Tolstoy & the Genesis of War & Peace

295 pages,
ISBN: 0801419026

Post Your Opinion
Class-Conscious Prehistory
by Hugh Maclean

For many years it was common knowledge among North American Slavists that there existed an extraordinary dissertation on the genesis of War & Peace, submitted at Columbia University in 1965 by Kathryn B. Feuer (1926-92), later (1966-76) chair of the Slavic Department at the University of Toronto. The more energetic and dedicated among them took the trouble either to obtain a photocopy or to make the pilgrimage to New York and read it there. To my shame, I was not among their number, though I knew Dr. Feuer and had read and admired some of her articles, always original and thoughtful, on other subjects. For some reason I never dared ask her why she did not publish her famous dissertation. I assumed that it was simply some mixture of perfectionism, diffidence, and the many distractions and demands of family life and an academic career. Only in 1994 did the answer emerge, in an article published in Russian by Feuer's daughter, Robin Feuer Miller, herself now a distinguished professor of Russian literature at Brandeis University.
In 1963, while participating in a Soviet-American cultural exchange program and carrying on the research on which this book was partly based, Feuer had also served as an illicit channel of communication between an eminent Russian scholar, one who had already suffered years of imprisonment and exile, and the outside world. As she and her daughter were about to leave the country, the KGB managed to steal from her purse some document, either an unfinished letter by Feuer herself or one she was carrying for transmittal abroad. As a result, the scholar was compromised and subjected to new harassment, though in the end he was not rearrested or tried. Feuer felt so guilty about this episode that she resolved to "punish herself", as she told her daughter, by not publishing her dissertation, good and important as she doubtless knew it to be. Only some twenty years later did she withdraw this unfortunate sentence, which of course punished us all as well as herself, and began to revise the work for publication. Already in failing health, she was unable to complete the task before her death. Fortunately, the team of her daughter and the noted Tolstoy scholar Donna Orwin of the University of Toronto has now done the job for her, and a real scholarly masterpiece has at last emerged from the shadows, a fitting monument to the author's memory.
And masterpiece it surely is. However much one had appreciated the subtlety, taste, and perceptiveness in Feuer's articles, one was not prepared to encounter a work at this level of mastery from an author at the very beginning of her career. For this book shows an author at the very height of her powers, confidently taking her place among the international community of Tolstoy investigators, most of them of course Russians, and on equal terms discussing with them a subject to which some of them had devoted their entire lives: how there came into being one of the great monuments of world literature, War & Peace.
In her research in Russia, Feuer was fortunately treated more generously than was often the case later in the Brezhnev era. Both at the Tolstoy Museum in Moscow (where all his manuscripts are kept) and at the Tolstoy estate at Yasnaya Polyana (near Tula), she was given full access to Tolstoy manuscripts and to his library, and she received willing assistance from leading Russian specialists, especially from the then most eminent of Tolstoy textologists, Evelina Zaidenshnur.
We naturally tend to think of War & Peace, like most great works of art, as an integral unity, an unassailable finality, as fixed in its shape as the Parthenon. But of course it was not always so. In fact, War & Peace presents a marvellous opportunity for scholars interested in studying how a great work of literary art was conceived, how it grew and developed through many drafts, and finally emerged in print in the form we know it today. (This is an opportunity, alas, that would seem to belong to the past: works written on computers will not leave comparable trails!) Fortunately, Tolstoy seems never to have thrown any paper away. He carried on a huge correspondence; he kept diaries most of his life; and, as Feuer points out, "the extant manuscripts of War & Peace, in Tolstoy's hand or in copies usually revised by him, number 3,804 sheets, along with 1,022 pages of proof sheet corrected by Tolstoy and 710 pages from a printed copy of the novel's second edition, with his revisions for a third." The task of deciphering (Tolstoy's handwriting is notoriously difficult), ordering, and classifying all this material was enormous. It has been devotedly carried out by generations of Russian Tolstoy scholars, especially those preparing the ninety-volume edition of his complete works published between 1928 and 1958. Most of Feuer's analysis is based on the texts (including drafts) as published in this edition, but she also had the opportunity to scrutinize the manuscripts themselves, an invaluable experience of immediate contact with the work-in-progress, and one that sometimes led her to disagree with decisions of the Russian editors.
Feuer's picture of the genesis of War & Peace differs in important ways from the one presented by her Russian mentor, Zaidenshnur. (Zaidenshnur's parallel book on the writing of War & Peace came out only in 1966, after Feuer's dissertation was completed, but her major points had been articulated in earlier articles.) Zaidenshnur's image, at least partly constrained by Soviet ideology, was that War & Peace is a great national epic of the Russian people, celebrating their triumphant victory over the Napoleonic invaders of 1812, an obvious parallel to their victory over the Hitlerite invaders of 1941. Although its heroes are all aristocrats, they are at odds with their class and with the imperial government in St. Petersburg. One of them, Pierre Bezukhov, is shown in the epilogue as an active member of the "Decembrist" conspiracy that was to stage an open revolt in 1825, and was ruthlessly suppressed. The figure of the peasant philosopher, "Plato" Karatayev, introduced late in the novel, shows, according to Zaidenshnur, that Tolstoy recognized that the moral centre of the country, its ultimate source of spiritual strength, rested in the peasant masses, not in their masters.
Feuer presents a very different, and in my view far truer, version. The Count Tolstoy of the 1860s who wrote War & Peace, she maintains, was a Russian aristocrat, proud of his ancient lineage. His class were the brains of his country, its chief bearers of culture. Their relations with their peasant charges, even under serfdom, were largely symbiotic and benevolent. Regrettably, the imperial government had chosen to base itself not primarily on the native gentry, but on a class of government bureaucrats, many of them (like Mikhail Speransky, who appears in the novel) not of gentry origin. Especially after the accession of Alexander II in 1855, the government was also often influenced by a new class of rootless intellectuals susceptible to radical fads emanating from the West. Far from being a repudiation of it, War & Peace for Feuer is a celebration and vindication of the aristocracy, the ultra-Russian aristocracy rooted in the land or congregated in Moscow, alienated from St. Petersburg and the court.
It had long been recognized that War & Peace began as a novel about one of the Decembrist revolutionaries, allowed to return to European Russia in 1856 after long years of penal servitude in Siberia. Some three chapters survive of Tolstoy's novel on this topic, War & Peace being in a sense its "prehistory". In addition to "The Decembrists", mostly written in 1860-62, however, Feuer calls attention to another unfinished story, "The Distant Field", dating from 1856-57, which for some reason had been little noticed by Tolstoy scholars. In this story she found the germ of several important ingredients in the original conception of War & Peace: the image of the cultivated Russian aristocrat living in the country, estranged from the St. Petersburg court (close to the future Prince Nikolai Bolkonsky); and a planned contrast between the Napoleonic age and the reformist era of the late 1850s, after Russia's defeat in the Crimean War. Feuer argues that War & Peace began not as a historical, but as a political novel, embodying a point of view energetically expressed in the preface to "The Decembrists", in which Tolstoy evokes the heavy satire of the "reform everything" atmosphere of the late 1850s, a time, he felt, of far more verbiage than substance. Though favouring the abolition of serfdom, Tolstoy was afraid that the manner in which this and other reforms were being proposed and carried out would lead to a general upheaval and to the loss of much that was valuable in traditional Russian life, as had happened in France after 1789. This attitude was to be reflected in the perceptions of a returned Decembrist, seeing the new Russia from the perspective of thirty years earlier. In the end this conception did not work for Tolstoy. A political novel à thèse did not light the fires of his creative imagination, which responded better to moral than political stimuli. Moreover, conditions had changed, both in the country and in his own life. The emancipation of the serfs had taken place (in 1861), on the whole peaceably; Tolstoy himself had recently married and, much in love, was leading the ideal life of a Russian landowner in his country "nest". The beginning of the "Decembrist" novel was pushed back further and further, finally coming to a stop at 1805; 1856 and even 1825 ultimately faded into oblivion. Prehistory became history. The first phase in the writing of War & Peace, the political novel, the one primarily dealt with in Feuer's book, thus came to an end, and the novel proceeded to its second phase, the "novel of manners", and to its third, the "philosophical novel", neither of which Feuer treats in detail.
Getting started was terribly difficult. Feuer lists no less than twenty-two "trial beginnings", showing how Tolstoy struggled with the problem of how to introduce a historical setting, different milieux, and major characters representing or embodying conflicting ideologies (pro- or anti-Napoleon). Herself a novelist, Feuer was acutely aware of the writerly problems Tolstoy encountered at every step, and her work is full of remarkable insights into questions of craft. One part of her analysis is especially interesting: she shows how Tolstoy, temperamentally so strongly opinionated and eager to assert himself, nevertheless forced himself to make his own presence less obtrusive, to give the characters and events the illusion of reality and an independent life-as ultimately they marvellously did. (To be sure, in the latter, "philosophical" part of the novel, which Feuer deals with only cursorily, Tolstoy cannot resist coming out from behind the scenes to argue about historical causality.)
Feuer's research in Tolstoy's library also enabled her to make some important discoveries into books that left their mark on War & Peace, notably Alexis de Tocqueville's L'ancien régime et la révolution and a remarkable, unjustly forgotten book by a German named Gotthilf-Theodor Faber, who had served in Napoleon's army and offered a penetrating analysis of its social dynamics.
The genre of the doctoral dissertation can be forbidding to ordinary readers: pedantic and tiresome, more and more words about less and less matter. Feuer's book shows that even this unfriendly form, in the hands of a writer of her skill and intelligence, can be as engaging as any detective story. As the writer Nikolai Leskov used to say, all kinds are good except the dull kind. Feuer's book is never dull. To be sure, some readers may be intimidated by its sixty pages of endnotes. Many of these are simply bibliographical citations, placed so that those who wish to follow the argument further can trace a quotation to its source. Others are far more than that. If readers will browse among them, they will find many nuggets of interest: encapsulated biographies of personalities referred to in the main text; polemics (always polite and gentle) with scholars with whom she disagreed; and-something far rarer in the scholarly world-warm tributes to those from whom she had learned.
Without being at all intrusive, the two editors have provided some translations (of French as well as Russian), updated some references, and written a warmly appreciative but concise preface ably placing in context this posthumous wonder.

Hugh McLean is professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, and editor of In the Shade of the Giant: Essays on Tolstoy (University of California Press, 1989).


Home First Novel Award Past Winners Subscription Back Issues Timescroll Advertizing Rates
Amazon.ca/Books in Canada Bestsellers List Books in Issue Books in Department About Us