fraudulent nonsense associated with postmodern pseudo-theories, but partly too because in his book How Fiction Works he both celebrated and expounded at length upon that same storytelling strategy that I found to be the most effective in pulling me into the dramas of fictional characters.

            Free indirect discourse (or free indirect style, as it’s sometimes called) blends first-person with third-person narration, so that even when descriptions aren’t tagged by the author as belonging to the central character we readers can still assume what is being attended to and how it’s being rendered in words are revealing something of that character’s mind. In other words, the author takes the liberty of moving in and out of the character’s mind, detailing thoughts, actions, and outside conditions or events in whatever way most effectively represents—and even simulates—the drama of the story. It’s a tricky thing to master, demanding a sense of proportion and timing, a precise feeling for the key intersecting points of character and plot. And it has a limitation: you really can’t follow more than one character at a time, because doing so would upset the tone and pacing of the story, or else it would expose the shallowness of the author’s penetration. Jumping from one mind to another makes the details seem not so much like a manifestation of the characters’ psyche as a simple byproduct of the author’s writing habits.

            Fiction writers get around this limitation in a number of ways. Some break their stories into sections or chapters and give each one over to a different character. You have to be really good to pull this off successfully; it usually still ends up lending an air of shallowness to the story. Most really great works rendered in free indirect discourse—Herzog, Sabbath’s Theater, Mantel’s Cromwell novels—stick to just one character throughout, and, since the strategy calls for an intensely thorough imagining of the character, the authors tend to stick to protagonists who are somewhat similar to themselves. John Updike, whose linguistic talents were prodigious enough to set him apart even in an era of great literary masters, barely even attempted to bend his language to his characters, and so his best works, like those in the Rabbit series, featured characters who are at least a bit like Updike himself.  

            But what if an author could so thoroughly imagine an entire cast of characters and have such a keen sense of every scene’s key dramatic points that she could incorporate their several perspectives without turning every page into a noisy and chaotic muddle? What if the trick could be pulled off with such perfect timing and proportion that readers’ attention would wash over the scene, from character to character spanning all the objects and accidents in between, without being thrown into confusion and without any attention being drawn to the presence of the author? Not many authors try it—it’s usually a mark of inexperience or lack of talent—but Leo Tolstoy somehow managed to master it.

            War and Peace is the quintessentially huge and intimidating novel—more of a punch line to jokes about pretentious literature geeks than a great masterwork everyone feels obliged to read at some point in her life. But, as often occurs when I begin reading one of the classics, I was surprised to discover not just how unimposing it is page-by-page but how immersed in the story I became by the end of the first few chapters. My general complaint about novels from the nineteenth century is that the authors wrote from too great a distance from their characters, in prose that’s too formal and wooden. It’s impossible to tell if the lightness of touch in War in Peace, as I’m reading it, is more Tolstoy’s or more the translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s, but the original author’s handling of perspective is what shines through most spectacularly.

            I’m only as far into the novel as the beginning of volume II (a little past page 300 of over 1200 pages), but much of Tolstoy’s mastery is already on fine display. The following long paragraph features the tragically plain Princess Marya, who for financial reasons is being presented to the handsome Prince Anatole as a candidate for a mutually advantageous marriage. Marya’s pregnant sister-in-law, Liza, referred to as “the little princess” and described as having a tiny mustache on her too-short upper lip, has just been trying, with the help of the pretty French servant Mademoiselle Bourienne, to make her look as comely as possible for her meeting with the young prince and his father Vassily. But Marya has become frustrated with her own appearance, and, aside from her done-up hair, has decided to present herself as she normally is. The scene begins after the two men have arrived and Marya enters the room.

When Princess Marya came in, Prince Vassily and his son were already in the drawing room, talking with the little princess and Mlle Bourienne. When she came in with her heavy step, planting her heels, the men and Mlle Bourienne rose, and the little princess, pointing to her said, “Voila Marie!” Princess Marya saw them all, and saw them in detail. She saw the face of Prince Vassily, momentarily freezing in a serious expression at the sight of the princess, and the face of the little princess, curiously reading on the faces of the guests the impression Marie made. She also saw Mlle Bourienne with her ribbon, and her beautiful face, and her gaze—lively as never before—directed at him; but she could not see him, she saw only something big, bright, and beautiful, which moved towards her as she came into the room. Prince Vassily went up to her first, and she kissed the bald head that bowed over her hand, and to his words replied that, on the contrary, she remembered him very well. Then Anatole came up to her. She still did not see him. She only felt a gentle hand firmly take hold of her hand, and barely touched the white forehead with beautiful, pomaded blond hair above it. When she looked at him, his beauty struck her. Anatole, the thumb of his right hand placed behind a fastened button of his uniform, chest thrust out, shoulders back, swinging his free leg slightly, and inclining his head a little, gazed silently and cheerfully at the princess, obviously without thinking of her at all. Anatole was not resourceful, not quick and eloquent in conversation, but he had instead a capacity, precious in society, for composure and unalterable assurance. When an insecure man is silent at first acquaintance and shows an awareness of the impropriety of this silence and a wish to find something to say, it comes out badly; but Anatole was silent, swung his leg, and cheerfully observed the princess’s hairstyle. It was clear that he could calmly remain silent like that for a very long time. “If anyone feels awkward because of this silence, speak up, but I don’t care to,” his look seemed to say. Besides that, in Anatole’s behavior with women there was a manner which more than any other awakens women’s curiosity, fear, and even love—a manner of contemptuous awareness of his own superiority. As if he were saying to them with his look: “I know you, I know, but why should I bother with you? And you’d be glad if I did!” Perhaps he did not think that when he met women (and it is even probable that he did not, because he generally thought little), but such was his look and manner. The princess felt it, and, as if wishing to show him that she dared not even think of interesting him, turned to the old prince. The conversation was general and lively, thanks to the little princess’s voice and the lip with its little mustache which kept rising up over her white teeth. She met Prince Vassily in that jocular mode often made use of by garrulously merry people, which consists in the fact that, between the person thus addressed and oneself, there are supposed to exist some long-established jokes and merry, amusing reminiscences, not known to everyone, when in fact there are no such reminiscences, as there were none between the little princess and Prince Vassily. Prince Vassily readily yielded to this tone; the little princess also involved Anatole, whom she barely knew, in this reminiscence of never-existing funny incidents. Mlle Bourienne also shared in these common reminiscences, and even Princess Marya enjoyed feeling herself drawn into this merry reminiscence. (222-3)

In this pre-film era, Tolstoy takes an all-seeing perspective that’s at once cinematic and lovingly close up to his characters, suggesting the possibility that much of the deep focus on individual minds in contemporary fiction is owing to an urge for the one narrative art form to occupy a space left untapped by the other. Still, as simple as Tolstoy’s incorporation of so many minds into the scope of his story may seem as it lies neatly inscribed and eternally memorialized on the page, a fait accompli, his uncanny sense of where to point the camera, as it were, to achieve the most evocative and forwardly propulsive impact in the scene is one not many writers can be counted on to possess. Again, the pitfall lesser talents fall prey to when trying to integrate multiple perspectives like this arises out of an inability to avoid advertising their own presence, which entails a commensurate detraction from the naturalness and verisimilitude of the characters. The way Tolstoy maintains his own invisibility in those perilously well-lit spaces between his characters begins with the graceful directness and precision of his prose but relies a great deal as well on his customary method of characterization.

For Tolstoy, each character’s experience is a particular instance of a much larger trend. So, when the lens of his descriptions focuses in on a character in a particular situation, the zooming doesn’t occur merely in the three-dimensional space of what a camera would record but in the landscape of recognizable human experience as well. You see this in the lines above about how "in Anatole’s behavior with women there was a manner which more than any other awakens women’s curiosity, fear, and even love," and the "jocular mode often made use of by garrulously merry people." Here is a still more illustrative example from when the Countess Rostov is reflecting on a letter from her son Nikolai informing her that he was wounded in battle but also that he’s been promoted to a higher rank.

How strange, extraordinary, joyful it was that her son—that son who twenty years ago had moved his tiny limbs barely perceptibly inside her, that son over whom she had quarreled with the too-indulgent count, that son who had first learned to say “brush,” and then “mamma,” that this son was now there, in a foreign land, in foreign surroundings, a manly warrior, alone, with no help or guidance, and doing there some manly business of his own. All the worldwide, age-old experience showing that children grow in an imperceptible way from the cradle to manhood, did not exist for the countess. Her son’s maturing had been at every point as extraordinary for her as if there had not been millions upon millions of men who had matured in just the same way. As it was hard to believe twenty years ago that the little being who lived somewhere under her heart would start crying, and suck her breast, and begin to talk, so now it was hard to believe that this same being could be the strong, brave man, an example to sons and people, that he was now, judging by his letter. (237)

There’s only a single person in the history of the world who would have these particular feelings in response to this particular letter, but at the same time these same feelings will be familiar—or at least recognizable—to every last person who reads the book.  

While reading War and Peace, you have the sense, not so much that you’re being told a grand and intricate story by an engagingly descriptive author, but that you’re witnessing snippets of countless interconnected lives, selections from a vast historical multitude that are both arbitrary and yet, owing to that very connectedness, significant. Tolstoy shifts breezily between the sociological and the psychological with such finesse that it’s only in retrospect that you realize what he’s just done. As an epigraph to his introduction, Pevear quotes Isaac Babel: “If the world could write by itself, it would write like Tolstoy.”  

The biggest drawback to this approach (if you don’t count its reliance on ideas about universals in human existence, which are a bit unfashionable of late) is that since there’s no way to know how long the camera will continue to follow any given character, or who it will be pointed at next, emotional investments in any one person have little chance to accrue any interest. For all the forward momentum of looming marriages and battle deaths, there’s little urgency attached to the fate of any single individual. Indeed, there’s a pervasive air of comic inconsequence, sometimes bordering on slapstick, in all the glorious strivings and abrupt pratfalls. (Another pleasant surprise in store for those who tackle this daunting book is how funny it is.) Of course, with a novel that stretches beyond the thousand-page mark, an author has plenty of time to train readers which characters they can expect to hear more about. Once that process begins, it’s difficult to laugh at their disappointments and tragedies. 

Also read: Life's White Machine: James Wood and What Doesn't Happen in Fiction

And: What's the Point of Difficult Reading?

And: Who Needs Complex Narratives?: Tim Parks' Enlightened Cynicism