Editor’s note: This is the sixth in a weekly series of blog posts by Steven Axelrod, a writer reflecting on Leo Tolstoy’s epic masterpiece, War and Peace, a monumental journey of a novel that he has embarked on completing this winter.
“Don’t make a scene,” my wife used to say to me.
Odd remark to direct at a writer. I’d just shrug and say, “But that’s my job.” She wasn’t amused, but I should have seen that one coming. Serving my apprenticeship in Hollywood, where I wrote a baker’s dozen screenplays and worked on many more, doing revisions, page one-rewrites and the occasional quick polish, I succeeded well enough to get into the Writers Guild (with a signatory producer taking the steep initial fee out of my weekly salary), and to learn, by trial and error, that stories are built from scenes. The mantra of my MFA program (“Show don’t tell!”) echoed this fairly obvious axiom of the trade. Of course in a movie you don’t have the luxury of long rambling descriptions and lazy scene-summaries. The actors are standing in front of that green screen, the camera is running and they have to say or do something, before they lose the light. Writers and writer-directors (Innaritu and Woody Allen come to mind) are fighting this hard fact of cinematic storytelling with excruciating third-person voice overs. You know the kind of thing: disembodied Mr. Voice filling us in on any little subtleties we might have missed: “Robert and Michelle are uncomfortable. He has proudly ordered her a grilled cheese sandwich but she cringes silently, because she’s not a vegetarian, she’s a vegan. But he obviously doesn’t care enough about her to notice such petty distinctions.”
Thanks for the heads-up, Mr. Voice. But a less lazy writer would have found some way to slip that detail into the dialogue and a good actor could work the subtext. A paragraph like that slides easily into a novel, and in many of the classic novels I was forced to read in high school, it would have nestled in comfortably among the soft slabs of exposition and philosophical musings.
Writers otherwise as diverse as, say, Marcel Proust and Henry James, George Eliot and Lawrence Durrell, all share a stinginess with fully realized dramatic scenes that can make their work into an teeth-gritting ordeal for the unprepared modern reader.
Not Tolstoy. He writes scenes. He sketches in the landscapes; he’s more interested in the people. Scenes, not scenery—big meaty subtle funny scenes that tell you all you need to know about his characters and the world around them. I was thinking about this as I reached the end of Part One this week, and paged through the final meeting between Prince Andrei Bolkonsky and his father, before the young prince goes off to war. About to leave his pregnant young wife and his sentimental younger sister, he stops by his father’s study before mounting the carriage that will take him away from Bald Hills, the Bolkonsky estate. The old prince is a prickly old crank, sternly unsentimental despite a surfeit of actual sentiment. He’s working at his desk when Andrei walks in.
“You’re leaving?” And he started writing again.
“I’ve come to say goodbye.”
“Kiss me here, he pointed to his cheek. “Thank you, thank you!”
“What are you thanking me for?”
“For not overstaying and clinging to a woman’s skirt. Service before all. Thank you, thank you!” And he went on writing, so spatters flew from his scratching pen. If you want to say something speak. I can do two things at once,” he added.”
Andrei wants his father to take care of Elizaveta, his wife, to procure the services of a midwife if she gives birth prematurely. The old man agrees.
He signed with a flourish, suddenly turned quickly to his son, and laughed.
“A bad business, eh?”
“What is, papa?”
“A wife!,” the old prince said curtly and significantly.
“I don’t understand,” said prince Andrei
“Nothing to be done, my friend,” said the prince. “They’re all like that. No use unmarrying. Don’t be afraid; I won’t tell anybody; but you know it yourself.”
He seized his hand in his bony little fist, shook it, looked straight into his son’s face with his quick eyes that seemed to see through a person, and again laughed his cold laugh.
The son sighed, admitting by this sigh that his father had understood him. The old man, continuing to fold and seal letters with his habitual dexterity, kept snatching up and throwing down wax, seal and paper.
“What can you do? She’s beautiful! I’ll do everything. You can rest easy,” he said brusquely, while sealing a letter.
Andrei said nothing he was both pleased and displeased that his father understood him.
Andrei has one further request: that if he dies in battle his father should take charge of the child and not let it be raised by his wife. The old man laughs. His amused contempt for women is stunning, but the pact is sealed. Then he starts shouting “We’ve said our goodbyes … Off with you!” The women think he’s actually angry. Andrei knows the brusque dismissal is in fact a sign of deep affection, but sighs and says nothing to them. There’s no point in trying to explain. We get it, though—and we wish we could linger at Bald Hills a little longer. But it’s not to be. Andrei is off to fight Bonaparte, the French buffoon his father despises so much.
And so are we. The first “Peace” section of the book is over.
We’re going off to war.
Photo by Steve Rhodes
A great scene. “…if I hear that you have not behaved like the son of Nicholas Bolkonski, I shall be ashamed.”
What translation are you reading?
Pevear and Volokhonsky. I had good luck with their Anna Karenina.
and I with their ( Pevear & Volokhonsky) translation of “Hadji Murat”