If the world could write by itself, it would write like Tolstoy


Tolstoy is the great novelist of physical involuntariness. The body helplessly confesses itself, and the novelist seems merely to run and catch its spilled emotion. A friend of the novelist’s, the critic Aleksandr Druzhinin, ribbed him about it in a letter: “You are sometimes on the point of saying that so-and-so’s thighs showed that he wanted to travel in India!” The old patriarch Prince Bolkonsky, for instance, loves his son, Andrei, and his daughter, Marya, so fiercely that he cannot express that love in any form except spiteful bullying, yelling in the presence of his spinsterish daughter, “If only some fool would marry her!” His hands register “the still persistent and much-enduring strength of fresh old age,” but his face occasionally betrays suppressed tenderness. As he says farewell to his son, who is going to war, he is his usual self, gruffly shouting “Off with you!” Yet “something twitched in the lower part of the old prince’s face.”

Tolstoy can seem almost childlike in his simplicity, because he is not embarrassed to do the kind of thing beloved of children’s and fairy-tale writers when they read the emotions on the face of a cat or a donkey. When Prince Andrei’s wife dies in childbirth, her dead face appears to say to the living, “Ah, what have you done to me?”

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