(After Richard Holbrooke’s death in December, Sidney Smith, a man whose intelligence I very much admire, protested about my comparing Tolstoy with Flannery O’Conner. Somehow, the post was mislaid, so I am forwarding it now).
Sidney Smith’s comments about my posts are always courteous thoughtful and extremely well-expressed, and I would not offend him for anything. Yet in his conviction that I had tendered a slight to Flannery O’Connor by comparing her to Tolstoy, I believe he was not only “off topic” as he concedes, he was, in my view, off the point as well.
I think it was Bagehot who once classified readers as voracious, subtle, stupid or otherwise.
If I remember him correctly, Bagehot thought the voracious reader was like Samuel Johnson, who, with impatient greed, extracted the broad, basic features of a work, gouging out its essence while rejecting the rest as superfluous. He was deaf to style. This kind of reader doesn’t want to bother to savor the style or linger over the felicities of expression or the means a writer uses to accomplish certain happy effects. He guts the book of its meaning the way a sportsman guts dead fish.
Mr. Smith is never stupid nor is he voracious or undiscriminating when he reads. He is a subtle reader who pursues with” relentless attention the most imperceptible and delicate gradations of the narrative. He takes note of tiny traits and peculiarities, always keeping a keen eye fastened on the author’s personality and talents. He is entirely alive to, the motes in the sunbeam, and is minutely attentive to every prejudice and alert to every passion.” I think this is a correct quote from Bagehot.)
In mentioning Tolstoy, I was talking of War and Peace, and one cannot consider that book without thinking of things like size ,dimensions, its sheer volume or the astonishing sweep of the novel including the incredible multiplicity of characters and scenes, the dazzling variety of settings and topics, the breadth of effective spectacle that it offers. What other book has such an impressive roll call of characters so convincingly presented within such a splendid series of episodes? ( think of Pat Lang’s books. ) Tolstoy is a gigantic, copious abundance.
In other words, Tolstoy is epic, truly “awesome” in that word’s original powerful and uncontaminated sense. Further, he exhibits a profound creative fecundity that is in its way resembles Rabelais, for instance. Tolstoy once said of his Childhood, Boyhood, Youth, that “without vanity” it had “something of the Iliad about it.” And that is right. Tolstoy exhibits an unparalleled narrative power. His effects have an instinctive rightness in relation to their place and their setting. Wagner, (who possesses many of Tolstoy’s qualities) once observed that next to Shakespeare, one could place but one figure: Beethoven.
Can anyone possibly think of epic when they thank or read of O’Connor? She is a genius and a wonderful one, but, like Hemingway, she is an artist of the small space.
I have read War and Peace seven or eight times, but I still feel like a fisherman who lowers his modest bucket into a deep, boundless ea and takes up what he can. My desk is full of jottings about it, and I hope one day to make a coherent argument to laud its greatness.
My chief point is that in no way did I intend to slight the limited but acute and deep-feeling genius of Ms. O’Connor I was only trying to use contrast to deepen my meaning.
By Richard Sale, author of Clinton’s Secret Wars