Genius of the Everyday
Wasiolek tells the 30-plus students enrolled in Tolstoy's War
and Peace that they are about to read the world's "most
famous unread novel." But the volume that the Avalon Foundation
distinguished service professor emeritus of Slavic languages and
literatures pulls from his briefcase-a Modern Library edition
of Constance Garnett's translation, its faded green binding held
on by a few threads-has seen many readings, "real use,"
he says. And, Wasiolek allows, "so has the Maude [the Norton
edition, translated by Louise and Aylmer Maude], so has the Russian
well-read volume lends credence to his assertion that Leo Tolstoy's
1868 work is "probably the greatest novel ever written."
To underscore the point, he asks, "Is there a War and
Peace in American literature? In the English tradition?"
He suggests, then dismisses, both Dickens and Austen: "The
English novel is very parochial. It lacks the metaphysical dimension
of the Russian novel, the vision of it."
yet, Wasiolek argues, War and Peace presents a very real
world. "Tolstoy has fields and hunting and first love and
romance," he says. "This is a recognizable world, one
which we participate in." The very "normalcy" of
the novel underscores the magnitude of the novelist's accomplishment.
"How do you make great literature out of the fact that a
hem is too long or too short?" the professor asks, his eyes
seemingly focused not on the class but rather on a 19th-century
dressing room, caught up in the final flurry before a great ball.
"This is Tolstoy's genius."
the "magnificent reading" offered by the novel, Wasiolek
says, "a course must be constructed," and he has constructed
this course along the lines of the Garnett translation, with its
15 parts and two epilogues, one part per class meeting. To help
students navigate the first assignment, in which roughly 50 characters
appear, he outlines the three main families Tolstoy introduces:
the corrupt Kuragins, the good Rostovs, and the exiled Bolkonskys.
the novel has 600-some characters ("Everyone who counts gets
a different number"), all of the characters are memorable.
"There is so much detail, and yet the details never overwhelm,"
he says, reading from Virginia Woolf's praise of Tolstoy's eye
in War and Peace:
seems to escape him. Nothing glances off him unrecorded.
Every twig, every feather sticks to his magnet. He notices the
blue or red of a child's frock; the way a horse shifts its tail;
the sound of a cough; the action of a man trying to put his
hands into pockets that have been sewn up. And what his infallible
eye reports of a cough or a trick of the hands his infallible
brain refers to something hidden in the character, so that we
know his people, not only by the way they love and their views
on politics and the immortality of the soul, but also by the
way they sneeze and choke. We feel that we have been set on
a mountaintop and had a telescope put into our hands. Everything
is astonishingly clear and absolutely sharp.
battered Modern Library edition at the ready, Wasiolek begins
the second session with an informal lecture on what Tolstoy had
done and written before War and Peace. Turning to the day's
assignment, he reminds the students of the Virginia Woolf quotation,
"lauding Tolstoy on his ability to unify inner and outer
character," and asks them to list traits they associate with
several of the characters who move through Anna Pavlovna's salon.
after answer focuses on abstract definitions of personality, and
in response after response, Wasiolek tries to bring the focus
back to the physical descriptions Tolstoy provides. When a student
gives Prince Andrei, the son of the exiled Prince Nikolai Andreyevich,
the trait of being "disillusioned in his marriage,"
the professor counters, "In the first sentence, he has his
eyes half-closed. Why would Tolstoy give him the trait of his
prince's half-closed eyes, a woman replies, show "coldness,
hardness, perhaps even cynicism, but at other times, he's alive,
and his eyes open then." Those times, it is quickly pointed
out, do not include when he is with his young and naive wife.
"Does he understand what she is afraid of?" Wasiolek
asks. "Do you understand? She's six months pregnant.
She's like a butterfly, afraid of being abandoned in the country."
many ways, someone suggests, Andrei is like his father. The son's
insensitivity to his wife is mirrored by the father's harsh attempts
to teach mathematics to his terrified daughter. Once again, the
professor steps in, recreating the thumbnail description of the
daughter's "heavy tread, the red patches that appear on her
cheeks, her luminous eyes, her trembling." And again Wasiolek's
point is clear: Tolstoy is in the details. -M.R.Y.
in the Translations
Soul of the Republic
with a Satirist
Genius of the Everyday