Writing Lessons with Tolstoy

Lucky for me, I never finished reading War and Peace when I was in high school, which means, I have something good to read now. I’ve been searching for months for a decent book, and it never once occurred to me to pick up War and Peace because I remember some very pleasant drawing room scenes that abruptly cut off to very boring battlefield scenes that I would put down and never pick up again.

My husband downloaded the book on Audible to listen to when he’s driving, and at night sometimes we’d listen to a chapter or two before bed. Having a reader with a soothing British accent interpret the book for me made all the difference. It didn’t take long before I was hooked, and had to get the book out to keep up with my husband when he was away.

The following are quotes (with a bit of commentary) that I’d like to remember.

 

 

1.

“She was twenty-seven….She was by now decidedly plain, but thought herself not merely as good-looking as before but even far more attractive. She was confirmed in this delusion by the fact that she had become a wealthy heiress and also by the fact that the older she grew the less dangerous she became to men, and the more freely they could associate with her and avail themselves of her suppers, soirees, and the animated company that assembled in her house, without incurring any obligation. A man who would have been afraid ten years before of going every day to the house when there was a girl of seventeen there, for fear of compromising her and committing himself, would now go boldly every day and treat her not as a marriageable girl but as a sexless acquaintance.”-

 

To me, this is one of the best things about getting older, becoming a sexless acquaintance (if that’s even possible)–because I have always loved hanging out with the boys. And I would love to have suppers and soirees that attract entertaining company regardless of their motives for attending.

Tolstoy often talks about a “moral barrier,” the presence of which allows freedom in relationships between the opposite sexes, the absence of which foments degradation and ruin. Tolstoy draws the moral barrier rather vaguely but it is implied to be a certain piety or religious feeling. Typically, in Tolstoy’s world, the impetus for the moral barrier falls to the man, which I appreciate, since in today’s world, the moral barrier often falls to the woman. But the man can compromise a woman simply by paying too close attention to her, in Tolstoy’s world, which makes it relatively easy for women to fall. Her only agency is the ability to encourage or deflect a man’s attention.

It makes sense then, that in today’s culture where women have more agency, they also carry more moral responsibility.

All of which has nothing to do with being so plain and old that men no longer think of compromising you. But I like the different ways Tolstoy notes the difference in relationships between the sexes that are erotically charged and those that are not, regardless of the reasons for the difference. He’s a bit rude about it, but the truth unfortunately can be rude as well.

 

 

2.

“Behind them sat Anna Mikhaylovna wearing a green headdress, and with a happy look of resignation to the will of God on her face.”

 

Anna, one should note, is the mother of a son who has just been affianced to the wealthy heiress mentioned above. Her green headdress is part of her ensemble at the opera, where she now has very good seats. The will of God is never so pleasing as when it brings riches or a heightened position in society.

This is one of those moments of quiet hilarity that Tolstoy does so well, managing to invoke the falseness of a certain brand of piety  (belief in a prosperity gospel) that so often shows up, not in any action or word, but in the merest facial expression one adopts towards their own good fortune.

I myself, love the will of God when it treats me well. Pity it, I am even resigned to my good fortune when God wills it.

 

3.

“There are two sides to the life of every man, his individual life which is the more free the more abstract its interests, and his elemental swarm-life in which he inevitably obeys laws laid down for him”

I definitely feel less free in the hive, which for me and most people I know, is Facebook. It has its own laws that govern what’s appropriate to share, which I would flesh out as follows:

Is this something my like-minded friends would enjoy which would allow us to experience shared indignation or good humor?

or

Is this something I could get away with passive-aggressively posting for my other-minded friends, without getting unfriended?

Sometimes the virtual pressure put upon you by swarm-life is too much, like on days when the swarm decides it’s change your profile picture day to support a cause you don’t believe in. On those days, you just want to go away from it and live a quietly subversive life.

4.

“The Bible legend tells us that the absence of labor–idleness–was a condition of the first man’s blessedness before the Fall. Fallen man has retained a love of idleness, but the curse weighs on the race not only because we have to seek our bread in the sweat of our brows, but because our moral nature is such that we cannot be both idle and at ease. An inner voice tells us we are in the wrong if we are idle.”

 

This is the great conflict of my life. I long to have nothing to do, yet when that opportunity arises, I feel terrible taking it.

 

5.

“There was nothing wrong or unseemly in what they said, it was witty, and might have been funny, but it lacked just that something which is the salt of mirth, and they were not even aware that such a thing existed.”

It’s a blessing to encounter truly hilarious people. The “salt of mirth” is a rare commodity.

 

6.

“At the meeting he was struck for the first time by the endless variety of men’s minds, which prevents a truth from ever presenting itself identically to two persons.”

 

Speaks for itself, I’d say.

About Elizabeth Duffy
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  • Rebecca

    I love this! I need to pick up this book too. Read a collection of Tolstoy’s stories recently -as they appeared to fit better into this busy mom-life than the intimidating War and Peace volume. I just love Tolstoy’s profound observations about the human condition. Those Russian authors seemed to have a knack for it.

  • http://thereluctantwidow.com The Reluctant Widow

    You know, I’ve been thinking a lot about your point in #1. One of the things I miss dearly since my husband died is the fact that he was a man and my best friend. I appreciated the different way in which he looked at the world. I loved that we talked about intellectual things. I don’t have female friends that I can really do that with, but rather feel as though I do nothing but talk about kids and the issues of raising kids, which frankly bores me right now. With my husband my mind was always engaged. Plus, he’d watch football or golf with me. So lately I find myself thinking “I wish I had a male friend that wouldn’t do something stupid like fall in love with me, but with whom I could have stimulating conversation, go out to a movie with, or watch the NFL draft with…” you get the picture. A lot of older women have said to me lately, “Oh you will find love again” but really, I don’t want to. Not romantic love anyway. I, too, would like to be thought of as that sexless heiress who has interesting soirees and goings-on at my house where I can hang out with men and not feel that it might lead to something or that friendship might be misinterpreted.

    On another note, your post has made me consider re-thinking my refusal to ever read War and Peace.

  • http://darwincatholic@gmail.com DarwinCatholic

    Ah, yes, that was fun. Which of the readers available on Audible are you guys listening to? I listened to the Neville Jason one.

    Though I had my ups and downs with the book as a whole, there were so many wonderfully turned little bits. I’d have to go look it up, but one of my favorites was one in which Prince Andre has gone to the general staff and it’s running through all the different camps of opinion that exists, with increasing sarcasm as it goes along.

    • Elizabeth Duffy

      We are listening to the Neville Jason one too. He has such a wonderful voice. I’d never noticed before the way Tolstoy often ends each chapter with a subtle dig at his characters, but Jason captures all that is subtle and wry, and I find myself smiling unconsciously.


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