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>> The Genius of the Everyday

PHOTO:  The 1938 Limited Editions Club imprint of War and Peace is illustrated with drawings and lithographs by Barnett Freedman.Edward 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 edition."

The 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."

And 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."

Despite 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.

Although 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:

Nothing 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.

His 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.

Answer 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 eyes half-closed?"

The 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."

In 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.


Found in the Translations

The Soul of the Republic

Travels with a Satirist

Ocean Reveries

The Genius of the Everyday

 


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