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Don’t read my book if your grandparents’ French was inelegant

August 25, 2011

Tolstoi in 1856

No one ever asks me who I think was the most humorless writer of the nineteenth century, but I wish they would so I could say Lev Tolstoi. You can find all kinds of humor in Dostoevskii, Nekrasov, Turgenev, Chekhov, even Chernyshevskii, to say nothing of Pushkin and Gogol. Tolstoi seems more inclined to have a character find something funny so that the narrator can browbeat the reader into admitting that it isn’t really funny at all if you think about it. Since I’m not a Tolstoi scholar and have this opinion, I was pleased to find an article by Jeff Brooks about “humor in War and Peace.”

I’ll save the meat of it for another post. Right now I’m interested in this:

[…] the persistently francophone opening of War and Peace may have been a conscious attack by Tolstoi against the raznochintsy, who generally did not know French. As if to support this, Tolstoi writes that Prince Kuragin “spoke the elegant French in which our grandparents not only spoke but thought.” His goal was to delineate a narrow circle of like-minded “reader-friends” who shared his upbringing and culture, the very audience addressed by Russian writers of the first half of the century.

(Sorry about the backtranslation; Brooks wrote the article in English, but I only have access to the Russian version in NLO.)

This is one of those lovely passages that makes me think things that are new to me, but seem obvious in hindsight. To wit: there were changes over the century in how literature was written and read that were bigger than any one person and affected the default idea of what audience a writer was expected to write for. Early in the century, unpaid aristocrats wrote mostly poetry to win glory in a tiny circle of other literary-minded aristocrats. Later, with a larger (if still small) literate population, a freer (if still censored) press, and a more diverse (if still mostly noble) set of writers, authors wrote prose read by strangers and were paid for it by magazines and newspapers.

But superimposed on these trends, you had high-profile individual writers pushing the process in opposite directions. The Tolstoi of War and Peace, as Brooks tells it, wants to drag the literary world back to the days of early Pushkin, when gentlemen were ashamed at the idea of selling their work and wrote unabashedly for the few. (Or perhaps he understands that non-aristocrats will also read his novel and may enjoy the feeling of being let in on the exclusive world of “our” grandparents, but let’s take it at face value for now.) Meanwhile, Nekrasov is looking for ways to publish his works so cheaply that literate peasants can afford them and ostentatiously dedicating The Pedlars (1861) to a peasant.

See Jeffrey Brooks, “Лев и медведь: юмор в ‘Войне и мире,’” trans. Dan Khazankin, НЛО 109 (2011). A longer English version is to be published in the forthcoming book Tolstoy in the Twenty-First Century, edited by Inessa Medzhibovskaya.

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