Why is Tolstoy Modern?

My wife and I finished watching the recent BBC mini-series of War and Peace last night, and despite some minor quibbles about casting (the producers are perhaps correctly confident that viewers will never empathize with a plain woman or a fat man, even when the text is relentless on these characters’ traits) I thought it was remarkably successful, conveying the pathos of the Rostovs and Bezukhovs and Bolkonskys’ mingled  Loves and Deaths (as Woody Allen would put it) amid the broader canvas of the Napoleonic Wars. Having watched (or rather dropped off to sleep after beginning to watch) a fair number of dull-as-dishwater BBC productions of Dickens or Thackeray or Trollope, it made me wonder why this one in particular was so engaging, giving some of the same shock at, say, the death of Petya, the not-quite-seduction of Natasha, or the burning of Moscow that is found in Tolstoy’s very long but very enjoyable book.

One thought would be that the increasing prestige of television drama, thanks to The Wire and Mad Men and Breaking Bad and all the rest, affords it the budgets and artistic license to make a big sprawling 19th century novel work. If that’s the case, we’ll presumably see equally successful productions of Our Mutual Friend or The Way We Live Now before long. Another thought is that British actors and filmmakers are less stuffy and boring when portraying Russians than when portraying their countrymen. And a third thought is that Tolstoy is simply a better writer than Dickens or Trollope or Thackeray, or at least better in the ways that matters for being turned into a television show.

This was George Orwell’s and E.M. Forster’s belief (though not the part of about television shows). In his long essay on Dickens, Orwell writes,

Why is it that Tolstoy’s grasp seems to be so much larger than Dickens’s — why is it that he seems able to tell you so much more about yourself? It is not that he is more gifted, or even, in the last analysis, more intelligent. It is because he is writing about people who are growing. His characters are struggling to make their souls, whereas Dickens’s are already finished and perfect. In my own mind Dickens’s people are present far more often and far more vividly than Tolstoy’s, but always in a single unchangeable attitude, like pictures or pieces of furniture. You cannot hold an imaginary conversation with a Dickens character … because Dickens’s characters have no mental life. They say perfectly the thing that they have to say, but they cannot be conceived as talking about anything else.

And in Aspects of the Novel, Forster writes…

Then why is War and Peace not depressing? Probably because it has extended over space as well as over time, and the sense of space until it terrifies us is exhilarating, and leaves behind it an effect like music. After one has read War and Peace for a bit, great chords begin to sound, and we cannot say exactly what struck them. They do not arise from the story, though Tolstoy is quite as interested in what comes next as Scott, and quite as sincere as Bennett. They do not come from the episodes nor yet from the characters. They come from the immense area of Russia, over which episodes and characters have been scattered, from the sum-total of bridges and frozen rivers, forests, roads, gardens, fields, which accumulate grandeur and sonority after we have passed them. Many novelists have the feeling for place– Five Towns, Auld Reekie, and so on. Very few have the sense of space, and the possession of it ranks high in Tolstoy’s divine equipment. Space is the lord of War and Peace, not time.

My sense is that Orwell’s insight is the one that makes the biggest difference; we feel that, like us, Tolstoy’s characters, even or especially when portrayed by beautiful people in a well-lit and expensively shot television show, are growing, changing, grappling with the questions of love and sex and death that animate our own lives when we are alive to them.

Natasha or Pierre’s questions to themselves– who to love, what to do, what it’s all for– are the questions we ask ourselves, on a dorm-room sofa or in a late-night diner, even if we are less well-dressed when we ask them. And when we step outside, even if much has compressed and become smaller since Tolstoy’s time, the immensity of the world is still there, our lives and the people we care for, living and dead, scattered across space as well as time.

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