Rather than say anything about Tolstoy, I want to try to explain what I think would be the sort of criticism on Tolstoy I’d like to read. I’ve always been averse to criticism about characters; too often, it feels like gossip. But Tolstoy is set apart from everyone else by his characters. They seem like real people.
But saying that, the criticism rings hollow, both because if that is the great strength of a novel, then we might as well spend our time gathering more friends or speaking to those we have, and because it seems a betrayal of art to think of it as aspiring to approximate what we already know, rather than add to it.
What’s more, there are superb critical insights that fix upon characters. How to account for their strength and staying power?
In a sense, we can talk about the characters in great literature as if they are people; this is genuinely a part of the success of certain works. But Tolstoy’s novels grant us something that life doesn’t: to account for the characters, to do them the justice of comprehension, we need to talk about them as we cannot about people in life—those people in life whose reality we believe in as much as we believe in the reality of Tolstoy’s characters we would not discuss as we discuss those characters: either because we care about them too much for the brutal honesty that fictional characters permit, or else because we care about them so much that we cannot gain purchase or perspective, or else because we cannot isolate them, cannot extricate our having influenced them and being influenced by them. And those from whom we are isolated, or of whom we could speak with dispassionate, surgical judgment are also those in whose reality we do not sufficiently believe, or who we do not adequately know, or, perhaps most likely, who we do not care for, feel for, enough to allow for proper understanding.
Tolstoy’s fiction allows us to experience what is a fiction of knowing others: that they can be subject to certain sorts of judgments, analyses, and descriptions which we almost never are afforded or allowed in the rest of life. For this reason, those characters come to feel more real than many of those we know best in the world.
The same, I think, holds true for any author whose art depends on imagining others: their characters have strangely un-estranging purchase on us, and we have strangely un-estranged purchase on them.
In the case of Dickens, his most memorable characters are, as critics charge, two-dimensional; but they collapse into two-dimensions under the weight of their own doubts, shoddy defenses, and denials; they breathe in two-dimensions, or suffocate themselves in two-dimensions, just as many people in the world do. In the case of Proust, we are compelled not only by the cast of characters, but by the narrator, who is of the same reality as the characters themselves, whose remarks on the characters supplements without effacing our sense of the characters in their own rights.
Writing on Dickens and Proust, as different as they are, critics are able to write about character without only writing about character. In the case of Dickens, a critic can glide from the character to the institution or psychological phenomenon that induced the demise, and both of these are broader than the character who is only one victim among a victimized and victimizing world that is evoked metaphorically through the novel. In the case of Proust, a critic can move from character to the reflections of the narrator, the structure of the narrative, the lens through which the character is realized.
In the case of Tolstoy, of course there is a lens of language, perspective, and the rest. But a critic of Tolstoy should do justice to Natasha at the opera or Petr Rostov by writing about Natasha or Petr Rostov (or Napoleon!), alive, acting, driven through their world—not as if they were real people, but as we imagine we might write about real people if they were both nearer and further from us than they almost ever are.