By John Kopper, Professor of Russian and Comparative Literature, Dartmouth College
What can Tolstoy’s War and Peace, set among the aristocracy and armed forces of 19th-century Russia, tell us about today? The Hop asked John Kopper, a Dartmouth professor of Russian and Comparative Literature, to ruminate on that general topic for an essay for the playbill for Gob Squad Collective’s War and Peace, April 6 & 7 at the Hop. Kopper has spent his career teaching and writing about not only modern Russian writers but such 19th-century giants as Tolstoy and Gogol. On Wednesdays at 4 pm, you might find him in the department’s Seminar Room in Reed Hall, at the weekly Russian Tea. His essay follows.
He just couldn’t get it right. Tolstoy went through sixteen drafts of the opening scene of War and Peace. And what he had to describe was … a cocktail party. Who hasn’t felt “random” at a cocktail party? But if a great writer has determined the guest list, we keep on reading just to guess the logic behind the list. War and Peace begins with a party in an aristocratic Saint Petersburg home. War with France darkens the 1805 landscape and the earthquake of Napoleon’s conquests has begun, a shock that will reshape Europe’s thinking about nearly everything for a century to come. Party life will survive Napoleon’s invasion of Russia—the novel’s chief theme—but war will render it irrelevant and most of the guests will see their lives transformed. Before the end of War and Peace, several present at the party will be killed off by the author.
Tolstoy’s narrator is a mind reader, and he deftly alternates between overheard chatter and the partygoers’ inner thoughts: “She says…., but what she’s really thinking is …” Tolstoy is drawn to the gulf between our social self, determined by convention, and the life of our hidden emotions. The bigger the gap, the greater the potential for hypocrisy, which Tolstoy detests above all things. On the other hand, to trample unconsciously on etiquette at a party like this, as the male hero does, is to receive Tolstoy’s silent endorsement. In the opening scene, Tolstoy teaches us how to read him.
His universe is eminently moral. Never subtle in his judgments, his narrator makes it very clear at the party who the good people are and who we should avoid. But in Tolstoy’s world good people may meet a bullet and venal ones see their political and social fortunes rise. Looked at from Tolstoy’s eagle-eyed perspective, history carries us all on a blind wave. When we compare the first and final scenes of War and Peace we discover that nothing talked about at the party turned out to matter. It’s what you are, not what you talk about, and in the novel’s concluding meditation on history, salon chatter is displaced by philosophy. Seen through Tolstoy’s telescope, in fact, individuals themselves don’t matter much. And yet we’re told this by a 1300-page novel that etches in our minds for a lifetime the personalities of a half dozen characters. This is the paradox not just of War and Peace, but of the nineteenth-century novel. In the sweep of events, our private lives don’t count for anything at all—but they are everything to us.
At Tolstoy’s party we also notice that the people with a rich interior life are mostly men. It’s a fundamental Tolstoyan rule: women are sympathetic and can be wise, but they are non-intellectual and usually long-suffering—often due to the sexual or financial irresponsibility of men. If there were a laptop in the ladies’ powder room, there are ample female characters in War and Peace who would instantly register for the #MeToo movement.
Our cliché about Russian literature is that it asks the “big questions.” It does, but most novels, including War and Peace, pose the biggest: “How are we to live?” It would be more precise to say that Tolstoy and Dostoevsky know how to ask about uncomfortable things. How do we maintain integrity in a careless world? What do we commit to? Above all, how much of ourselves do we owe others?
We can think of the Gob Squad as writing the seventeenth draft of the opening of War and Peace. Tolstoy never understood the stage, probably because he hated the person he imagined he was when he sat in the audience. But he was a thoroughgoing iconoclast. He talked truth to the tsar. He talked truth to the church. A man of contradictions, he endorsed the class system but hated all political hierarchies and despised totalitarian thinking. He was a pacifist whose battle scenes in War and Peace are the most remarkable since Homer. Admiring humility but unable to practice it, he rewrote the New Testament to his own liking. So Tolstoy would applaud Gob Squad’s undaunted revisionism and be pleased that he had inspired the freethinking troupe here today–though he would mask his delight with a patriarchal glare.