Ten Novels and Their Authors by W. Somerset Maugham


  Both these men, Pierre and Prince Andrew, are in love with Natasha, Count Rostov’s younger daughter, and in her Tolstoy has created the most delightful girl in fiction. Nothing is so difficult as to portray a young girl who is at once charming and interesting. Generally the young girls of fiction are colourless (Amelia in Vanity Fair), priggish (Fanny in Mansfield Park), too clever by half (Constantia Durham in The Egoist), or little geese (Dora in David Copperfield), silly flirts or innocent beyond belief. It is understandable that they should be an awkward subject for the novelist to deal with, for at that tender age the personality is undeveloped. Similarly, a painter can only make a face interesting when the vicissitudes of life, thought, love and suffering have given it character. In the portrait of a girl, the best he can do is to represent the charm and beauty of youth. But Natasha is entirely natural. She is sweet, sensitive and sympathetic, childish, womanly already, idealistic, quick-tempered, warmhearted, headstrong, capricious and in every way enchanting. Tolstoy created many women, and they are wonderfully real, but never another who wins the affection of the reader as does Natasha. She was drawn from Tanya Bers, the younger sister of his wife, and he was charmed by her as Charles Dickens was charmed by his wife’s younger sister, Mary Hogarth. An instructive parallel!

  To both the men who loved her, to Prince Andrew and Pierre, Tolstoy attributed his own passionate search for the meaning and purpose of life. Prince Andrew is the more obvious. He is a product of the conditions prevalent then in Russia. A rich man, in possession of vast estates, he owns a great number of serfs, from whom he can exact forced labour and, if they displease him, have them stripped and flogged, or wrest them from wife and children and send them to serve as common soldiers in the army. And if a girl or married woman takes his fancy, he can send for her and use her for his pleasure. Prince Andrew is handsome, with marked features, weary eyes and an air of boredom. He is in fact the beau ténébreux of romantic fiction. A gallant figure, proud of his race and rank, high-minded, but haughty, dictatorial, intolerant and unreasonable. He is cold and arrogant with his equals, patronising but kind with his inferiors. He is intelligent, and ambitious to distinguish himself. With a nice touch, Tolstoy wrote of him: ‘Prince Andrew always became specially keen when he had to guide a young man and help him to wordly success. Under cover of obtaining help for another, which from pride he would never accept for himself, he kept in touch with the circle which confers success and which attracted him.’

  Pierre is a more puzzling character. He is a huge, ugly man, so short-sighted that he has to wear spectacles, and very fat. He eats too much and drinks too much. He is a great womaniser. He is clumsy and tactless; but he is so good-natured, so manifestly sincere, so kindly, considerate and unselfish, that it is impossible to know him without loving him. He is wealthy. He allows a horde of hangers-on, however worthless, to dip freely into his purse. He is a gambler and is unmercifully cheated by the members of the aristocratic club in Moscow to which he belongs. He lets himself be jockeyed into an early marriage with a beautiful woman, who marries him for his money and is impudently unfaithful to him. After fighting a grotesque duel with her lover, he leaves her and goes to Petersburg. On the journey he meets by chance a mysterious old man, who turns out to be a Freemason. They converse and Pierre confesses that he does not believe in God. ‘If He did not exist we could not talk about Him,’ answers the Freemason, and on these lines goes on to give Pierre an elementary version of what is known at the ontological proof of God’s existence. This was devised by Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, and runs as follows; We define God as the greatest object of thought, but the greatest object of thought must exist, or else another, as great but having existence, would be greater. From this it follows that God exists. This proof was rejected by Thomas Aquinas and demolished by Kant, but it convinced Pierre, and very shortly after his arrival in Petersburg he was initiated into the Masonic Order. Of course, in a novel events, whether material or spiritual, have to be telescoped, otherwise it would never end: a long-fought battle must be described in a page or two, and everything but what the author thinks essential has to be omitted; it is the same with a change of heart. In this case, it seems to me that Tolstoy has gone too far; so sudden a conversion makes Pierre uncommonly superficial. As a result of it, however, desiring to abandon his dissipated ways, he decides to return to his estates, liberate his serfs and devote himself to their welfare. He is hoodwinked and cheated by his steward, just as he was by his gambling friends, and finds himself thwarted in all his good intentions. His philanthropic schemes for the most part come to nothing for lack of perseverance, and he returns to his old life of idleness. His enthusiasm for the Masonic Order dwindles as he discovers that most of the brethren see nothing in it beyond its forms and ceremonies, while many cling to it ‘simply for the sake of being intimate with rich people and getting some benefit out of the intimacy.’ Disgusted and weary, he takes once more to gambling, drink and promiscuous fornication.

  Pierre knows his faults and hates them, but he lacks the tenacity of purpose to amend them. He is a modest, humane, good-natured creature, but strangely devoid of common sense. His behaviour at the Battle of Borodino is of a singular ineptitude. Though a civilian, he drives in his carriage to the field of battle, gets in everybody’s way, makes a thorough nuisance of himself and finally, to save his life, takes to his heels. When Moscow is evacuated, he stays on, is arrested as an incendiary and condemned to death. The sentence is remitted, and he is imprisoned. He is taken along with other prisoners when the French set out on their disastrous retreat, and is eventually rescued by a band of guerrillas.

  It is difficult to know what to make of him. He is good and modest; he has a wonderful sweetness of disposition; he is terribly weak. I am sure he is true to life. I suppose he should be regarded as the hero of War and Peace, since in the end he marries the charming and desirable Natasha. I imagine that Tolstoy loved him: he writes of him with tenderness and sympathy; but I wonder if it was necessary to make him quite so silly.

  In so long a book as War and Peace, and one that took so long to write, it is inevitable that the author’s verve should sometimes fail him. Tolstoy ends his novel with an account of the retreat from Moscow and the destruction of Napoleon’s army. But this long and, no doubt, necessary narrative has the disadvantage of telling the reader, unless he is abnormally ignorant of history, a great deal of what he knows already. The result is that the quality of surprise, which makes you turn the pages of a book eager to know what is to happen next, is lacking; and, notwithstanding the tragic, dramatic and pathetic incidents which Tolstoy relates, you read with a certain impatience. He used these chapters to tie up various loose ends, and to bring upon the scene again characters of whom we have long lost sight; but I think his main object in writing them was to introduce a fresh character who was to have an important effect on Pierre’s spiritual development.

  This was one of his fellow-prisoners, Plato Karataev, a serf condemned to serve in the army for stealing wood. He was a type that at this time seems to have much occupied the Russian intelligentsia. Living, as they did, under a severe despotism and knowing the empty, frivolous lives of the aristocracy, the ignorance and narrowness of the merchant class, they had come to believe that the salvation of Russia lay in the down-trodden and ill-used peasantry. Tolstoy in A Confession tells us how, despairing of his own class, he turned to the Old Believers for the goodness and faith which gave meaning to life. But, of course, there were good landlords as well as bad ones, honest tradesmen as well as dishonest ones, and bad peasants as well as good ones. It was merely a literary illusion to suppose that in the peasants alone was virtue.

  Tolstoy’s portrait of the simple soldier is one of the most winning of all the portraits in War and Peace. It was natural that Pierre should be drawn to him. Plato Karataev loves all men. He is perfectly unselfish. He endures hardship and danger with cheerfulness. He has a sweet and noble character, and Pierre, as susceptible as ever to every influence,
seeing the goodness in him, comes himself to believe in goodness: ‘the world that had been shattered was once more stirring in his soul with a new beauty and on a new and unshakable foundation.’ From Plato Karataev, Pierre learns that ‘happiness for man is only to be found within, and from the satisfaction of simple human needs, that unhappiness arises not from privations but from superabundance, and that there is nothing in life too difficult to face.’ At last he finds himself possessed of that serenity and peace of mind that he had so long and so vainly sought.

  If for some readers there is a certain diminution of interest in Tolstoy’s account of the retreat, it is richly made up for in the first part of the Epilogue. It is a brilliant invention.

  The older novelists were in the habit of telling the reader what happened to their principal characters after the story they had to tell was finished. He was informed that the hero and heroine lived happily, in prosperous circumstances, and had so and so many children, while the villain, if he had not been polished off before the end, was reduced to poverty and married a nagging wife, and so got what he deserved. But it was done perfunctorily, in a page or two, and the reader was left with the impression that it was a sop the author had somewhat contemptuously thrown him. It remained for Tolstoy to make his epilogue a piece of real importance. Seven years have passed, and we are taken to the house of Nicholas Rostov, who has married a rich wife and has children. Prince Andrew was mortally wounded at the Battle of Borodino. It was his sister that Nicholas married. Pierre’s wife conveniently died during the invasion, and he was free to marry Natasha, whom he had long loved. They too have children. They love one another, but oh, how dull they have become, and how commonplace! After the hazards they have run, the pain and anguish they have suffered, they have settled down to a middle-aged complacency. Natasha, who was so sweet, so unpredictable, so delightful, is now a fussy, exacting, shrewish housewife. Nicholas Rostov, once so gallant and high-spirited, has become a self-opinionated country squire; and Pierre, fatter than ever, sweet and good-natured still, is no wiser than he was before. The happy ending is deeply tragic. Tolstoy did not write thus, I think, in bitterness, but because he knew that this is what it would all come to; and he had to tell the truth.

  12

  In Conclusion

  (1)

  After you have given a party, especially if your guests were of unusual distinction, when you have sped the last one on his way and you return to the sitting-room, it is only natural, human nature being what it is, that you and your wife, if you have one, the friend who lives with you, if you haven’t, should discuss them over a final drink before going to bed. A. was in fine form. B. has a tiresome habit of interrupting with an irrelevant remark just as someone is reaching the point of a good story, and so killing it; it was amusing to see A., indefatigably loquacious, take not the smallest notice and go on talking as though B. had never opened his mouth. D. and C. were disappointing. They wouldn’t make an effort. It had never occurred to them that, when you go to a party, it is your duty to do what you can to make it go. You defend one of them by saying that he is very shy, and the other by saying that it is a matter of principle with him; he will not speak unless he has something to say worth saying. Your friend justly retorts that if we were all as austere, conversation would perish. You laugh and pass on to E. He was as caustic as usual, and no less truculent: he is disgruntled because he thinks his merits have not been adequately recognised; success would soften him, but perhaps his wit would be less delectable if it lost its sting. You wonder how F.’s latest love affair is going on, and try to remember the exact wording of that brilliant repartee of his which made you laugh. On the whole it was a good party; you finish your drink, turn out the lights and go to your respective bedrooms.

  So I, having spent many months in the company of the novelists with whom I have dealt, find myself inclined, before parting from them for good, to sum up in my mind, as though they had been my guests at a party, the various impressions they have made on me. It would have been a mixed gathering, but, taking it all in all, a convivial one. At first the conversation was general. Tolstoy, dressed as a peasant, with his great, untidy beard, his little grey eyes darting from one to another, discoursed with unction of God and with coarseness of sex. He said with complacency that in his youth he had been a great lecher, but in order to show that he was one at heart with the peasantry used a grosser word. Dostoevsky, angrily conscious that no one really appreciated his genius, for long maintained a moody silence; suddenly he broke out into a vituperative harangue which might have caused a quarrel, if the rest of the company had not been so busy talking themselves that they paid no attention. The party broke up into smaller groups. Dostoevsky went and sat by himself in a corner. His ravaged face was contorted by a sardonic sneer as he took note of the fact that Tolstoy’s smock was of a fine material that must have cost at least seven roubles a yard. He could not forgive Tolstoy because the editor of a magazine in Moscow had refused to buy a novel of his for serialisation, since he had just then paid so much money for Anna Karenina. It infuriated him that Tolstoy should talk of God as though He were his own peculiar perquisite: had he never read The Brothers Karamazov? Dostoevsky’s eyes wandered with indifference, tinged with sullen dislike, from person to person in the room, till they came to rest on a young woman who was seated by herself. She was not much to look at, but he read on her pale face a contemptuous disapproval of the persons in whose company she found herself, which touched a chord in his own tortured soul. There was in her expression a spirituality which attracted him. He had been told that she was a Miss Emily Brontë. He got up, walked towards her and, taking a chair, sat down beside her. She blushed scarlet. He saw that she was very shy and very nervous. He patted her kindly on the knee, which she withdrew with a start, and to put her at her ease began to tell her his favourite story of how in a bath-house in Moscow a governess had brought him a little girl whom he had raped; but as he spoke very quickly, in broken French, the young lady did not understand a word he said and, before he had half done telling her how agonising his remorse had been for the sin he had committed, and how terrible his sufferings, she rose abruptly and left him.

  When the party dispersed about the spacious room, Miss Austen had chosen a seat somewhat apart. Stendhal, though he had never got over his timidity where women were concerned, felt it was a duty he owed himself to make a pass at her; but her cool amusement disconcerted him, and with a glance at Henry Fielding, who was talking with Herman Melville, he joined the noisy group of Balzac, Charles Dickens and Flaubert. Miss Austen was glad to be left to give her undisturbed attention to her fellow-guests. She saw Miss Brontë leave the ugly little man who had been talking to her, and seat herself in the corner of a sofa. Poor little thing, so badly dressed, with those leg-of-mutton sleeves; her eyes were fine and her hair was pretty, but why did she do it so unbecomingly? She looked distressingly like a governess, and though, of course, a clergyman’s daughter, was certainly of very humble origins. Miss Austen thought she looked lost and lonely, and felt it would be a kindness to speak to her. She got up and sat down on the sofa beside her. Emily gave her a startled look, and answered Miss Austen’s friendly questions with embarrassed monosyllables. Miss Austen had noticed without surprise that the elder Miss Brontë had not been invited to the party. Perhaps it was just as well, as she had a very low opinion of Pride and Prejudice, and thought that its author lacked poetry and sentiment; but, being a well-bred woman, Miss Austen felt it only polite to ask how Miss Charlotte was. Emily again replied with a monosyllable, and Miss Austen came to the conclusion that to talk with people she didn’t know was agony to the poor little thing and so she decided that it would be kinder to leave her to herself. She resumed her former seat, and for Cassandrea’s sake went on with her consideration of the other persons in the room. Of course, there was too much to tell in a letter, and she must wait till they were once more together at Chawton. She smiled when she thought how dear Cassandra would laugh when she described
those queer people one by one.

  Mr. Dickens was smaller than Miss Austen liked men to be, and much too smartly dressed; but he had a pleasant face and fine eyes, and from his lively air she thought it quite possible that he had a sense of humour. It was a pity he was so vulgar. There were two Russians there, one with an unpronounceable name who looked disagreeable and common; the other, Tolstoy, had the air of a gentleman, but you could never tell with foreigners. Miss Austen could not understand why he wore that strange smock, like an artist’s, and those great clumsy boots. They said he was a Count, but she had never thought a foreign title anything but rather ridiculous. And as for the others – Monsieur Beyle, whom they called Stendhal, was fat and ugly, Monsieur Flaubert laughed much too loudly for anyone who had pretensions to elegance, and as to Monsieur de Balzac, his manners were deplorable. The fact was that the only gentleman present was Mr. Fielding, and Miss Austen wondered what he could find to interest him in that American he was talking to. It was a Mr. Melville, a fine figure of a man, tall and upstanding, but he wore a beard, and it made him look like the captain of a merchant vessel. He was telling Mr. Fielding a story, which was evidently amusing, and Mr. Fielding laughed heartily. Mr. Fielding was a little the worse for liquor, but Miss Austen knew that gentlemen often were, and though she regretted it, it did not shock her. Mr. Fielding had a fine presence and, though something of a dissipated look, an air of good breeding, he would have held his own at Godmersham with any of her brother’s, Mr. Knight’s, friends. After all, he was a cousin of Lady Mary Wortley-Montagu, and through the Earls of Denbigh descended from the Hapsburgs. He caught her look, rose to his feet and, leaving the strange American, came over to Miss Austen, and with a bow asked if he might sit beside her. She smiled her assent and set herself to be suitably gracious. he had a pleasant flow of small-talk, and presently Miss Austen felt emboldened to tell him that she had read Tom Jones when she was a girl.

 
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