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Is Tolstoi funny?

August 26, 2011

Jeff Brooks’s article on humor in War and Peace is fascinating and thoughtful throughout, but I’m going to take it as definitive proof that Tolstoi is as un-humorous a writer as they come. The gist of it is that when Tolstoi tried to write something overtly comic and satirical, it flopped. Instead

He was much more successful at sprinkling humor through his grand panoramas, giving the sharpness of the humor more depth, so to speak, as in his great novels. When there is so much of everything going on, it is easy to miss the humor, but it is undoubtedly there.

A key example for Brooks is the story of Pierre and Dolokhov tying a policeman and a bear together, back to back, and shoving the bear into a river, combined with innumerable comparisons of Pierre to a bear. This leads to a discussion of bears in Russian culture, of Russians being closer to the medieval period than other Europeans because they missed “the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Counter-Reformation, and much of the Enlightenment,” of Shklovskii and Iampol’skii on Tolstoi, of Freud and Bakhtin and Bergson on laughter, and of how the satirical journal Искра (The Spark) made fun of Tolstoi’s novel in pictures.

The Spark took aim at Tolstoi, Brooks claims, partly out of hostility, but partly because they realized “his novel was a cornucopia of valuable material for satire on contemporary society.” Tolstoi couldn’t do the straightforward funny satire that others were doing, but he could and did take comic material out of folk culture, use it in his novel, and have it taken back out of the novel and into popular culture by the wags at The Spark. There’s something to this, although I’m not sure “humor” is the best angle to get at what’s going on here. I’m uncomfortable with the implication that The Spark couldn’t have ridiculed a novel that wasn’t already full of comic raw material rooted deep in the medieval past. I may be missing something. To me the main thing about humor in War and Peace is Brooks’s admission that “writers of Tolstoi’s time mostly overlooked the comic aspects of the novel; in any case, they did not find it funny.”

I’m quite convinced by Brooks on Tolstoi favoring “ethical” humor, where someone says something self-deprecating, and laughing is permissible and healthy as the speaker doesn’t direct humor cruelly at anyone else. The most Tolstoyan thing of all, it seems to me, is an unsubtle critique of unethical humor. Chapter 2 of “Two Hussars” (Два гусара, 1856) ends with Turbin telling about a time when, told there were no horses ready, he opened all the windows of the stationmaster’s living quarters in winter, driving his whole family away except for an old woman left coughing and praying on the stove. One of his listeners laughs, but of course the reader doesn’t: Tolstoi does everything possible to make us feel such laughter is inhuman. The scene in War and Peace with the story of the bear and the policeman, at least in my memory, follows a similar pattern.

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, and in the meantime I apologize for backtranslations to English throughout this post.

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