From Tolstoy to Dostoyevsky in the Moviegoer

By Lawson, Lewis A. | The Mississippi Quarterly, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview
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From Tolstoy to Dostoyevsky in the Moviegoer


Lawson, Lewis A., The Mississippi Quarterly


WHEN, IN 1983, ROBIN LEARY ASKED WALKER PERCY, "What were perhaps your most significant transitions philosophically?" he replied, in part, "From Tolstoy to Dostoyevsky." He diplomatically added: "Though, in no case did I lose admiration for the former performance. It was a matter of further discovery." (1) The transition from Tolstoy to Dostoyevsky is revealed in his first published novel, The Moviegoer (1961), which, he said, was his "real Rubicon." (2)

To Percy, "Tolstoy" means, almost exclusively, War and Peace. We do not know exactly when Percy first read War and Peace. But we can infer from The Correspondence of Shelby Foote and Walker Percy that--despite Foote's preference for Dostoyevsky (3)--Percy thought of Tolstoy as his model when he began to write fiction. Caroline Gordon must have known of Percy's fondness for War and Peace from their meeting at Sewanee, for her December 11, 1951, critique of Percy's first novel, "The Charterhouse," uses the scene in which Prince Andrew tells his wife that he is going off to war to illustrate a point. (4)

By 1955, though, Percy must have switched allegiance to Dostoyevsky, for he wrote Foote that the artist must look "for truth within himself." Foote replied: "Look what happened to Tolstoy, another who wouldnt [sic] go there. He wound up writing fairy tales ..." (p. 104). Percy's avowal to look "for truth within himself' is manifested in "The Man on the Train," published the next year, 1956. This essay analyzes the literary presentation of alienation and the "obvious alternatives or deliverances from alienation," "rotation," and "repetition," (5) then argues that, as aesthetic categories, "rotation" and "repetition" offer no genuine salvation from alienation, which is an existential category. Percy cites an "honorable" example of rotation from War and Peace. "when Prince Andrei [Andrew] transcended everydayness and came to himself for the first time when he lay wounded on the field of Borodino" (p. 99). (6) Honorable or not, it is still a rotation, effecting no permanent relief from alienation. The only trouble is that Percy's statement is factually incorrect; the wounding to which he refers occurs at the Battle of Austerlitz, nearly seven years and over six hundred pages before Andrew's second (and fatal) wounding at the Battle of Borodino. The same confusion of battles Percy perpetrated at least five other times, in interviews from 1973 to one published the month of his death in 1990. Why did Percy unconsciously merge the two scenes? I would suggest that as time passed, Percy's memory suppressed the first scene to emphasize the second, in which Prince Andrew's wound reconciles him to his imminent death, a reconciliation that led him to experience universal love and, some critics argue, to convert to Christianity. I will have more to say about this later.

In "The Man on the Train" there is no mention of Dostoyevsky, because Percy by then regarded him as the master of the theme of the alienated person searching for God, hence not a creator of alienated fiction. Percy had read The Brothers Karamazov in high school, (7) and the way he later recalled that reading suggests that, in retrospect, he saw reading that novel as the beginning of his conversion: the edition he read was "fat as a bible, ... smelling like bread" (8)--an interesting memory, considering that Robert Belknap claims that the Bible is the central source of the novel. (9) Likening the novel to bread invokes John 6, the Bread Chapter, and the sacrament of Holy Communion that was inspired by it. Percy recalled reading Notes from Underground when he was convalescing at Trudeau Sanitarium from 1942 to 1944, (10) adding, in another place, that he had read a great deal of Dostoyevsky during those two years, (11) Again at Foote's urging, he read The Possessed in 1947 "and a great deal of the Russian novelists, for, maybe most of that year" (Corrado, p. 2). Several of Foote's letters to Percy during the Fifties suggest a continuing dialogue about Dostoyevsky's work.

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