Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace

Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace

Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace

Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace

Excerpt

Tolstoy, as befits the writer since Shakespeare who most has the art of the actual, combines in his representational praxis the incompatible powers of the two strongest ancient authors, the poet of the Iliad and the original teller of the stories of Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, and Moses in Genesis and Exodus. Perhaps it was because he was closer both to Homer and the Yahwist that Tolstoy was so outrageous a critic of Shakespeare.Surely no other reader of Shakespeare ever has found Hamlet, Macbeth, and King Lear tedious and offensive. Why Tolstoy could accept the Iliad's morality, and not Hamlet's, is a profound puzzle, since Hamlet has more in common with Joseph or with the David of 2 Samuel than he does with Achilles or Hector. I surmise that Tolstoy, despite himself, owed too much to Shakespearean representation, and could not bear to acknowledge the inevitable debt.Prince Andrew has more of Hotspur than of Lord Byron in him, and even Pierre, in his comic aspects, reflects the Shakespearean rather than the Homeric or biblical naturalism. If your characters change less because of experience than by listening to themselves reflect upon their relation to experience, then you are another heir of Shakespeare's innovations in mimesis, even if you insist passionately that your sense of reality is morally centered while Shakespeare's was not.

Shakespeare and Tolstoy had the Bible rather than the Iliad in common, and the Shakespearean drama that most should have offended Tolstoy was Troilus and Cressida. Alas, King Lear achieved that bad eminence, while only Falstaff, rather surprisingly, convinced Tolstoy.But then the effect of the greatest writers upon one another can be very odd. Writing in 1908, Henry James associated War and Peace with Thackeray's The Newcomes and Dumas's The Three Musketeers, since all these were "large loose baggy monsters, with . . . queer elements of the accidental and the arbitrary." Twenty years . . .

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