Sunday, August 16, 2009

Maugham on Tolstoy: what to do with unwanted chapters

War and Peace ( War and Peace (Vintage Classics)) is, probably, a Russian classic with the highest world-wide reference ratio. Not just because it is a great read, but also because it has become a metaphor for 'difficult' literature - too long, too serious, too many characters, too many historical or philosophical digressions.

Languagehat, the brilliant American blogger, reports that he has just finished reading War and Peace (over a year since he'd started) - and grumbles that philosophical chapters are amateurish, unnecessary and spoil the novel.

Many desperate readers agree. Here is what Andy K from Australia writes in an review of War and Peace:

I have tried War and Peace several times since I was a teenager, and each time I have enjoyed it UNTIL I get to the same bit. This is the bit where Tolstoy decides it's time to give us all a little lecture (say, a mere hundred and fifty pages) on his theory of history. I think this is in an inexcusable flaw in a story, book, or epic. Worst of all, it makes poor Leo Nicholayevich into precisely the pretentious git which he didn't want to be remembered as. Because of the pretentious and boring quality of the classic War and Peace, I quit reading this book. But I felt like I had failed when I was a teenager. Now I am a mature adult and I know better: Tolstoy was being a pretentious bore.

Well, ask Tolstoy's good friend and follower Gandhi, he would agree - Tolstoy is some work. But that work helped Gandhi change himself - and the world.

A lot of writers can't help but moralize. Few are ready to admit that it may be boring for the reader. In fact, I only know one, W.Somerset Maugham, a younger contemporary of Tolstoy, who honestly advised his readers to skip the next chapter, where he was going to philosophise, if they wanted just the story. Here is what he writes in the first paragraph of Part VI of The Razor's Edge:

I feel it right to warn the reader that he can very well skip this chapter without losing the thread of such story as I have to tell, since for the most part it is nothing more than the account of a conversation that I had with Larry. I should add, however, that except for this conversation I should perhaps not have thought it worth while to write this book.

I suspect Maugham envied Chekhov for his ability to construct a gripping story without a real plot - and diguised it as a critique of Russian 'verbosity' in general. Even though compactness is one of the most striking features of Chekhov's style. Maugham digresses into a whole chapter of criticising Chekhov for his lack of narrative in 'Ashenden', supposedly a spy thriller based on Maugham's own experience on Her (sorry - His) Majesty's secret service while trying to stop the bolshevik takeover of Russia in 1917. In another chapter Maugham implies that the revolution only happened because the people who could have stopped it spent too much time talking.

I think Tolstoy also envied Chekhov for the same reason - and also criticised him. But Tolstoy hated his own 'verbosity' and worked hard to make his language compact. I agree, we Russians are famous for our 'verbosity', but, in fact, we generally hate it too. We have a huge thesaurus of hate phrases for it, including many expletives.

And Maugham is one of our favourite English writers.

A note: if you think it's not fair to pay for a book which contains hundreds of pages you know you won't read, get ECCO Press 2007 version of War and Peace translated by Andrew Bromfield (War and Peace: Original Version) - it's Tolstoy's own abridged 'hollywood' version of the epic novel, half the size and with a different, happy ending. Read comments on here.

Please read a small review
of the two new (2007) translations
of War and Peace on
the Normandy Review of Books.

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