Saturday, June 30, 2007

First light, Moscow, 1812

I’ve been reading the new Milan Kundera book on the novel, The Curtain: An Essay in Seven Parts, which talks among many other things about Henry Fielding’s idea that the novelist should probe human nature with ‘a quick and sagacious penetration into the true essence of all the objects of our contemplation.’ Thus, rather than framing and contemplating a landscape, the novelist actively moves in and explores it. Indeed, some of the great novelists hardly stop to describe a particular view. I read somewhere recently that War and Peace has memorable descriptions of Russia in winter, but does it? There are soldiers suffering frostbite and, in earlier happier times, young people sledging through the snow, but in these cases it is people’s actions and perceptions that are being described. War and Peace is like a series of history, genre and portrait paintings, but I don’t recall much that could be described as landscape. On the other hand, Tolstoy, ‘quick and sagacious’, writes with such economy that he didn’t really need to stop the action to dwell on a particular vista. If you look, for example, at that sledging scene (Vol 2, Part 4, Chapter 10) you find fleeting but evocative sentences like these: ‘As they drove down past the garden, the leafless trees, sometimes cast their shadows right across the road and hid the bright moonlight. But once they were out of the gates, the snowy plain, glittering with diamonds on a wash of midnight-blue, opened out on all sides, quiescent and bathed in moonlight.’ (Anthony Briggs translation, p576)

Here is one rare moment when a character in War and Peace does stop to look at the view. The prose reads like topographical poetry (or a cinematic panning shot), but appears naturally in the narrative to symbolise a turning point for Russia and a re-birth for Tolstoy’s character, Pierre.
‘On that first morning, when he had got up at first light, come out of the shed and seen the dark domes and crosses on the Novodevichy Convent, then the grass with its dustings of hoar-frost, then the slopes of the Sparrow hills and the wooded river-banks meandering away into the purple distance, when he had felt the chill touch of the morning air and heard the cawing of jackdaws flying across the fields away from Moscow, and then seen a sudden glint of light in the east followed by the sun’s rim rising majestically from behind a cloud, and the domes and crosses, the hoar-frost, the horizon and river all merrily sparkling in the new light – Pierre had felt a new surge of strength and vitality, the like of which he had never known before.’ (p1126)

No comments: