Friday, February 21, 2014

"holding her smock high and exposing her white legs": Tolstoy's Cossacks

It was one of those wonderful evenings that occur only in the Caucasus. The sun had sunk behind the mountains but it was still light. The evening glow had spread over a third of the sky, and against its brilliancy the dull white immensity of the mountains was sharply defined. The air was rarefied, motionless, and full of sound. The shadow of the mountains reached for several miles over the steppe. The steppe, the opposite side of the river, and the roads, were all deserted. If very occasionally mounted men appeared, the Cossacks in the cordon and the Chechens in their aouls (villages) watched them with surprised curiosity and tried to guess who those questionable men could be. At nightfall people from fear of one another flock to their dwellings, and only birds and beasts fearless of man prowl in those deserted spaces. Talking merrily, the women who have been tying up the vines hurry away from the gardens before sunset. The vineyards, like all the surrounding district, are deserted, but the villages become very animated at that time of the evening. From all sides, walking, riding, or driving in their creaking carts, people move towards the village. Girls with their smocks tucked up and twigs in their hands run chatting merrily to the village gates to meet the cattle that are crowding together in a cloud of dust and mosquitoes which they bring with them from the steppe. The well-fed cows and buffaloes disperse at a run all over the streets and Cossack women in coloured beshmets go to and fro among them. You can hear their merry laughter and shrieks mingling with the lowing of the cattle. There an armed and mounted Cossack, on leave from the cordon, rides up to a hut and, leaning towards the window, knocks. In answer to the knock the handsome head of a young woman appears at the window and you can hear caressing, laughing voices. There a tattered Nogay labourer, with prominent cheekbones, brings a load of reeds from the steppes, turns his creaking cart into the Cossack captain's broad and clean courtyard, and lifts the yoke off the oxen that stand tossing their heads while he and his master shout to one another in Tartar. Past a puddle that reaches nearly across the street, a barefooted Cossack woman with a bundle of firewood on her back makes her laborious way by clinging to the fences, holding her smock high and exposing her white legs. A Cossack returning from shooting calls out in jest: 'Lift it higher, shameless thing!' and points his gun at her. The woman lets down her smock and drops the wood. An old Cossack, returning home from fishing with his trousers tucked up and his hairy grey chest uncovered, has a net across his shoulder containing silvery fish that are still struggling; and to take a short cut climbs over his neighbour's broken fence and gives a tug to his coat which has caught on the fence. There a woman is dragging a dry branch along and from round the corner comes the sound of an axe. Cossack children, spinning their tops wherever there is a smooth place in the street, are shrieking; women are climbing over fences to avoid going round. From every chimney rises the odorous kisyak smoke. From every homestead comes the sound of increased bustle, precursor to the stillness of night.
That's the first paragraph of Chapter V of Leo Tolstoy's 1863 novel Cossacks, in the Louise and Aylmer Maude translation (1890?), which was apparently approved by Tolstoy himself. Tolstoy is great at describing the hubbub of life in general, almost creating a Dickensian mood but without Dickens' highly ornamented prose. Dickens, too, would've added a subtext of social critique to his description of the village, where Tolstoy tries, I think, to simply report, to see it as it is and to think it fine. There is subtle social commentary in Cossacks, though not in passages like this. I'm almost always pleased when I read Tolstoy's short works.

13 comments:

  1. Let me make a very brief off-the-cuff observation about Tolstoy, Turgenev, and a few other Russian writers: Settings -- powerfully rendered -- nearly become characters. In fact, this may be their singular power when compared to other writers from other regions of the world. Well, it is at least a ponderable thesis. In fact, I ponder it every time I read Russian writers (Dostoyevsky and Chekhov excepted).

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  2. Have you read the longer Chekhov stories, like "On The Steppe" and "The Duel?" He did a good deal of work with setting in those (and other long stories), but Chekhov also could bring a scene to life quickly in shorter works with a vivid paragraph about a river bank or drawing room. So maybe it is a Russian thing.

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  3. I will look into the Chekhov stories. BTW, I am beginning a different kind of self-indulgent project at my blog. Today's posting includes a challenge: weird jobs?

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  4. This is an interesting comment discussion. The first time I consciously saw setting as character happened to be with a contemporary Russian writer. I saw the setting as directly impacting character mindset, motivation, and action, rather than just serving as an interesting backdrop.

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    1. See my comment to Tom, below. I guess I think it's all the same stuff, really. It's all just the writer investigating a set of ideas, and illustrating that investigation, and because none of it is more real than any of the rest of it, it's sort of all "character" or "setting." Not that everything has to be in constant motion, but any aspect of the narrative can carry whatever narrative weight you want it to carry. Mood can be contained in a flower or a buttonhole rather than a human, etc etc.

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  5. I guess that is not my definition of "setting." Settings never become characters, nearly or otherwise. Maybe if the mountain starts talking or something. Otherwise, there are writers who are better and worse at using their setting. At really imagining it, I suppose. Crusoe's island, Gulliver's here and there, Pamela and Clarissa's bedrooms-as-prisons, Uncle Toby's battlefield - these are all great settings that do a huge amount of novelistic work and are not even necessarily described that thoroughly. And I haven't left 18th century English fiction.

    With the example of Hugo available, there is no way I am going to say a meaningful use of setting is peculiarly Russian. Hugo anthropomorphizes like crazy, but that does not make Notre Dame or the Paris sewers or the English Channel characters, does it? It's just metaphor.

    Early on, Tolstoy is such a cool cat. Late, too, when he wanted. But early, always.

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    1. I've read no Hugo, so I don't know. I do know that I don't really believe in the classifications of character/setting/plot/theme/symbol/etc as being separate things that exist in separate realms within a narrative. It's all the author talking about stuff, but referring to different metaphors. A character is no different from an open field through which a carriage rolls, except to the reader maybe. But to the writer (by which I mean me, I guess, although perhaps some writers do believe that their imaginary people are in some way similar to real people), they are all just different textures and colors and shapes on a canvas. The view behind the sitting figure, rendered in careful perspective, is just as actually flat and just as much actually nothing but paint as is the figure in the foreground. A character is a setting, in a way, too. Uncle Toby is no more a "person" than is his imaginary Flanders. Each is a container for certain ideas, the exploration for certain ideas. It's maybe a convenient shorthand to discuss them in terms of how they are presented in the story, though. And a lot of writers put little effort into the characters we call setting. A lot of writers put little effort into the settings we call characters. Dickens, I am prepared to say, creates his settings and his colorful minor characters in the same way, with the same techniques, only one is usually more anthropomorphised than the other. I am clearly rambling, but calling a fictional concept "Jean Valjean" makes that concept no more a real person than calling it "Duncan Fyfe" makes it a real chair. None of that little rant is helpful to anyone.

      But Tolstoy's work with the story world of Cossacks is high-level stuff.

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    2. I am all for this idea. Now I await someone saying that a novel's characters are so well-done that they almost become settings.

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  6. Brueghel!

    I do like this sort of synecdoche, where you have little vivid glimpses (silver fish still struggling, dust rising from the cows, etc.) that gives a sense of a larger, bustling whole.

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    1. Yeah, Brueghel is a good comparison. I really like passages that point outside of the immediate story, that make the world of the story seem like it's the size of the real world, like the primary tale is just one of many things going on.

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  7. I like your distinction between Tolstoy and Dickens here. More importantly, I like the excerpt as a whole. I must confess that I got (heretically?) bored halfway through Anna Karenina and decided to take a break from it, but I have two volumes of Tolstoy's short fiction to dip into and am happy to hear that you're "almost always pleased" by it.

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    1. I have to admit that I've never read Karenina. Mighty Reader read it a couple of years ago and mocked a couple of Tolstoy's mannerisms the whole time. I think the only short Tolstoy I haven't liked is "Kreutzer Sonata." Years ago I read a volume of his stories and was blown away.

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  8. As ever, I am coming to this late.

    True, the setting never becomes a character, or vice versa. However a setting can become an integral part of the narrative, or, effectively, a bare stage on which to place the action. What is interesting is the manner in which the setting is incorporated into the narrative. is it there merely to provide a colourful background? Or to create a specific mood? Or, perhaps, to reflect the psychology of the characters? The London in Dickens' "Bleak House", or Petersburg in Dostoyevsky's "Crime & Punishment" or in Bely's "Petersburg", for instance, all come to mind. n these works, the setting takes on nightmarish forms to reflect the psychological states of mind. Sometimes, there isn't even a description of the setting, but, rather, of the feel of the place: there is no physical description, I think, of Tom All Alone's in "Bleak House": rather, we are presented with the *feel* of the place.

    I'm sure there is a good post to be written on the different uses different authors make of settings...

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