Monday, May 14, 2012

Hadji Murad: Lessons from Tolstoy

While I don't share Harold Bloom's devotion to Leo Tolstoy's novella Hadji Murad, I think it's got some good lessons for writers of long-form fiction, so I'm going to (briefly) mention a couple of those lessons while the book is still relatively fresh in my mind.

First, let's get the weaknesses of the piece out of the way:

1. The metaphorical device of comparing the Hadji Murad character to a thistle, stubborn and clinging to life, is both obvious and weak. Also, bald statements of theme tend to weaken the impact of the narrative and I wish Tolstoy hadn't done this. It's like that opening sentence of Anna Karenina: it would've worked fine if he'd removed it from the first chapter and stuck it in about 2/3 of the way through the novel. It's a clever enough (though, frankly, untrue) sentiment, but it's also the author tipping his hand a bit too much and you don't do that, not to introduce your reader to the story. Or at least not as a narrator. Put the words into a character's mouth the way Austen did on the first page of Pride and Prejudice. Maybe these devices of Tolstoy's only seem obvious because we're all so familiar with them, and they were fresh in Tolstoy's day. I'll give him benefit of that doubt, but I tell you, authors of the present day, you can't get away with that sort of hamfisted telegraphing of your punches if you're writing now. Unless you're writing for unsophisticated readers, in which case my advice is: don't.

2. When the emotional distance decreases during the Tsar Nicholas chapter (which is the best chapter in the book, and more on that in a minute), it becomes clear that the surrounding chapters (which is to say, the majority of the book) are a little dry and distant and unfelt. After the Nicholas chapter, when the narrative picks up with Hadji Murad again, I was far less excited to keep reading than I had been. This is a weakness in technique, and it's a good lesson though doubtless not a deliberate one from Count Tolstoy. I got the impression that Tolstoy had written the whole story as an excuse to put this one chapter down on paper, and he felt far less passion for the subject of war: what is it good for than he felt for the subject of Tsar Nicholas: what a royal pain.

So those are the weaknesses, and as I say there's something to be learned from each of them but I come here not to bury the Count, but to praise him. So let's look at the good stuff in Hadji Murad:

1. The prose is marvelous. Any clunky language in the edition I read, I blame on the translator. Which is maybe a cop-out; I haven't yet resolved the problems of reading books in translation. Has anyone? No, I didn't think so. Where was I? Oh, the prose is marvelous. Tolstoy, at the end of his career (and not long before the end of his life) was in full command of his pen. That opening image of the metaphorical thistle? It's miraculous, as you can see from the following excerpt.

It was midsummer, the hay harvest was over and they were just beginning to reap the rye. At that season of the year there is a delightful variety of flowers -- red, white, and pink scented tufty clover; milk-white ox-eye daisies with their bright yellow centers and pleasant spicy smell; yellow honey-scented rape blossoms; tall campanulas with white and lilac bells, tulip-shaped; creeping vetch; yellow, red, and pink scabious; faintly scented, neatly arranged purple plaintains with blossoms slightly tinged with pink; cornflowers, the newly opened blossoms bright blue in the sunshine but growing paler and redder towards evening or when growing old; and delicate almond-scented dodder flowers that withered quickly. I gathered myself a large nosegay and was going home when I noticed in a ditch, in full bloom, a beautiful thistle plant of the crimson variety, which in our neighborhood they call "Tartar" and carefully avoid when mowing -- or, if they do happen to cut it down, throw out from among the grass for fear of pricking their hands. Thinking to pick this thistle and put it in the center of my nosegay, I climbed down into the ditch, and after driving away a velvety bumble-bee that had penetrated deep into one of the flowers and had there fallen sweetly asleep, I set to work to pluck the flower. But this proved a very difficult task. Not only did the stalk prick on every side -- even through the handkerchief I wrapped round my hand -- but it was so tough that I had to struggle with it for nearly five minutes, breaking the fibers one by one; and when I had at last plucked it, the stalk was all frayed and the flower itself no longer seemed so fresh and beautiful. Moreover, owing to a coarseness and stiffness, it did not seem in place among the delicate blossoms of my nosegay. I threw it away feeling sorry to have vainly destroyed a flower that looked beautiful in its proper place.

Nicely done, Count. That final sentence is the central metaphor of the book.

2. The formal structure is well-balanced and keeps the story moving. Hadji Murad is a novella made up of 17 short chapters. The central action is pretty simple: Chechen warrior Hadji Murad defects to fight for the Russians because the new Chechen imam, Shamil, is Hadji Murad's sworn enemy and has taken his family hostage. Hadji Murad is a famous guerrilla and the Russians are happy to have him but don't trust him, of course. Hadji Murad wants the Russians to assist him in freeing his family from Shamil and then he expects them to make him governor of Chechnya and he will do his best to repress any rebellions. The Russians are slow to do anything and Hadji Murad loses patience with them, riding off with his four henchmen to raid Shamil's home. The Russians pursue, thinking that they've been betrayed, and Hadji Murad is killed in a fire fight.

That's a pretty slim plot. Tolstoy buffs up the narrative with vignettes of various Russian military actions that point out the violence, absurdity and general pointlessness of war. There aren't subplots so much as there are interludes, but these interludes have a cumulative effect of reinforcing the themes and marvelously sideshadow the narrative to point off into many directions, letting us see how the story of a single individual (be it the famous Hadji Murad or an unknown Russian soldier) is tied to and often controlled by large-scale events in world history. Tolstoy also manages to show how large-scale events in world history can be tied to and controlled by petty acts done by thoughtless and powerful men. So the complexity of action and theme is kept pretty high in this short book because Tolstoy doesn't try to complicate the basic plot to pad for length; instead he expands sideways and brings in ideas to shed light on the basic plot.

3. The ending does something I always enjoy seeing in a novel: Tolstoy splits the narrative and the plot. What I mean by that is that Hadji Murad is told in chronological order, one event following the next in time, until the final two chapters. Chapter 16 tells us that Hadji Murad has been killed, and we see the reaction to this news among Russian officers. Chapter 17 loops back in time and shows us Hadji Murad's "escape," pursuit and death. So Tolstoy is able, with this looping structure, to make the death of the protagonist the final scene in the book while still showing us events after that final scene. I'm a fan of this looping narrative structure and I use it myself.

My only problem with the ending is the one I mentioned earlier: Tolstoy sums up and gives us a clear statement of theme. My problem with a theme statement is that not only does it hedge an author's bet ("On the off chance you didn't get it, here's what the book's about"), it's lazy (because if you hand the naked theme to the reader, you don't have to work as hard with your metaphorical language in the narrative), and it narrows the possible meanings to be found within the text. I think good literature has more to say than the authors realize, because a lot of art is created instinctively rather than rationally, even a work of text. So Tolstoy's offer of an interpretation makes the book less than it might be. Worse, he writes past a great closing line. The penultimate sentence is:

The nightingales, which were silent while the shooting lasted, again burst into song, first one near by, then others in the distance.

That's a beautiful image, and would've been a perfect ending for the narrative. But Tolstoy clumsily blunders on:

This was the death that was brought to my mind by the crushed thistle in the ploughed field.

Thanks, Leo, but we'd already figured that out on our own.

Hadji Murad is a complex little gem, and though imperfect it's still well worth reading and studying. There's more to say but vita brevis and all of that, and who am I to be dissecting Tolstoy, anyway?


  1. Thanks for posting this, Mr. Bailey! It's day 2 of me being home sick with a fever, and this was a nice thing for me to read while I languish.

  2. I quite enjoyed this dissection of Tolstoy! I agree about that last line. Really not needed, and unfortunately, I see that far too often in fiction even today.

    Davin, you're sick? I'm such a bad friend.

  3. Davin, look: I said nice things about Tolstoy! At some point I'll read AK past the first chapter. Not this year, though.

    Is it feed a cold, or feed a fever? I forget. Food is important, though. What's Peanut feeding Davin?

    Michelle, one thing I did with the anthology stories is try to convince almost every author to end the story about a paragraph earlier than they'd done. We must all resist the urges to explain and sum up!

    "dissection" is such a cool word.

  4. You believe Jane Austen was the better writer than Tolstoy, don't you?

    Fanboy, may I say?
    Or a staunch feminist?
    Jane Austen works aren't nearly as impressive as War and Peace and Anna Karenina.
    Tolstoy works are more universal and timeless.

  5. I have no idea what you're talking about. I've read a lot more Tolstoy than I have Austen, and in my opinion, the better writer was Chekhov.

  6. I read JO's comment and wondered if I had made it.

  7. I think Jane can defend herself against Leo. This isn't my fight.