Friday, August 19, 2022


                                                         "These be the great Twin Brethren
                                                         To whom the Dorians pray.
"                                                                                                                         -
- Thomas Babbington Macaulay, The Lays of Ancient Rome

On his second trip to England in 1861 Tolstoy did not meet Dickens. He might have done, but he didn't. Though he'd only published a handful of novellas at that point, Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy at thirty-three was already becoming an important contributor to the rising Russian literature. He was also a world traveler by the standard of the day and a genuine aristocrat. This meant rather more then than now, and more to other people than it ever did to Tolstoy. Still, entrée. For example, the poet and critic Matthew Arnold, who happened to also be Her Majesty's Inspector of Schools, wrote the master of Yasnaya Polyana a letter of introduction to study English educational methods. (It pays to know people who know people and or to be of noble birth.) Tolstoy is on record as having a great admiration of the English novel, and of Dickens in particular. Big fan. Given the opportunity to see Dickens perform one of his famous public readings, Tolstoy jumped at the chance. It might have been an even more memorable night had anyone offered the Russian a chance to go backstage and meet the great man, but it seems no one did. At 49, Dickens was still in full flush, but already tearing himself to tatters on the podium, so he was not always eager for company after anyway. And then there was what might have been a language barrier. Of course Tolstoy read English, but wrote and spoke it less well. Presumably on his grand European tours, he spoke mostly French, just as his whole class did at home. Charles Dickens taught himself what might charitably be described as tourist French and Italian. Can't imagine that the shy Count and the cockney wizard could have had much of a chat. Doesn't matter. Much as we might like the idea, whatever might have been wasn't. They never met.*

It is perfectly natural that we might wish they had. It's an irresistible impulse to speculate what brilliant folk might have said to one another at a dinner party, etc. Knowing that in 1891 Conrad took Henry James out to a long lunch conjures all sorts of fascinating possibilities. But experience tells us they probably just complained about royalties and the fish being cold. The idea of such meetings is almost always better than the reality, it seems. So why do we wish otherwise? Maybe it's a Hope and Crosby thing. Yeah, we love them both, but together? That's gotta be good, right? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Yes: Road to Morocco, no: golf.

There is a recording online of  something called "Dickens vs Tolstoy" which is an opportunity to hear actors reading work from both writers. It is also an entirely pointless debate as to which of the great novelists is somehow greater than the other. I know of this event only because one the actors hired to participate was the dreamy Tom Hiddleston, a man I would watch pick his teeth and think myself lucky. The premise of the event offends me, but I watched it anyway (oh, Tom.) I can't now tell you much of anything else about it. Tom looked terribly good. Watch it if you want. Childish nonsense, this business of ranking art and treating novelists like contestants on a talent show. Is anyone in the audience going to be persuaded? Presumably if they were present they were already fans of either or both writers -- or they just came to creep on Tom Hiddleston because that's a thing perfectly respectable people do. Was anyone taking sides before that evening? Was anyone persuaded to switch? Did anyone show up waiting to see who won in order to decide which to read?! It's moronic, but all to human. Tell me what to read. Tell me why. Tell me which one's better. Should I never eat prime-rib again because I like lamb better? What's good here? How's the coffee?

The only reason any of this can be made to matter, this imaginary handshake between titans, speculating about what one might have thought of or said to the other, who one should read in preference to the other, or read next, is because reading one is actually quite unlike reading the other and yet one rather hopes for a similar experience from both. Real readers chase that high, am I right? Can't read books again for the first time. How to keep it fresh then? Personally, I like all the incidentals; biographies, letters, anecdotes, gossip. And for the big fat ones, it turns out I like company and chat far more than I ever thought I would. so, moving the chat along...

Hard to remember, but they were contemporaries. That must mean something, surely? Quite the time it was! Giants roamed the earth, etc. Setting them side by side, or end to end come to that, means thinking about them together as well as apart. That's where we are and I think that that's the place to start. If it's silly to say which one is better, and it is, and pointless to wonder what they might have had to say if they'd met, which they didn't, I don't think it is quite such a waste of time to think about them in their own time and in the vanished world in which, for a time they both lived.

Obviously Dickens was the elder man. He was also perhaps the world's first international celebrity, in that he neither founded a religion, conquered territory, nor killed any but imaginary people who probably deserved it. (And no, I don't mean Little Nell, you big meanie.) Tolstoy loved Dickens. It's hardly an exaggeration to say again that everybody did. Like most people and certainly most writers then, Tolstoy read and reread Dickens' novels throughout his long life. As a reward for having finally finished the very long struggle that constituted the writing of Anna Karenina, Tolstoy reread Dickens. Even the writers who saw Dickens as a rival, or an upstart, or a clown, read Dickens. All the Russians then busily making Russian literature from scratch, read Dickens, and so did their sisters, and their cousins, and their aunts. On the other hand, there's no evidence that Dickens had heard of let alone read anything of Tolstoy. Perhaps had Dickens not died so young? Again, opportunity never arose. Shame. Also? Dickens was not a man of much leisure. His fortune was earned by almost endless toil. Not a Count, don't you know, nor did he ever own anything so grand as four thousand acres. He read enormously, but really this was more a part of his professional life as the editor of more than one magazine. Tolstoy read fiction in multiple languages for pleasure, yes, but also as a student of literature. Both of these were then, and sadly seem again to be, activities for the leisured classes. In short, Tolstoy had the time for that sort of thing -- you know, when he wasn't trying to teach peasants the Russian alphabet, write a new fiction, reform education, found hospitals, and rewrite Orthodox Christianity. (Being a certain sort of reform-minded aristocrat, or at least being Leo Tolstoy turns out to be nearly as labor-intensive as making a fortune in England by the pen. Still, the A for effort I think has to go to the most famous Englishman of the 19th Century. Still not a contest.)

Dickens was a direct and acknowledged influence on Tolstoy the novelist. And unlike his opinion of even his nearest and dearest contemporaries, Tolstoy's admiration of the English novelist seems never to have wavered. Tolstoy was notorious for walking out on meetings with other writers, bluntly rejecting books and authors he might once have admired, being more than once unkind even to the writers who sought to help and promote him, like Turgenev. Dickens the great editor was not above a rejection or an unsolicited rewrite, but there is little evidence of any grudge other than a personal one involving Thackeray, and they made up before Dickens died. He seems always to have been in the business of bringing as many good writers as he could find up the ladder after him. Wilkie Collins and Mrs. Gaskell come first to mind. This encouragement and enthusiasm was a practical matter; the editor of Household Words, etc. needed good copy. Had they met, I like to think Dickens would have been as encouraging to the young Tolstoy. (See? Hard not to.)

Obviously there are things they had in common despite their very different styles, ages and biographies. Indignation comes first to mind, and a fervor for reform. Neither thought much of the established religions of their respective countries. Both could be quite funny and are often remembered laughing. (The requirements of early photography  prevent us seeing either  smile much, but they did, just not when sitting for photographers and painters.) Both Dickens and Tolstoy were impatient and ambitious men. As they got older, neither was very nice to their respective, long-suffering wives. Most obviously, both were great novelists, geniuses, but very different writers.

Reading them out of chronological order as it were will I think make for an interesting point of comparison for our book club. We just finished Anna Karenina, published in 1877. War and Peace was published a decade before that, and Little Dorrit, our next book for the club, 1857. (Dickens died, aged only 58, in 1870, roughly fifteen years before Tolstoy's first great masterpiece ever saw its way into English.) In one way, Tolstoy was not just of a new generation, but of an entirely different era. Both might fairly be described as Victorians, but besides being Russian rather than English, that designation rests even less comfortably on Tolstoy than it does Dickens. How to put this delicately? Tolstoy had a wider experience, shall we say, but interestingly, was I think more of a prude than Dickens. Dickens was tortured by many things, but not I think by either sexual incontinence or religious guilt. There is that. But Tolstoy was very much the new man and even as his politics and ideas went well beyond anything Dickens might have espoused or possibly even understood, so too Tolstoy all but invented a new way to write in his language; embracing both a distinctly accessible and un-decorated style, and a new psychology of character. For Tolstoy, the novel was a way to explore his conscience and question his ideas. There had frankly never been anything quite like him before, in oh, so many ways. Dickens knew what he believed from an early age and found a way to say it, a way that captivated, entertained, delighted, inspired, and shamed his readers. If Dickens chafed at the restrictions of that famous Victorian decorousness, and had to find inventive ways to write around the rules of what then could and could not be discussed in polite society and popular fiction, Tolstoy simply ignored many of the social and literary conventions** of his time and place. For example he made of the already rather exhausted historical novel something new; a novel of ideas. He might deny it later when he was the sage courted by actual revolutionaries, but Tolstoy was something of bomb-thrower in his way, even as he became the wise old pacifist of Yasnaya Polyana. Dickens did not reinvent the English comic novel. It was a tradition he loved, understood and studied. In his troubled childhood, it was where he went for wonder and magic. Instead of reinventing it he gave it new purpose, redirecting its humor and anger and energy at contemporary targets. He gave it new and dynamic life and drove it into the crowded streets and down dark alleys. He rode it roughshod over the enemies of progress and humility. He invested it with  his own manic energy, and with his conscience. He gave it a greater heart, a wider sympathy, and more readers than any English novelist before or since, save possibly dear old Dame Agatha Christie. (If you can't see the humor in the old girl's deviously overcomplicated cases, you may be missing the point.)

Tolstoy's protagonists all tend to work out on his behalf aspects of his own personality and opinions. Pierre, Levin, even Anna, think aloud Tolstoy's thoughts. He thinks through them. Their questions are his, or rather they were created to think things through at the author's behest. This is what makes him modern, not his answers but his questions, how he asked them, and the need to keep asking. Tolstoy pursues philosophical ends by means of brilliant fictions. At times Tolstoy does not seem to remember why he's asking the question he is, let alone what the answer might be. If he is occasionally boring it is because he was more than occasionally bored, because life can be boring, because boredom might interest him, because frankly the man himself could be didactic and even a bit tedious. Tolstoy created characters to see what would happen to them. I don't know that Dickens was bored a day in his life. In Dickens, character is visible: kindness shines, greed hardens, joy laughs and dances, cruelty grins, and envy twitches and fawns. In Dickens, character tells. As in almost everything the man ever did or wrote or said aloud, Dickens knows just what he means to say and says it, often as not in his own voice, in case we missed the point in a story. Tolstoy notoriously paused the action of War and Peace to teach history or give sermons (good history and great sermons.) Everything Dickens wrote was a sermon, if miraculously the funniest and most touching sermons in English.  He is regularly distracted by the fun he is obviously having, and by his dizzying capacity for invention. Dickens revels in all the conventions of melodrama and comedy -- and sets himself traps out of which he does not always get gracefully. No matter. Point invariably taken and a (mostly) good time had by all.

While both writers were masterful technicians, nobody before or since wrote better scenes than these two, or used language more individually and well, both men were ruled by emotion. It's all very well to talk or write about injustice or poverty, love and death, but can we the readers be made to feel the effects of these things on other, imaginary people? Will we be put in mind of our own lives? More importantly, can we be made to look beyond ourselves to the world and humanity around us? Whatever one may think of Tolstoy's grinding philosophical journey or Dickens' increasingly threadbare optimism, we do not now read them for their ideas anymore than one reads Immanuel Kant for love or Arthur Schopenhauer for joy. Nowhere is the novel's capacity to convey emotion in a way usually reserved for poetry better represented than in these two whiskered old parties. Yes, they wrote wonderful weather and remarkable rooms, thrilling rides and wars, revolutions, deaths sentimental and real. Both watched and listened and studied humanity with the intense concentration usually reserved for the entomologist, and named the people all around them like giddy botanists. Beyond all their other dazzling gifts, Tolstoy and Dickens felt passionately and could not understand the world but in terms of that fervor. They might admire reserve, Victorians after all, but were devoted, addicted to feeling. Its absence was a kind of death for both of them, and its dangers they found exhilarating. Neither ever really understood tranquility nor put much stock in relaxation. For two such famously Christian gentlemen, to be in the world but not of it was unthinkable, impossible, wrong.

Tolstoy had to know how everything felt in order to understand whatever it was he described. He understood better than any of his contemporaries how we might best be drawn into whatever problem he was parsing. One had to feel one's foot in the wet boot, the suicide's despair, the love of a plain woman. For Dickens, emotion allows for and sometimes betrays but does not dictate intension; to kill for example in a rage like Bill Sykes excuses nothing, people do as their natures direct. Tolstoy wished to understand everything; people, war, agriculture, politics, infidelity. Dickens wanted change. We must see the good to want it ourselves. We must know evil and see it vanquished, or failing that, comfort and raise up it's casualties. Whatever his distaste for religion and orthodoxy, Dickens maintains a fundamental faith in Grace and the gifts of redemption. Tolstoy doubts. Dickens believes.

Maybe that's the real point of connection. Both writers were fundamentally conservatives with a little "c." For all their pursuit of progress and philanthropy, neither really trusted the political abstractions in which the 20th Century was to mire itself. For example neither had much truck with "the people." Anyone claiming to act on behalf of, or claiming to derive their power from such a theoretical population was to be distrusted. Neither writer thought much of a mob -- that lingering bugaboo from the days at least of the French Revolution. The single thing that tethers both gents to the 19th Century is their faith not in God, but in humanity. That is what dates them. That is also why we return to them after more than a century with the anticipation of comfort. We may not believe as they did, or put the stock they did in what they believed, but we want to return and linger there, in that last, great gasp of the enlightenment, if just for the length of a long novel.

People who read epic fantasy, or cozy mysteries, or Bridgerton books are all of them indulging in nostalgia; the longing for what never was: heroes vanquishing villains, romance in bright brocades, history as puppet theater. Are we any better, reading 19th Century novels chockablock with noble virgins and ignoble schemers? No, not better, but perhaps knowing better. It takes an act of will nowadays to see humanity's biggest problem as dragons. Much was made in the last mid-century of Dickens caricatures, his sentimentalism, his lack of psychological depth. Faddish as yesterdays critical norms come all too quickly to be (Freud?! Please, might as be phrenology,) even the worst of yesterday's academic bullies had to concede that whatever Dickens wasn't according to their bone-dry notions of seriousness, he was more than a popular entertainer. Dickens never wrote down to his audience. His language is rich as Lamb's with the antique and the odd. His ear is as good as Faulkner or Lawrence. His powers of physical description are the equal of Hardy, and funny. Much of what makes Dickens funny is commentary, not comedy. (This is the irreparable loss in film and tv adaptation. The comedy can actually be improved by great actors, but the voice of Dickens is missing and that is everything.) He is a writer of  verbal flights and prose fancies. He decorates and dresses up and he dances on the page. He does everything that genre storytellers do badly or without. He glories in his English, and the English, and in Dickens we get the best of both. 

Tolstoy was no fool. He might have been reading Thackeray, or Trollope -- pretty sure he did -- but Dickens stirred his soul and his imagination and it was to Dickens he looked for a model and a guide. If the only Dickens we knew was Dickens as Tolstoy read him, we would not be much off the mark. Tolstoy didn't need to meet the man. He knew him. Brother novelists in the struggle, as it were, connected at the soul, very different men, and Christians, but of the same communion, no? And that is why we read them still, is it not? Genius, yes, but also great heart. I can't think of a better reason to pick up Dickens having just put down Tolstoy. 

*A charming tale describing a meeting between Dickens and Dostoevsky turns out to have been cut from whole cloth, sadly. Also? When the Englishman returned to America on his last tour, Mark Twain  went to see Dickens read. Mr. Clemens was not impressed. Maybe it was a bad night, or maybe the American expected too much. Twain loved Dickens just as Tolstoy did, just as most people did and many people still do. For Tolstoy's and Twain's generation, he was an idol. Sadly, Twain was disappointed by his idol's reading that night. He wrote to more than one friend describing Dickens' performance as a poor job; sometime inaudible, weary to look at, and yet cheered to the rafters by Twain's fellow citizens. Just as well then that they didn't meet that night or thereafter. I don't hold with the old saw of "never meet your idols." Some of mine have been lovely. Some of them, including some truly great writers gave truly terrible readings. It happens.

** Keeping in mind, there was nearly no such thing as Russian literature before Pushkin. Tolstoy was one of the people who invented it, using Western European forms to arrive at a very modern, and Russian, result.

Saturday, August 13, 2022

A Wholly Secular Person

"Man is the Storytelling Animal" -- Salman Rushdie, from Luka and the Fire of Life

 A seventy-five year old man is attacked, beaten and stabbed by a twenty-four year old man from New Jersey. Even now, just a day later, there is a narrative being shaped by people other than either of these men. One is in the hospital on a ventilator and can't speak. The other is in police custody and presumably being advised by an attorney not to. For now, this is news and that means almost any detail is part of the story in a way that may or may not matter much later on. Does the fact that the assailant is from Fairview, New Jersey matter? Well, it's something. That's how news works. A fact is a fact to be reported. As I write, Salman Rushdie is alive. That matters. 

The way we tell this story will matter. How we tell stories, particularly stories that are not our own, discloses why we are telling them. Frankly I am not much interested in the story of the young man with a knife. I have read his story before, too often. Maybe I'm wrong and this time his story will matter in ways I cannot foresee. As of now, he is in my mind just that legalistic necessity, "the alleged assailant." It will be some time before the modifier is removed. The noun may change. Motives are already being assigned and assumptions are being made. Can't be helped. Most of us are not lawyers so we are free for now to dismiss the presumption of innocence, at least in the story we are already telling ourselves and each other about what has happened, what this young man presumably did. (It won't be easy to remember that presumption when we may need it again. Never is. Why they had to make it part of the Law.) All I can say at this point is that he is not the point of the story I am following. He seems so young! Then I remember, "Children are the vessels into which adults pour their poison." He is obviously the reason this is a story, but beyond that he is for me just a locus of anger, the point that shapes and warps the story that matters to me, the life with which I am personally concerned, even though I am not part of it. It is the author of books I am thinking of, an artist whose work and life matter to me and about whom I am worried in a way I frankly thought I need not be by now.

I describe the man who has been assaulted as an author, an artist, because that is how I know him, why I love him; because I love his books, if not all of them equally. We all make favorites. I might just as easily call him an important public intellectual, a thinker, an activist in the cause of freedom of speech, an advocate for the displaced and the exile, a champion of the victims of intolerance, ignorance, violence, religion. Heroes tend to be personal, however publicly they perform. We adopt them as our own. We think that they belong to us -- though obviously this is not true. Even if it is, it is usually no fault of theirs. They just do what they do and get on with their lives. We make them into the stories we need. In this case, this man has written stories I needed, wonderful, funny, important stories for which I am grateful. He didn't choose to become the story we all know even if we may never have read a word he's written. He's told his own story too -- and made a great book of it -- which is the best proof of why this new story is so important to me; I need him to tell me more, to tell me this. I fervently, selfishly  hope he will.

"Literature is where I go to explore the highest and lowest places in human society and in the human spirit, where I hope to find not absolute truth but the truth of the tale, of the imagination of the heart."

In an interview he has described himself as, "a wholly secular person." I am with him there. At fifteen, like many of us -- not altogether coincidently like me -- he found he had no need of religion. A more profound conclusion on his part, at least in its effect and consequences. Like most of us, he has retained the use of the metaphor and may still talk about God and even capitalize the "G" the way one does, but from well before he first wrote the novels that have made him justly famous, he was already at odds with much of what Carl Sagan called, "the demon-haunted world." As I see it, this put him firmly on the side of the angels. (See? Can't be helped. Not like we've gone to live on another planet and forgotten from whence we came. Quite the opposite really. We are if anything all the more committed to the place we actually are and just as curious as to how we got here and what we are meant to do while we are.) This fact does not define the man as an artist. If it did he'd just be another Richard Dawkins, bless 'im, and we already have one of those. Atheism isn't what drew me to Salman Rushdie. It was art, and India, pickles and Bombay then Mumbai and Kashmir and comedy. He is the greatest living comic novelist in English. You may disagree. You will probably not persuade me otherwise. For me he is the direct descendent of Henry Fielding, and Tobias Smollett, of Dickens and Thackeray, of R. K. Narayan, he is a son of Vanity Fair and Mulgudi, an important New Yorker and one of the only people whose company I might want in LA. It is for all these reasons, and those books that I love him.

“The only people who see the whole picture,' he murmured, 'are the ones who step out of the frame.”     -- from The Ground Beneath Her Feet

What has happened to him is not the consequence of what he has written. "The responsibility for violence lies with those who perpetrate it." Just so. This story, his story is rife with villains not of his creation. (Anyone reading his books will recognize that he hasn't much patience for either villainy or characters without dimension, appetites, doubts, humanity.) It is important at this moment to remember that the only violence this man has ever done has been to the assumptions of narrow minds and cruel men. Other than his physical bravery in participating publicly in the world, his only heroics have been performed with words. “A poet's work . . . is to name the unnamable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world and stop it from going to sleep.” That's from the one book of his of which most people have heard but too few people have read, by the way. Those are brave words because he said them aloud as it were, but he is brave in saying them because they are true and the truth is dangerous in a world still ruled by superstition and the men who use the name of God as a scourge and a bludgeon.

The violence yesterday was done to a man. It was presumably also aimed at his ideas, at the very concept of having ideas of one's own. It is still shocking to me that it happened here, in the United States, and at "the Chautauqua." If you don't know the significance of that name, it is a place that has hosted some of the greatest voices in the American experience; iconoclasts, atheists, preachers, writers, politicians, saints, and cranks. Audiences gathered there to hear the likes of Mark Twain, Robert G. Ingersoll, and Jane Addams. The place matters because the history matters, and because the idea of it matters more. It is a site sacred to our secular tradition. Few places in America better represent who we are and what we hope to be. That young man with the knife may not have known any of this, but then madness and fanaticism don't much concern themselves with history, facts, or tradition. Hate requires excuses, not reasons. The knife may be sharp, but hate is a blunt weapon. We need to remember not just what has happened and where, but why Rushdie was there. He was there to talk about asylum and exile, about finding sanctuary. Irony is beyond the scope of bigots, assassins, and fools.

I will hope if not for a happy ending as that does not now seem possible then at least that Salman Rushdie lives. Again, this hope is a selfish one. It is what I want for him, and his family, and for his readers, and for us all. How this story goes on is of course not up to me. I only know that whatever happens, this story will not end. Salman Rushdie taught me that. Stories, our stories do not end unless we forget them. No one will forget the stories Salman Rushdie has already told. No one. Let this not be the last we remember. "The world, somebody wrote, is the place we prove real by dying in it."

Not yet, poet, please. Not yet. Let me stay in the story you are telling. I am listening.

You were saying?