Cats and Dogs – musings on Tolstoy

22 September 2012 § Leave a comment

In Russia I’ve head people categorised as being a “Tolstoy” person or a “Dostoevsky” person, rather as we in England label people as being cat or dog people. There are obvious reasons for linking the two – they were working at about the same time (Tolstoy was a few years younger, but lived much longer), and both produced the archetypal “Big Fat Russian Novels”, but they are also, I think, radically different, and complementary. We can prefer one or the other, but there’s no real need to set them up in a literary clash of the titans.

A while ago, I came across this article:  It’s worth reading  just for Carol Apollonio’s vivacious triumphing of Dostoevsky, for she says everything that I want to say about him in just a few brilliant paragraphs. I was going to write a post about it immediately, but I realised that as far as Tolstoy goes, I’m really rather rusty. I also read Isaiah Berlin’s essay The Hedgehog and the Fox, which is about Tolstoy’s philosophy of history (and not, as the author of the article claims, about Tolstoy and Dostoevsky), so all in all,  I decided it was time for a crash revision course, and that I should re-read one of the big novels over the summer. If I’d remembered that an Anna Karenina film was in the pipeline, I’d have re-read her, but instead I plumped for War and Peace, so I’ve ended up with tw0-for-the-price -of-one.

Dostoevsky admired in Tolstoy (and Turgenev) his artistry, his ability to paint pictures, and it’s his realism that has struck me on rereading War and Peace; an almost pernickety attention to detail and the sense of all his characters being fully-fleshed, rounded regular human beings, instead of Dostoevsky’s intense, hyper-real monstrosities. Of course in War and Peace I could do with a little less attention to detail; the battle scenes go from tedious military precision, laying out all the movements of the armies to gruesome accounts of death and injury and the futility of war and he does have a certain gory relish for difficult childbirths too. Where his artistry really shows is in his loving accounts of the Russian countryside – such as the Rostov hunting scene where every tree and blade of grass is placed in our minds.

One crucial difference that I’ve noticed between them is the way that they treat family life. Dostoevsky hardly ever delves into the mysteries of marriage; it’s a subject he leaves more or less untouched in the major novels (there are a few short stories about married couples), and he is more interested in parents, children and siblings, unlike Tolstoy who can’t stay off the subject. Good marriages, bad marriages, disastrous marriages, engagements, elopements, affairs, he has it all.

I personally think there is less ambiguity in Tolstoy than in Dostoevsky – at least in War and Peace and Anna Karenina. Tolstoy shouts his opinions on every page, in every action, and sometimes even feels the need to regale us with a critical essay. Dostoevsky is more slippery, he tricks us by putting what he doesn’t believe into the mouths of his most eloquent and compelling characters, and hiding his feelings in the words of fools and idiots. As readers, we have to work, because Dostoevsky doesn’t give us straight answers; he’s that fantastic teacher who answers his students’ questions with “but what do you think”.

I’ve been enjoying my mini Tolstoy-fest though, and the new Tom Stoppard/Joe Wright Anna Karenina film was bonkers and brilliant. Interestingly critics have commented on the fact that Wright set it in the very artificial surroundings of a dilapidated theatre, and contrasted that with Tolstoy’s realism, but his attention to little details such as Anna’s red bag and Karenin’s knuckle-cracking, and Stoppard’s fidelity to the story, combined  to make it all work (except for Vronsky, who was disappointingly unattractive).

Dostoevsky/Tolstoy. Cats/Dogs. Cat people read Dostoevsky.


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