“If you want a writer who understood his characters, look at Tolstoy,” my Dad said. “You’ve read War and Peace, haven’t you?”
Um, saw the movie. Downer ending, right?
The following week, a heavy box arrived from Amazon, a lovely new edition of Anna Karenina nestled inside.
It’s 817 pages, okay? Before the footnotes. But it’s brand-new and sits on my nightstand reproachfully. And I am curious. How did Leo Tolstoy understand characters?
I suspect this is where the term “tough sledding” originated. If slogging through the landscape of nineteenth century Russian literature isn’t tough sledding, what is?
I’m quite happy to leave literary analysis to the English majors. But now that I’m all of 10% into the book (did I mention the small type?), a couple of things are apparent about Tolstoy. And I’m starting to get it.
He writes from at least seven points of view (so far) in Anna Karenina and head-hops within scenes like crazy. But it works. His empathy for both men and women is all the more striking when you see that he holds someone in contempt or dislike. While deep in a point of view, he subtly gives the person plenty of rope. By then you understand the character so well that you don’t want him to hang himself.
Tolstoy wrote dialogue and introspection almost tenderly. Not necessarily nicely, but genuinely from that character’s point of view. Shades of gray are all over the place, figuratively speaking.
He had a genius for describing ordinary people’s emotions. The following passage describes how a heartbroken girl witnesses dashing Vronsky falling for older, married Anna:
She saw that they felt themselves alone in this crowded ballroom. And on Vronsky’s face, always so firm and independent, she saw that expression of lostness and obedience that had so struck her, like the expression of an intelligent dog when it feels guilty.
Can’t you just see Vronsky? It’s that uncanny ability to capture the essence of a moment that will keep me reading. I already know how it ends.