The Craft of Fiction
by Percy Lubbock
1  2  3  4  5     Next Part
Home - Random Browse




Jonathan Cape Eleven Gower Street, London First Published 1921.



To grasp the shadowy and fantasmal form of a book, to hold it fast, to turn it over and survey it at leisure—that is the effort of a critic of books, and it is perpetually defeated. Nothing, no power, will keep a book steady and motionless before us, so that we may have time to examine its shape and design. As quickly as we read, it melts and shifts in the memory; even at the moment when the last page is turned, a great part of the book, its finer detail, is already vague and doubtful. A little later, after a few days or months, how much is really left of it? A cluster of impressions, some clear points emerging from a mist of uncertainty, this is all we can hope to possess, generally speaking, in the name of a book. The experience of reading it has left something behind, and these relics we call by the book's name; but how can they be considered to give us the material for judging and appraising the book? Nobody would venture to criticize a building, a statue, a picture, with nothing before him but the memory of a single glimpse caught in passing; yet the critic of literature, on the whole, has to found his opinion upon little more. Sometimes it is possible to return to the book and renew the impression; to a few books we may come back again and again, till they do in the end become familiar sights. But of the hundreds and hundreds of books that a critic would wish to range in his memory, in order to scrutinize and compare them reflectively, how many can he expect to bring into a state of reasonable stability? Few indeed, at the best; as for the others, he must be content with the shapeless, incoherent visions that respond when the recollection of them is invoked.

It is scarcely to be wondered at if criticism is not very precise, not very exact in the use of its terms, when it has to work at such a disadvantage. Since we can never speak of a book with our eye on the object, never handle a book—the real book, which is to the volume as the symphony to the score—our phrases find nothing to check them, immediately and unmistakably, while they are formed. Of a novel, for instance, that I seem to know well, that I recall as an old acquaintance, I may confidently begin to express an opinion; but when, having expressed it, I would glance at the book once more, to be satisfied that my judgement fits it, I can only turn to the image, such as it is, that remains in a deceiving memory. The volume lies before me, no doubt, and if it is merely a question of detail, a name or a scene, I can find the page and verify my sentence. But I cannot catch a momentary sight of the book, the book itself; I cannot look up from my writing and sharpen my impression with a straight, unhampered view of the author's work; to glance at a book, though the phrase is so often in our mouths, is in fact an impossibility. The form of a novel—and how often a critic uses that expression too—is something that none of us, perhaps, has ever really contemplated. It is revealed little by little, page by page, and it is withdrawn as fast as it is revealed; as a whole, complete and perfect, it could only exist in a more tenacious memory than most of us have to rely on. Our critical faculty may be admirable; we may be thoroughly capable of judging a book justly, if only we could watch it at ease. But fine taste and keen perception are of no use to us if we cannot retain the image of the book; and the image escapes and evades us like a cloud.

We are so well accustomed to this disability that I may seem to make too much of it. In theory, certainly, the book is never present in the critic's mind, never there in all its completeness; but enough of it, in a commonly good memory, remains to be discussed and criticized—the book as we remember it, the book that survives, is sufficient for practical purposes. Such we assume to be the case, and our criticism is very little troubled by the thought that it is only directed at certain fragments of the book which the author wrote, the rest of it having ceased to exist for us. There is plenty to say of a book, even in this condition; for the hours of our actual exposure to it were full and eventful, and after living for a time with people like Clarissa Harlowe or Anna Karenina or Emma Bovary we have had a lasting experience, though the novels in which they figured may fall away into dimness and uncertainty. These women, with some of the scenes and episodes of their history, remain with us as vividly as though we had known them in life; and we still keep a general impression of their setting and their fortunes, a background more or less undefined, but associated with the thought of them. It all makes a very real and solid possession of a kind, and we readily accept it as the book itself. One does not need to remember the smaller detail of the story to perceive the truth and force of the characters; and if a great deal is forgotten, the most striking aspects of the case will linger in the mind as we look back. Dramatic episodes, fine pieces of description, above all the presence of many interesting and remarkable people—while there is so much that instantly springs to light when the book is mentioned, it seems perverse to say that the book is not before us as we write of it. The real heart and substance of the book, it might even be urged, stands out the more clearly for the obscurity into which the less essential parts of it subside.

And true it is that for criticism of the author's genius, of the power and quality of his imagination, the impressions we are able to save from oblivion are material in plenty. Of Richardson and Tolstoy and Flaubert we can say at once that their command of life, their grasp of character, their knowledge of human affections and manners, had a certain range and strength and depth; we can penetrate their minds and detect the ideas that ruled there. To have lived with their creations is to have lived with them as well; with so many hours of familiar intercourse behind us we have learnt to know them, and it matters little that at any particular moment our vision of their work is bound to be imperfect. The forgotten detail has all contributed to our sense of the genius which built up and elaborated the structure, and that sense abides. Clarissa and Anna and Emma are positive facts, and so are their authors; the criticism of fiction is securely founded upon its object, if by fiction we mean something more, something other, than the novel itself—if we mean its life-like effects, and the imaginative gifts which they imply in the novelist. These we can examine as long and as closely as we choose, for they persist and grow more definite as we cultivate the remembrance of them. And to these, accordingly, we find our criticism always tending; we discuss the writer, we discuss the people in his book, we discuss the kind of life he renders and his success in the rendering. But meanwhile the book, the thing he made, lies imprisoned in the volume, and our glimpse of it was too fleeting, it seems, to leave us with a lasting knowledge of its form. We soon reach the end of so much as we have to say on that subject.

Perhaps we should have more to say of it if we read the book differently in the first place. I scarcely think we could any of us claim that in reading a novel we deliberately watch the book itself, rather than the scenes and figures it suggests, or that we seek to construct an image of the book, page by page, while its form is gradually exposed to us. We are much more inclined to forget, if we can, that the book is an object of art, and to treat it as a piece of the life around us; we fashion for ourselves, we objectify, the elements in it that happen to strike us most keenly, such as an effective scene or a brilliant character. These things take shape in the mind of the reader; they are recreated and set up where the mind's eye can rest on them. They become works of art, no doubt, in their way, but they are not the book which the author offers us. That is a larger and more complex form, one that it is much more difficult to think of as a rounded thing. A novel, as we say, opens a new world to the imagination; and it is pleasant to discover that sometimes, in a few novels, it is a world which "creates an illusion"—so pleasant that we are content to be lost in it. When that happens there is no chance of our finding, perceiving, recreating, the form of the book. So far from losing ourselves in the world of the novel, we must hold it away from us, see it all in detachment, and use the whole of it to make the image we seek, the book itself.

It is difficult to treat a large and stirring piece of fiction in this way. The landscape opens out and surrounds us, and we proceed to create what is in effect a novel within the novel which the author wrote. When, for example, I try to consider closely the remnant that exists in my memory of a book read and admired years ago—of such a book as Clarissa Harlowe—I well understand that in reading it I was unconsciously making a selection of my own, choosing a little of the story here and there, to form a durable image, and that my selection only included such things as I could easily work into shape. The girl herself, first of all—if she, though so much of her story has faded away, is still visibly present, it is because nothing is simpler than to create for oneself the idea of a human being, a figure and a character, from a series of glimpses and anecdotes. Creation of this kind we practise every day; we are continually piecing together our fragmentary evidence about the people around us and moulding their images in thought. It is the way in which we make our world; partially, imperfectly, very much at haphazard, but still perpetually, everybody deals with his experience like an artist. And his talent, such as it may be, for rounding and detaching his experience of a man or a woman, so that the thing stands clear in his thought and takes the light on every side—this can never lie idle, it is exercised every hour of the day.

As soon as he begins to hear of Clarissa, therefore, on the first page of Richardson's book, the shaping, objectifying mind of the reader is at work on familiar material. It is so easy to construct the idea of the exquisite creature, that she seems to step from the pages of her own accord; I, as I read, am aware of nothing but that a new acquaintance is gradually becoming better and better known to me. No conscious effort is needed to make a recognizable woman of her, though in fact I am fitting a multitude of small details together, as I proceed to give her the body and mind that she presently possesses. And so, too, with the lesser people in the book, and with their surroundings; so, too, with the incidents that pass; a succession of moments are visualized, are wrought into form by the reader, though perhaps very few of them are so well made that they will last in memory. If they soon disappear, the fault may be the writer's or the reader's, Richardson's if he failed to describe them adequately, mine if my manner of reading has not been sufficiently creative. In any case the page that has been well read has the best chance of survival; it was soundly fashioned, to start with, out of the material given me by the writer, and at least it will resist the treachery of a poor memory more resolutely than a page that I did not thoroughly recreate.

But still, as I say, the aspects of a book that for the most part we detach and solidify are simply those which cost us no deliberate pains. We bring to the reading of a book certain imaginative faculties which are in use all the day long, faculties that enable us to complete, in our minds, the people and the scenes which the novelist describes—to give them dimensions, to see round them, to make them "real." And these faculties, no doubt, when they are combined with a trained taste, a sense of quality, seem to represent all that is needed for the criticism of fiction. The novel (and in these pages I speak only of the modern novel, the picture of life that we are in a position to understand without the knowledge of a student or a scholar)—the modern novel asks for no other equipment in its readers than this common gift, used as instinctively as the power of breathing, by which we turn the flat impressions of our senses into solid shapes: this gift, and nothing else except that other, certainly much less common, by which we discriminate between the thing that is good of its kind and the thing that is bad. Such, I should think, is very nearly the theory of our criticism in the matter of the art of fiction. A novel is a picture of life, and life is well known to us; let us first of all "realize" it, and then, using our taste, let us judge whether it is true, vivid, convincing—like life, in fact.

The theory does indeed go a little further, we know. A novel is a picture, a portrait, and we do not forget that there is more in a portrait than the "likeness." Form, design, composition, are to be sought in a novel, as in any other work of art; a novel is the better for possessing them. That we must own, if fiction is an art at all; and an art it must be, since a literal transcript of life is plainly impossible. The laws of art, therefore, apply to this object of our scrutiny, this novel, and it is the better, other things being equal, for obeying them. And yet, is it so very much the better? Is it not somehow true that fiction, among the arts, is a peculiar case, unusually exempt from the rules that bind the rest? Does the fact that a novel is well designed, well proportioned, really make a very great difference in its power to please?—and let us answer honestly, for if it does not, then it is pedantry to force these rules upon a novel. In other arts it may be otherwise, and no doubt a lop-sided statue or an ill-composed painting is a plain offence to the eye, however skilfully it may copy life. The same thing is true of a novel, perhaps, if the fault is very bad, very marked; yet it would be hard to say that even so it is necessarily fatal, or that a novel cannot triumphantly live down the worst aberrations of this kind. We know of novels which everybody admits to be badly constructed, but which are so full of life that it does not appear to matter. May we not conclude that form, design, composition, have a rather different bearing upon the art of fiction than any they may have elsewhere?

And, moreover, these expressions, applied to the viewless art of literature, must fit it loosely and insecurely at best—does it not seem so? They are words usurped from other arts, words that suppose a visible and measurable object, painted or carved. For criticizing the craft of fiction we have no other language than that which has been devised for the material arts; and though we may feel that to talk of the colours and values and perspective of a novel is natural and legitimate, yet these are only metaphors, after all, that cannot be closely pressed. A book starts a train of ideas in the head of the reader, ideas which are massed and arranged on some kind of system; but it is only by the help of fanciful analogies that we can treat the mass as a definite object. Such phrases may give hints and suggestions concerning the method of the novelist; the whole affair is too nebulous for more. Even if a critic's memory were infallible, as it can never be, still it would be impossible for him to give a really scientific account of the structure of the simplest book, since in the last resort he cannot lay his finger upon a single one of the effects to which he refers. When two men stand looking at a picture, at least their two lines of vision meet at a point upon the canvas; they may dispute about it, but the picture stands still. And even then they find that criticism has its difficulties, it would appear. The literary critic, with nothing to point to but the mere volume in his hand, must recognize that his wish to be precise, to be definite, to be clear and exact in his statements, is hopelessly vain.

It is all undeniable, no doubt; from every side we make out that the criticism of a book—not the people in the book, not the character of the author, but the book—is impossible. We cannot remember the book, and even if we could, we should still be unable to describe it in literal and unequivocal terms. It cannot be done; and the only thing to be said is that perhaps it can be approached, perhaps the book can be seen, a little more closely in one way than in another. It is a modest claim, and my own attempt to assert it will be still more modest. A few familiar novels, possibly a dozen, by still fewer writers—it will be enough if I can view this small handful with some particularity. And I shall consider them, too, with no idea of criticizing all their aspects, or even more than one. How they are made is the only question I shall ask; and though indeed that is a question which incidentally raises a good many others—questions of the intention of the novelist, his choice of a subject, the manner of his imagination, and so forth—these I shall follow no further than I can help. And as for the few novels that I shall speak of, they will be such as appear to illustrate most plainly the various elements of the craft; one need not range widely to find them, nor does it matter if the selection, from any other point of view, should seem arbitrary. Many great names may be passed over, for it is not always the greatest whose method of work gives the convenient example; on the other hand the best example is always to be found among the great, and it is essential to keep to their company.

But something may first be said of the reading of a novel. The beginning of criticism is to read aright, in other words to get into touch with the book as nearly as may be. It is a forlorn enterprise—that is admitted; but there are degrees of unsuccess.


A book has a certain form, we all agree; what the form of a particular book may be, whether good or bad, and whether it matters—these are points of debate; but that a book has a form, this is not disputed. We hear the phrase on all sides, an unending argument is waged over it. One critic condemns a novel as "shapeless," meaning that its shape is objectionable; another retorts that if the novel has other fine qualities, its shape is unimportant; and the two will continue their controversy till an onlooker, pardonably bewildered, may begin to suppose that "form" in fiction is something to be put in or left out of a novel according to the taste of the author. But though the discussion is indeed confusingly worded at times, it is clear that there is agreement on this article at least—that a book is a thing to which a shape is ascribable, good or bad. I have spoken of the difficulty that prevents us from ever seeing or describing the shape with perfect certainty; but evidently we are convinced that it is there, clothing the book.

Not as a single form, however, but as a moving stream of impressions, paid out of the volume in a slender thread as we turn the pages—that is how the book reaches us; or in another image it is a procession that passes before us as we sit to watch. It is hard to think of this lapse and flow, this sequence of figures and scenes, which must be taken in a settled order, one after another, as existing in the condition of an immobile form, like a pile of sculpture. Though we readily talk of the book as a material work of art, our words seem to be crossed by a sense that it is rather a process, a passage of experience, than a thing of size and shape. I find this contradiction dividing all my thought about books; they are objects, yes, completed and detached, but I recall them also as tracts of time, during which Clarissa and Anna moved and lived and endured in my view. Criticism is hampered by the ambiguity; the two books, the two aspects of the same book, blur each other; a critic seems to shift from this one to that, from the thing carved in the stuff of thought to the passing movement of life. And on the whole it is the latter aspect of the two which asserts itself; the first, the novel with its formal outline, appears for a moment, and then the life contained in it breaks out and obscures it.

But the procession which passes across our line of sight in the reading must be marshalled and concentrated somewhere; we receive the story of Anna bit by bit, all the numerous fragments that together make Tolstoy's book; and finally the tale is complete, and the book stands before us, or should stand, as a welded mass. We have been given the material, and the book should now be there. Our treacherous memory will have failed to preserve it all, but that disability we have admitted and discounted; at any rate an imposing object ought to remain, Tolstoy's great imaginative sculpture, sufficiently representing his intention. And again and again, at this point, I make the same discovery; I have been watching the story, that is to say, forgetful of the fact that there was more for me to do than to watch receptively and passively, forgetful of the novel that I should have been fashioning out of the march of experience as it passed. I have been treating it as life; and that is all very well, and is the right manner as far as it goes, but my treatment of life is capricious and eclectic, and this life, this story of Anna, has suffered accordingly. I have taken much out of it and carried away many recollections; I have omitted to think of it as matter to be wrought into a single form. What wonder if I search my mind in vain, a little later, for the book that Tolstoy wrote?

But how is one to construct a novel out of the impressions that Tolstoy pours forth from his prodigious hands? This is a kind of "creative reading" (the phrase is Emerson's) which comes instinctively to few of us. We know how to imagine a landscape or a conversation when he describes it, but to gather up all these sights and sounds into a compact fabric, round which the mind can wander freely, as freely as it strays and contemplates and loses its way, perhaps, in Tolstoy's wonderful world—this is a task which does not achieve itself without design and deliberation on the part of the reader. It is an effort, first of all, to keep the world of Anna (I cling to this illustration) at a distance; and yet it must be kept at a distance if it is to be impressed with the form of art; no artist (and the skilful reader is an artist) can afford to be swayed and beset by his material, he must stand above it. And then it is a further effort, prolonged, needing practice and knowledge, to recreate the novel in its right form, the best form that the material, selected and disposed by the author, is capable of accepting.

The reader of a novel—by which I mean the critical reader—is himself a novelist; he is the maker of a book which may or may not please his taste when it is finished, but of a book for which he must take his own share of the responsibility. The author does his part, but he cannot transfer his book like a bubble into the brain of the critic; he cannot make sure that the critic will possess his work. The reader must therefore become, for his part, a novelist, never permitting himself to suppose that the creation of the book is solely the affair of the author. The difference between them is immense, of course, and so much so that a critic is always inclined to extend and intensify it. The opposition that he conceives between the creative and the critical task is a very real one; but in modestly belittling his own side of the business he is apt to forget an essential portion of it. The writer of the novel works in a manner that would be utterly impossible to the critic, no doubt, and with a liberty and with a range that would disconcert him entirely. But in one quarter their work coincides; both of them make the novel.

Is it necessary to define the difference? That is soon done if we picture Tolstoy and his critic side by side, surveying the free and formless expanse of the world of life. The critic has nothing to say; he waits, looking to Tolstoy for guidance. And Tolstoy, with the help of some secret of his own, which is his genius, does not hesitate for an instant. His hand is plunged into the scene, he lifts out of it great fragments, right and left, ragged masses of life torn from their setting; he selects. And upon these trophies he sets to work with the full force of his imagination; he detects their significance, he disengages and throws aside whatever is accidental and meaningless; he re-makes them in conditions that are never known in life, conditions in which a thing is free to grow according to its own law, expressing itself unhindered; he liberates and completes. And then, upon all this new life—so like the old and yet so different, more like the old, as one may say, than the old ever had the chance of being—upon all this life that is now so much more intensely living than before, Tolstoy directs the skill of his art; he distributes it in a single, embracing design; he orders and disposes. And thus the critic receives his guidance, and his work begins.

No selection, no arrangement is required of him; the new world that is laid before him is the world of art, life liberated from the tangle of cross-purposes, saved from arbitrary distortion. Instead of a continuous, endless scene, in which the eye is caught in a thousand directions at once, with nothing to hold it to a fixed centre, the landscape that opens before the critic is whole and single; it has passed through an imagination, it has shed its irrelevancy and is compact with its own meaning. Such is the world in the book—in Tolstoy's book I do not say; but it is the world in the book as it may be, in the book where imagination and execution are perfectly harmonized. And in any case the critic accepts this ordered, enhanced display as it stands, better or worse, and uses it all for the creation of the book. There can be no picking and choosing now; that was the business of the novelist, and it has been accomplished according to his light; the critic creates out of life that is already subject to art.

But his work is not the less plastic for that. The impressions that succeed one another, as the pages of the book are turned, are to be built into a structure, and the critic is missing his opportunity unless he can proceed in a workmanlike manner. It is not to be supposed that an artist who carves or paints is so filled with emotion by the meaning of his work—the story in it—that he forgets the abstract beauty of form and colour; and though there is more room for such sensibility in an art which is the shaping of thought and feeling, in the art of literature, still the man of letters is a craftsman, and the critic cannot be less. He must know how to handle the stuff which is continually forming in his mind while he reads; he must be able to recognize its fine variations and to take them all into account. Nobody can work in material of which the properties are unfamiliar, and a reader who tries to get possession of a book with nothing but his appreciation of the life and the ideas and the story in it is like a man who builds a wall without knowing the capacities of wood and clay and stone. Many different substances, as distinct to the practised eye as stone and wood, go to the making of a novel, and it is necessary to see them for what they are. So only is it possible to use them aright, and to find, when the volume is closed, that a complete, coherent, appraisable book remains in the mind.

And what are these different substances, and how is a mere reader to learn their right use? They are the various forms of narrative, the forms in which a story may be told; and while they are many, they are not indeed so very many, though their modifications and their commixtures are infinite. They are not recondite; we know them well and use them freely, but to use them is easier than to perceive their demands and their qualities. These we gradually discern by using them consciously and questioningly—by reading, I mean, and reading critically, the books in which they appear. Let us very carefully follow the methods of the novelists whose effects are incontestable, noticing exactly the manner in which the scenes and figures in their books are presented. The scenes and figures, as I have said, we shape, we detach, without the smallest difficulty; and if we pause over them for long enough to see by what arts and devices, on the author's part, we have been enabled to shape them so strikingly—to see precisely how this episode has been given relief, that character made intelligible and vivid—we at once begin to stumble on many discoveries about the making of a novel.

Our criticism has been oddly incurious in the matter, considering what the dominion of the novel has been for a hundred and fifty years. The refinements of the art of fiction have been accepted without question, or at most have been classified roughly and summarily—as is proved by the singular poverty of our critical vocabulary, as soon as we pass beyond the simplest and plainest effects. The expressions and the phrases at our disposal bear no defined, delimited meanings; they have not been rounded and hardened by passing constantly from one critic's hand to another's. What is to be understood by a "dramatic" narrative, a "pictorial" narrative, a "scenic" or a "generalized" story? We must use such words, as soon as we begin to examine the structure of a novel; and yet they are words which have no technical acceptation in regard to a novel, and one cannot be sure how they will be taken. The want of a received nomenclature is a real hindrance, and I have often wished that the modern novel had been invented a hundred years sooner, so that it might have fallen into the hands of the critical schoolmen of the seventeenth century. As the production of an age of romance, or of the eve of such an age, it missed the advantage of the dry light of academic judgement, and I think it still has reason to regret the loss. The critic has, at any rate; his language, even now, is unsettled and unformed.

And we still suffer from a kind of shyness in the presence of a novel. From shyness of the author or of his sentiments or of his imagined world, no indeed; but we are haunted by a sense that a novel is a piece of life, and that to take it to pieces would be to destroy it. We begin to analyse it, and we seem to be like Beckmesser, writing down the mistakes of the spring-time upon his slate. It is an obscure delicacy, not clearly formulated, not admitted, perhaps, in so many words; but it has its share in restraining the hand of criticism. We scarcely need to be thus considerate; the immense and necessary difficulty of closing with a book at all, on any terms, might appear to be enough, without adding another; the book is safe from rude violation. And it is not a piece of life, it is a piece of art like another; and the fact that it is an ideal shape, with no existence in space, only to be spoken of in figures and metaphors, makes it all the more important that in our thought it should be protected by no romantic scruple. Or perhaps it is not really the book that we are shy of, but a still more fugitive phantom—our pleasure in it. It spoils the fun of a novel to know how it is made—is this a reflection that lurks at the back of our minds? Sometimes, I think.

But the pleasure of illusion is small beside the pleasure of creation, and the greater is open to every reader, volume in hand. How a novelist finds his subject, in a human being or in a situation or in a turn of thought, this indeed is beyond us; we might look long at the very world that Tolstoy saw, we should never detect the unwritten book he found there; and he can seldom (he and the rest of them) give any account of the process of discovery. The power that recognizes the fruitful idea and seizes it is a thing apart. For this reason we judge the novelist's eye for a subject to be his cardinal gift, and we have nothing to say, whether by way of exhortation or of warning, till his subject is announced. But from that moment he is accessible, his privilege is shared; and the delight of treating the subject is acute and perennial. From point to point we follow the writer, always looking back to the subject itself in order to understand the logic of the course he pursues. We find that we are creating a design, large or small, simple or intricate, as the chapter finished is fitted into its place; or again there is a flaw and a break in the development, the author takes a turn that appears to contradict or to disregard the subject, and the critical question, strictly so called, begins. Is this proceeding of the author the right one, the best for the subject? Is it possible to conceive and to name a better? The hours of the author's labour are lived again by the reader, the pleasure of creation is renewed.

So it goes, till the book is ended and we look back at the whole design. It may be absolutely satisfying to the eye, the expression of the subject, complete and compact. But with the book in this condition of a defined shape, firm of outline, its form shows for what it is indeed—not an attribute, one of many and possibly not the most important, but the book itself, as the form of a statue is the statue itself. If the form is to the eye imperfect, it means that the subject is somehow and somewhere imperfectly expressed, it means that the story has suffered. Where then, and how? Is it because the treatment has not started from the heart of the subject, or has diverged from the line of its true development—or is it that the subject itself was poor and unfruitful? The question ramifies quickly. But anyhow here is the book, or something that we need not hesitate to regard as the book, recreated according to the best of the reader's ability. Indeed he knows well that it will melt away in time; nothing can altogether save it; only it will last for longer than it would have lasted if it had been read uncritically, if it had not been deliberately recreated. In that case it would have fallen to pieces at once, Anna and Clarissa would have stepped out of the work of art in which their authors had so laboriously enshrined them, the book would have perished. It is now a single form, and let us judge the effect of it while we may. At best we shall have no more time than we certainly require.


A great and brilliant novel, a well-known novel, and at the same time a large and crowded and unmanageable novel—such will be the book to consider first. It must be one that is universally admitted to be a work of genius, signal and conspicuous; I wish to examine its form, I do not wish to argue its merit; it must be a book which it is superfluous to praise, but which it will never seem too late to praise again. It must also be well known, and this narrows the category; the novel of whose surpassing value every one is convinced may easily fall outside it; our novel must be one that is not only commended, but habitually read. And since we are concerned with the difficulty of controlling the form of a novel, let it be an evident case of the difficulty, an extreme case on a large scale, where the question cannot be disguised—a novel of ample scope, covering wide spaces and many years, long and populous and eventful. The category is reduced indeed; perhaps it contains one novel only, War and Peace.

Of War and Peace it has never been suggested, I suppose, that Tolstoy here produced a model of perfect form. It is a panoramic vision of people and places, a huge expanse in which armies are marshalled; can one expect of such a book that it should be neatly composed? It is crowded with life, at whatever point we face it; intensely vivid, inexhaustibly stirring, the broad impression is made by the big prodigality of Tolstoy's invention. If a novel could really be as large as life, Tolstoy could easily fill it; his great masterful reach never seems near its limit; he is always ready to annex another and yet another tract of life, he is only restrained by the mere necessity of bringing a novel somewhere to an end. And then, too, this mighty command of spaces and masses is only half his power. He spreads further than any one else, but he also touches the detail of the scene, the single episode, the fine shade of character, with exquisite lightness and precision. Nobody surpasses, in some ways nobody approaches, the easy authority with which he handles the matter immediately before him at the moment, a roomful of people, the brilliance of youth, spring sunshine in a forest, a boy on a horse; whatever his shifting panorama brings into view, he makes of it an image of beauty and truth that is final, complete, unqualified. Before the profusion of War and Peace the question of its general form is scarcely raised. It is enough that such a world should have been pictured; it is idle to look for proportion and design in a book that contains a world.

But for this very reason, that there is so much in the book to distract attention from its form, it is particularly interesting to ask how it is made. The doubt, the obvious perplexity, is a challenge to the exploring eye. It may well be that effective composition on such a scale is impossible, but it is not so easy to say exactly where Tolstoy fails. If the total effect of his book is inconclusive, it is all lucidity and shapeliness in its parts. There is no faltering in his hold upon character; he never loses his way among the scores of men and women in the book; and in all the endless series of scenes and events there is not one which betrays a hesitating intention. The story rolls on and on, and it is long before the reader can begin to question its direction. Tolstoy seems to know precisely where he is going, and why; there is nothing at any moment to suggest that he is not in perfect and serene control of his idea. Only at last, perhaps, we turn back and wonder what it was. What is the subject of War and Peace, what is the novel about? There is no very ready answer; but if we are to discover what is wrong with the form, this is the question to press.

What is the story? There is first of all a succession of phases in the lives of certain generations; youth that passes out into maturity, fortunes that meet and clash and re-form, hopes that flourish and wane and reappear in other lives, age that sinks and hands on the torch to youth again—such is the substance of the drama. The book, I take it, begins to grow out of the thought of the processional march of the generations, always changing, always renewed; its figures are sought and chosen for the clarity with which the drama is embodied in them. Young people of different looks and talents, moods and tempers, but young with the youth of all times and places—the story is alive with them at once. The Rostov household resounds with them—the Rostovs are of the easy, light-spirited, quick-tongued sort. Then there is the dreary old Bolkonsky mansion, with Andrew, generous and sceptical, and with poor plain Marya, ardent and repressed. And for quite another kind of youth, there is Peter Besukhov, master of millions, fat and good-natured and indolent, his brain a fever of faiths and aspirations which not he, but Andrew, so much more sparing in high hopes, has the tenacity to follow. These are in the foreground, and between and behind them are more and more, young men and women at every turn, crowding forward to take their places as the new generation.

It does not matter, it does not affect the drama, that they are men and women of a certain race and century, soldiers, politicians, princes, Russians in an age of crisis; such they are, with all the circumstances of their time and place about them, but such they are in secondary fashion, it is what they happen to be. Essentially they are not princes, not Russians, but figures in the great procession; they are here in the book because they are young, not because they are the rising hope of Russia in the years of Austerlitz and Borodino. It is laid upon them primarily to enact the cycle of birth and growth, death and birth again. They illustrate the story that is the same always and everywhere, and the tumult of the dawning century to which they are born is an accident. Peter and Andrew and Natasha and the rest of them are the children of yesterday and to-day and to-morrow; there is nothing in any of them that is not of all time. Tolstoy has no thought of showing them as the children of their particular conditions, as the generation that was formed by a certain historic struggle; he sees them simply as the embodiment of youth. To an English reader of to-day it is curious—and more, it is strangely moving—to note how faithfully the creations of Tolstoy, the nineteenth-century Russian, copy the young people of the twentieth century and of England; it is all one, life in Moscow then, life in London now, provided only that it is young enough. Old age is rather more ephemeral; its period is written on it (not very deeply, after all), and here and there it "dates." Nicholas and Natasha are always of the newest modernity.

Such is the master-motive that at first sight appears to underlie the book, in spite of its name; such is the most evident aspect of the story, as our thought brushes freely and rapidly around it. In this drama the war and the peace are episodic, not of the centre; the historic scene is used as a foil and a background. It appears from time to time, for the sake of its value in throwing the nearer movement of life into strong relief; it very powerfully and strikingly shows what the young people are. The drama of the rise of a generation is nowhere more sharply visible and appreciable than it is in such a time of convulsion. Tolstoy's moment is well chosen; his story has a setting that is fiercely effective, the kind of setting which in our Europe this story has indeed found very regularly, century by century. But it is not by the war, from this point of view, that the multifarious scenes are linked together; it is by another idea, a more general, as we may still dare to hope, than the idea of war. Youth and age, the flow and the ebb of the recurrent tide—this is the theme of Tolstoy's book.

So it seems for a while. But Tolstoy called his novel War and Peace, and presently there arises a doubt; did he believe himself to be writing that story, and not the story of Youth and Age? I have been supposing that he named his book carelessly (he would not be alone among great novelists for that), and thereby emphasized the wrong side of his intention; but there are things in the drama which suggest that his title really represented the book he projected. Cutting across the big human motive I have indicated, there falls a second line of thought, and sometimes it is this, most clearly, that the author is following. Not the cycle of life everlasting, in which the rage of nations is an incident, a noise and an incursion from without—but the strife itself, the irrelevant uproar, becomes the motive of the fable. War and Peace, the drama of that ancient alternation, is now the subject out of which the form of the book is to grow. Not seldom, and more frequently as the book advances, the story takes this new and contradictory alignment. The centre shifts from the general play of life, neither national nor historic, and plants itself in the field of racial conflict, typified by that "sheep-worry of Europe" which followed the French Revolution. The young people immediately change their meaning. They are no longer there for their own sake, guardians of the torch for their hour. They are re-disposed, partially and fitfully, in another relation; they are made to figure as creatures of the Russian scene, at the impact of East and West in the Napoleonic clash.

It is a mighty antinomy indeed, on a scale adapted to Tolstoy's giant imagination. With one hand he takes up the largest subject in the world, the story to which all other human stories are subordinate; and not content with this, in the other hand he produces the drama of a great historic collision, for which a scene is set with no less prodigious a gesture. And there is not a sign in the book to show that he knew what he was doing; apparently he was quite unconscious that he was writing two novels at once. Such an oversight is not peculiar to men of genius, I dare say; the least of us is capable of the feat, many of us are seen to practise it. But two such novels as these, two such immemorial epics, caught up together and written out in a couple of thousand pages, inadvertently mixed and entangled, and all with an air of composure never ruffled or embarrassed, in a style of luminous simplicity—it was a feat that demanded, that betokened, the genius of Tolstoy. War and Peace is like an Iliad, the story of certain men, and an Aeneid, the story of a nation, compressed into one book by a man who never so much as noticed that he was Homer and Virgil by turns.

Or can it perhaps be argued that he was aware of the task he set himself, and that he intentionally coupled his two themes? He proposed, let us say, to set the unchanging story of life against the momentary tumult, which makes such a stir in the history-books, but which passes, leaving the other story still unrolling for ever. Perhaps he did; but I am looking only at his book, and I can see no hint of it in the length and breadth of the novel as it stands; I can discover no angle at which the two stories will appear to unite and merge in a single impression. Neither is subordinate to the other, and there is nothing above them (what more could there be?) to which they are both related. Nor are they placed together to illustrate a contrast; nothing results from their juxtaposition. Only from time to time, upon no apparent principle and without a word of warning, one of them is dropped and the other resumed. It would be possible, I think, to mark the exact places—not always even at the end of a chapter, but casually, in the middle of a page—where the change occurs. The reader begins to look out for them; in the second half of the novel they are liberally sprinkled.

The long, slow, steady sweep of the story—the first story, as I call it—setting through the personal lives of a few young people, bringing them together, separating them, dimming their freshness, carrying them away from hopeful adventure to their appointed condition, where their part is only to transmit the gift of youth to others and to drop back while the adventure is repeated—this motive, in which the book opens and closes and to which it constantly returns, is broken into by the famous scenes of battle (by some of them, to be accurate, not by all), with the reverberation of imperial destinies, out of which Tolstoy makes a saga of his country's tempestuous past. It is magnificent, this latter, but it has no bearing on the other, the universal story of no time or country, the legend of every age, which is told of Nicholas and Natasha, but which might have been told as well of the sons and daughters of the king of Troy. To Nicholas, the youth of all time, the strife of Emperor and Czar is the occasion, it may very well be, of the climax of his adventure; but it is no more than the occasion, not essential to it, since by some means or other he would have touched his climax in any age. War and peace are likely enough to shape his life for him, whether he belongs to ancient Troy or to modern Europe; but if it is his story, his and that of his companions, why do we see them suddenly swept into the background, among the figures that populate the story of a particular and memorable war? For that is what happens.

It is now the war, with the generals and the potentates in the forefront, that is the matter of the story. Alexander and Kutusov, Napoleon and Murat, become the chief actors, and between them the play is acted out. In this story the loves and ambitions of the young generation, which have hitherto been central, are relegated to the fringe; there are wide tracts in which they do not appear at all. Again and again Tolstoy forgets them entirely; he has discovered a fresh idea for the unification of this second book, a theory drummed into the reader with merciless iteration, desolating many a weary page. The meaning of the book—and it is extraordinary how Tolstoy's artistic sense deserts him in expounding it—lies in the relation between the man of destiny and the forces that he dreams he is directing; it is a high theme, but Tolstoy cannot leave it to make its own effect. He, whose power of making a story tell itself is unsurpassed, is capable of thrusting into his book interminable chapters of comment and explanation, chapters in the manner of a controversial pamphlet, lest the argument of his drama should be missed. But the reader at last takes an easy way with these maddening interruptions; wherever "the historians" are mentioned he knows that several pages can be turned at once; Tolstoy may be left to belabour the conventional theories of the Napoleonic legend, and rejoined later on, when it has occurred to him once more that he is writing a novel.

When he is not pamphleteering Tolstoy's treatment of the second story, the national saga, is masterly at every point. If we could forget the original promise of the book as lightly as its author does, nothing could be more impressive than his pictures of the two hugely-blundering masses, Europe and Russia, ponderously colliding at the apparent dictation of a few limited brains—so few, so limited, that the irony of their claim to be the directors of fate is written over all the scene. Napoleon at the crossing of the Niemen, Napoleon before Moscow, the Russian council of war after Borodino (gravely watched by the small child Malasha, overlooked in her corner), Kutusov, wherever he appears—all these are impressions belonging wholly to the same cycle; they have no effect in relation to the story of Peter and Nicholas, they do not extend or advance it, but on their own account they are supreme. There are not enough of them, and they are not properly grouped and composed, to complete the second book that has forced its way into the first; the cycle of the war and the peace, as distinguished from the cycle of youth and age, is broken and fragmentary. The size of the theme, and the scale upon which these scenes are drawn, imply a novel as long as our existing War and Peace; it would all be filled by Kutusov and Napoleon, if their drama were fully treated, leaving no room for another. But, mutilated as it is, each of the fragments is broadly handled, highly finished, and perfectly adjusted to a point of view that is not the point of view for the rest of the book.

And it is to be remarked that the lines of cleavage—which, as I suggested, can be traced with precision—by no means invariably divide the peaceful scenes of romance from the battles and intrigues of the historic struggle, leaving these on one side, those on the other. Sometimes the great public events are used as the earlier theme demands that they should be used—as the material in which the story of youth is embodied. Consider, for instance, one of the earlier battle-pieces in the book, where Nicholas, very youthful indeed, is for the first time under fire; he comes and goes bewildered, laments like a lost child, is inspired with heroism and flees like a hare for his life. As Tolstoy presents it, this battle, or a large part of it, is the affair of Nicholas; it belongs to him, it is a piece of experience that enters his life and enriches our sense of it. Many of the wonderful chapters, again, which deal with the abandonment and the conflagration of Moscow, are seen through the lives of the irrepressible Rostov household, or of Peter in his squalid imprisonment; the scene is framed in their consciousness. Prince Andrew, too—nobody can forget how much of the battle in which he is mortally wounded is transformed into an emotion of his; those pages are filched from Tolstoy's theory of the war and given to his fiction. In all these episodes, and in others of the same kind, the history of the time is in the background; in front of it, closely watched for their own sake, are the lives which that history so deeply affects.

But in the other series of pictures of the campaign, mingled with these, it is different. They are admirable, but they screen the thought of the particular lives in which the wider interest of the book (as I take it to be) is firmly lodged. From a huge emotion that reaches us through the youth exposed to it, the war is changed into an emotion of our own. It is rendered by the story-teller, on the whole, as a scene directly faced by himself, instead of being reflected in the experience of the rising generation. It is true that Tolstoy's good instinct guides him ever and again away from the mere telling of the story on his own authority; at high moments he knows better than to tell it himself. He approaches it through the mind of an onlooker, Napoleon or Kutusov or the little girl by the stove in the corner, borrowing the value of indirectness, the increased effect of a story that is seen as it is mirrored in the mind of another. But he chooses his onlooker at random and follows no consistent method. The predominant point of view is simply his own, that of the independent story-teller; so that the general effect of these pictures is made on a totally different principle from that which governs the story of the young people. In that story—though there, too, Tolstoy's method is far from being consistent—the effect is mainly based on our free sharing in the hopes and fears and meditations of the chosen few. In the one case Tolstoy is immediately beside us, narrating; in the other it is Peter and Andrew, Nicholas and Natasha, who are with us and about us, and Tolstoy is effaced.

Here, then, is the reason, or at any rate one of the reasons, why the general shape of War and Peace fails to satisfy the eye—as I suppose it admittedly to fail. It is a confusion of two designs, a confusion more or less masked by Tolstoy's imperturbable ease of manner, but revealed by the look of his novel when it is seen as a whole. It has no centre, and Tolstoy is so clearly unconcerned by the lack that one must conclude he never perceived it. If he had he would surely have betrayed that he had; he would have been found, at some point or other, trying to gather his two stories into one, devising a scheme that would include them both, establishing a centre somewhere. But no, he strides through his book without any such misgiving, and really it is his assurance that gives it such an air of lucidity. He would only have flawed its surface by attempting to force the material on his hands into some sort of unity; its incongruity is fundamental. And when we add, as we must, that War and Peace, with all this, is one of the great novels of the world, a picture of life that has never been surpassed for its grandeur and its beauty, there is a moment when all our criticism perhaps seems trifling. What does it matter? The business of the novelist is to create life, and here is life created indeed; the satisfaction of a clean, coherent form is wanting, and it would be well to have it, but that is all. We have a magnificent novel without it.

So we have, but we might have had a more magnificent still, and a novel that would not be this novel merely, this War and Peace, with the addition of another excellence, a comeliness of form. We might have had a novel that would be a finer, truer, more vivid and more forcible picture of life. The best form is that which makes the most of its subject—there is no other definition of the meaning of form in fiction. The well-made book is the book in which the subject and the form coincide and are indistinguishable—the book in which the matter is all used up in the form, in which the form expresses all the matter. Where there is disagreement and conflict between the two, there is stuff that is superfluous or there is stuff that is wanting; the form of the book, as it stands before us, has failed to do justice to the idea. In War and Peace, as it seems to me, the story suffers twice over for the imperfection of the form. It is damaged, in the first place, by the importation of another and an irrelevant story—damaged because it so loses the sharp and clear relief that it would have if it stood alone. Whether the story was to be the drama of youth and age, or the drama of war and peace, in either case it would have been incomparably more impressive if all the great wealth of the material had been used for its purpose, all brought into one design. And furthermore, in either case again, the story is incomplete; neither of them is finished, neither of them is given its full development, for all the size of the book. But to this point, at least in relation to one of the two, I shall return directly.

Tolstoy's novel is wasteful of its subject; that is the whole objection to its loose, unstructural form. Criticism bases its conclusion upon nothing whatever but the injury done to the story, the loss of its full potential value. Is there so much that is good in War and Peace that its inadequate grasp of a great theme is easily forgotten? It is not only easily forgotten, it is scarcely noticed—on a first reading of the book; I speak at least for one reader. But with every return to it the book that might have been is more insistent; it obtrudes more plainly, each time, interfering with the book that is. Each time, in fact, it becomes harder to make a book of it at all; instead of holding together more firmly, with every successive reconstruction, its prodigious members seem always more disparate and disorganized; they will not coalesce. A subject, one and whole and irreducible—a novel cannot begin to take shape till it has this for its support. It seems obvious; yet there is nothing more familiar to a novel-reader of to-day than the difficulty of discovering what the novel in his hand is about. What was the novelist's intention, in a phrase? If it cannot be put into a phrase it is no subject for a novel; and the size or the complexity of a subject is in no way limited by that assertion. It may be the simplest anecdote or the most elaborate concatenation of events, it may be a solitary figure or the widest network of relationships; it is anyhow expressible in ten words that reveal its unity. The form of the book depends on it, and until it is known there is nothing to be said of the form.


But now suppose that Tolstoy had not been drawn aside from his first story in the midst of it, suppose he had left the epic of his country and "the historians" to be dealt with in another book, suppose that the interpolated scenes of War and Peace, as we possess it, were to disappear and to leave the subject entirely to the young heroes and heroines—what shall we find to be the form of the book which is thus disencumbered? I would try to think away from the novel all that is not owned and dominated by these three brilliant households, Besukhov, Bolkonsky, Rostov; there remains a long succession of scenes, in a single and straightforward train of action. It is still a novel of ample size; it spreads from the moment when Peter, amiably uncouth, first appears in a drawing-room of the social world, to the evening, fifteen years later, when he is watched with speechless veneration by the small boy Nicolenka, herald of the future. The climax of his life, the climax of half a dozen lives, is surmounted between these two points, and now their story stands by itself. It gains, I could feel, by this process of liberation, summary as it is.

At any rate, it is one theme and one book, and the question of its form may be further pressed. The essential notion out of which this book sprang, I suggested, was that of the march of life, the shift of the generations in their order—a portentous subject to master, but Tolstoy's hand is broad and he is not afraid of great spaces. Such a subject could not be treated at all without a generous amount of room for its needs. It requires, to begin with, a big and various population; a few selected figures may hold the main thread of the story and represent its course, but it is necessary for their typical truth that their place in the world should be clearly seen. They are choice examples, standing away from the mass, but their meaning would be lost if they were taken to be utterly exceptional, if they appeared to be chosen because they are exceptional. Their attachment to the general drama of life must accordingly be felt and understood; the effect of a wide world must be given, opening away to far distances round the action of the centre. The whole point of the action is in its representative character, its universality; this it must plainly wear.

It begins to do so at once, from the very first. With less hesitation, apparently, than another man might feel in setting the scene of a street or parish, Tolstoy proceeds to make his world. Daylight seems to well out of his page and to surround his characters as fast as he sketches them; the darkness lifts from their lives, their conditions, their outlying affairs, and leaves them under an open sky. In the whole of fiction no scene is so continually washed by the common air, free to us all, as the scene of Tolstoy. His people move in an atmosphere that knows no limit; beyond the few that are to the fore there stretches a receding crowd, with many faces in full light, and many more that are scarcely discerned as faces, but that swell the impression of swarming life. There is no perceptible horizon, no hard line between the life in the book and the life beyond it. The communication between the men and women of the story and the rest of the world is unchecked. It is impossible to say of Peter and Andrew and Nicholas that they inhabit a "world of their own," as the people in a story-book so often appear to do; they inhabit our world, like anybody else. I do not mean, of course, that a marked horizon, drawn round the action of a book and excluding everything that does not belong to it, is not perfectly appropriate, often enough; their own world may be all that the people need, may be the world that best reveals what they are to be and to do; it all depends on the nature of the fable. But to Tolstoy's fable space is essential, with the sense of the continuity of life, within and without the circle of the book. He never seems even to know that there can be any difficulty in providing it; while he writes, it is there.

He is helped, one might imagine, by the simple immensity of his Russian landscape, filled with the suggestion of distances and unending levels. The Russian novelist who counts on this effect has it ready to his hand. If he is to render an impression of space that widens and widens, a hint is enough; the mere association of his picture with the thought of those illimitable plains might alone enlarge it to the utmost of his need. The imagination of distance is everywhere, not only in a free prospect, where sight is lost, but on any river-bank, where the course of the stream lies across a continent, or on the edge of a wood, whence the forest stretches round the curve of the globe. To isolate a patch of that huge field and to cut it off from the encompassing air might indeed seem to be the greater difficulty; how can the eye be held to a point when the very name of Russia is extent without measure? At our end of Europe, where space is more precious, life is divided and specialized and differentiated, but over there such economies are unnecessary; there is no need to define one's own world and to live within it when there is a single world large enough for all. The horizon of a Russian story would naturally be vague and vast, it might seem.

It might seem so, at least, if the fiction of Dostoevsky were not there with an example exactly opposed to the manner of Tolstoy. The serene and impartial day that arches from verge to verge in War and Peace, the blackness that hems in the ominous circle of the Brothers Karamazov—it is a perfect contrast. Dostoevsky needed no lucid prospect round his strange crew; all he sought was a blaze of light on the extraordinary theatre of their consciousness. He intensified it by shutting off the least glimmer of natural day. The illumination that falls upon his page is like the glare of a furnace-mouth; it searches the depths of the inner struggles and turmoils in which his drama is enacted, relieving it with sharp and fantastic shadows. That is all it requires, and therefore the curtain of darkness is drawn thickly over the rest of the world. Who can tell, in Dostoevsky's grim town-scenery, what there is at the end of the street, what lies round the next corner? Night stops the view—or rather no ordinary, earthly night, but a sudden opacity, a fog that cannot be pierced or breathed. With Tolstoy nobody doubts that an ample vision opens in every direction. It may be left untold, but his men and women have only to lift their eyes to see it.

How is it contrived? The mere multiplication of names and households in the book does not account for it; the effect I speak of spreads far beyond them. It is not that he has imagined so large an army of characters, it is that he manages to give them such freedom, such an obvious latitude of movement in the open world. Description has nothing to do with it; there is very little description in War and Peace, save in the battle-scenes that I am not now considering. And it is not enough to say that if Tolstoy's people have evident lives of their own, beyond the limits of the book, it is because he understands and knows them so well, because they are so "real" to him, because they and all their circumstances are so sharply present to his imagination. Who has ever known so much about his own creations as Balzac?—and who has ever felt that Balzac's people had the freedom of a bigger world than that very solid and definite habitation he made for them? There must be another explanation, and I think one may discern where it lies, though it would take me too far to follow it.

It lies perhaps in the fact that with Tolstoy's high poetic genius there went a singularly normal and everyday gift of experience. Genius of his sort generally means, I dare say, that the possessor of it is struck by special and wonderful aspects of the world; his vision falls on it from a peculiar angle, cutting into unsuspected sides of common facts—as a painter sees a quality in a face that other people never saw. So it is with Balzac, and so it is, in their different ways, with such writers as Stendhal and Maupassant, or again as Dickens and Meredith; they all create a "world of their own." Tolstoy seems to look squarely at the same world as other people, and only to make so much more of it than other people by the direct force of his genius, not because he holds a different position in regard to it. His experience comes from the same quarter as ours; it is because he absorbs so much more of it, and because it all passes into his great plastic imagination, that it seems so new. His people, therefore, are essentially familiar and intelligible; we easily extend their lives in any direction, instead of finding ourselves checked by the difficulty of knowing more about them than the author tells us in so many words. Of this kind of genius I take Tolstoy to be the supreme instance among novelists; Fielding and Scott and Thackeray are of the family. But I do not linger over a matter that for my narrow argument is a side-issue.

The continuity of space and of daylight, then, so necessary to the motive of the book, is rendered in War and Peace with absolute mastery. There is more, or there is not so much, to be said of the way in which the long flight of time through the expanse of the book is imagined and pictured. The passage of time, the effect of time, belongs to the heart of the subject; if we could think of War and Peace as a book still to be written, this, no doubt, would seem to be the greatest of its demands. The subject is not given at all unless the movement of the wheel of time is made perceptible. I suppose there is nothing that is more difficult to ensure in a novel. Merely to lengthen the series of stages and developments in the action will not ensure it; there is no help in the simple ranging of fact beside fact, to suggest the lapse of a certain stretch of time; a novelist might as well fall back on the row of stars and the unsupported announcement that "years have fled." It is a matter of the build of the whole book. The form of time is to be represented, and that is something more than to represent its contents in their order. If time is of the essence of the book, the lines and masses of the book must show it.

Time is all-important in War and Peace, but that does not necessarily mean that it will cover a great many years; they are in fact no more than the years between youth and middle age. But though the wheel may not travel very far in the action as we see it, there must be no doubt of the great size of the wheel; it must seem to turn in a large circumference, though only a part of its journey is to be watched. The revolution of life, marked by the rising and sinking of a certain generation—such is the story; and the years that Tolstoy treats, fifteen or so, may be quite enough to show the sweep of the curve. At five-and-twenty a man is still beginning; at forty—I do not say that at forty he is already ending, though Tolstoy in his ruthless way is prepared to suggest it; but by that time there are clear and intelligent eyes, like the boy Nicolenka's, fixed enquiringly upon a man—the eyes of the new-comers, who are suddenly everywhere and all about him, making ready to begin in their turn. As soon as that happens the curve of time is apparent, the story is told. But it must be made apparent in the book; the shape of the story must give the reason for telling it, the purpose of the author in chronicling his facts.

Can we feel that Tolstoy has so represented the image of time, the part that time plays in his book? The problem was twofold; there was first of all the steady progression, the accumulation of the years, to be portrayed, and then the rise and fall of their curve. It is the double effect of time—its uninterrupted lapse, and the cycle of which the chosen stretch is a segment. I cannot think there is much doubt about the answer to my question. Tolstoy has achieved one aspect of his handful of years with rare and exquisite art, he has troubled himself very little about the other. Time that evenly and silently slips away, while the men and women talk and act and forget it—time that is read in their faces, in their gestures, in the changing texture of their thought, while they only themselves awake to the discovery that it is passing when the best of it has gone—time in this aspect is present in War and Peace more manifestly, perhaps, than in any other novel that could be named, unless it were another novel of Tolstoy's. In so far as it is a matter of the length of his fifteen years, they are there in the story with their whole effect.

He is the master of the changes of age in a human being. Under his hand young men and women grow older, cease to be young, grow old, with the noiseless regularity of life; their mutability never hides their sameness, their consistency shows and endures through their disintegration. They grow as we all do, they change in the only possible direction, that which results from the clash between themselves and their conditions. If I looked for the most beautiful illustration in all fiction of a woman at the mercy of time, exposed to the action of the years, now facing it with what she is, presently betraying and recording it with what she becomes, I should surely find it in the story of Anna Karenina. Various and exquisite as she is, her whole nature is sensitive to the imprint of time, and the way in which time invades her, steals throughout her, finally lays her low, Tolstoy tracks and renders from end to end. And in War and Peace his hand is not less delicate and firm. The progress of time is never broken; inexorably it does what it must, carrying an enthusiastic young student forward into a slatternly philosopher of middle life, linking an over-blown matron with the memory of a girl dancing into a crowded room. The years move on and on, there is no missing the sense of their flow.

But the meaning, the import, what I should like to call the moral of it all—what of that? Tolstoy has shown us a certain length of time's journey, but to what end has he shown it? The question has to be answered, and it is not answered, it is only postponed, if we say that the picture itself is all the moral, all the meaning that we are entitled to ask for. It is of the picture that we speak; its moral is in its design, and without design the scattered scenes will make no picture. Our answer would be clear enough, as I have tried to suggest, if we could see in the form of the novel an image of the circling sweep of time. But to a broad and single effect, such as that, the chapters of the book refuse to adapt themselves; they will not draw together and announce a reason for their collocation. The story is started with every promise, and it ceases at the end with an air of considerable finality. But between these points its course is full of doubt.

It is admirably started. Nothing could be more right and true than the bubbling merriment and the good faith and the impatient aspiration with which the young life of the earlier chapters of the book comes surging upon the scene of its elders. A current of newness and freshness is set flowing in the atmosphere of the generation that is still in possession. The talk of a political drawing-room is stale and shrill, an old man in his seclusion is a useless encumbrance, an easy-going and conventional couple are living without plan or purpose—all the futility of these people is obvious to an onlooker from the moment when their sons and daughters break in upon them. It was time for the new generation to appear—and behold it appearing in lively strength. Tolstoy, with his power of making an eloquent event out of nothing at all, needs no dramatic apparatus to set off the effect of the irruption. Two people, an elderly man of the world and a scheming hostess, are talking together, the room fills, a young man enters; or in another sociable assembly there is a shriek and a rush, and the children of the house charge into the circle; that is quite enough for Tolstoy, his drama of youth and age opens immediately with the right impression. The story is in movement without delay; there are a few glimpses of this kind, and then the scene is ready, the action may go forward; everything is attuned for the effect it is to make.

And at the other end of the book, after many hundreds of pages, the story is brought to a full close in an episode which gathers up all the threads and winds them together. The youths and maidens are now the parents of another riotous brood. Not one of them has ended where he or she expected to end, but their lives have taken a certain shape, and it is unmistakable that this shape is final. Nothing more will happen to them which an onlooker cannot easily foretell. They have settled down upon their lines, and very comfortable and very estimable lines on the whole, and there may be many years of prosperity before them; but they no longer possess the future that was sparkling with possibility a few years ago. Peter is as full of schemes as ever, but who now supposes that he will do anything? Natasha is absorbed in her children like a motherly hen; Nicholas, the young cavalier, is a country gentleman; they are all what they were bound to be, though nobody foresaw it. But shyly lurking in a corner, late in the evening, with eyes fixed upon the elders of the party who are talking and arguing—here once more is that same uncertain, romantic, incalculable future; the last word is with the new generation, the budding morrow, old enough now to be musing and speculating over its own visions. "Yes, I will do such things—!" says Nicolenka; and that is the natural end of the story.

But meanwhile the story has rambled and wandered uncontrolled—or controlled only by Tolstoy's perfect consistency in the treatment of his characters. They, as I have said, are never less than absolutely true to themselves; wherever we meet them, in peace or war, they are always the people we know, the same as ever, and yet changing and changing (like all the people we know) under the touch of time. It is not they, it is their story that falters. The climax, I suppose, must be taken to fall in the great scenes of the burning of Moscow, with which all their lives are so closely knit. Peter involves himself in a tangle of misfortunes (as he would, of course) by his slipshod enthusiasm; Natasha's courage and good sense are surprisingly aroused—one had hardly seen that she possessed such qualities, but Tolstoy is right; and presently it is Andrew, the one clear-headed and far-sighted member of the circle, who is lost to it in the upheaval, wounded and brought home to die. It is a beautiful and human story of its kind; but note that it has entirely dropped the representative character which it wore at the beginning and is to pick up again at the end. Tolstoy has forgotten about this; partly he has been too much engrossed in his historical picture, and partly he has fallen into a new manner of handling the loves and fortunes of his young people. It is now a tale of a group of men and women, with their cross-play of affinities, a tale of which the centre of interest lies in the way in which their mutual relations will work out. It is the kind of story we expect to find in any novel, a drama of young affections—extraordinarily true and poetic, as Tolstoy traces it, but a limited affair compared with the theme of his first chapters.

Of that theme there is no continuous development. The details of the charming career of Natasha, for example, have no bearing on it at all. Natasha is the delightful girl of her time and of all time, as Nicholas is the delightful boy, and she runs through the sequence of moods and love-affairs that she properly should; she is one whose fancy is quick and who easily follows it. But in the large drama of which she is a part it is not the actual course of her love-affairs that has any importance, it is the fact that she has them, that she is what she is, that every one loves her and that she is ready to love nearly every one. To do as Tolstoy does, to bring into the middle of the interest the question whether she will marry this man or that—especially when it is made as exquisitely interesting as he makes it—this is to throw away the value that she had and to give her another of a different sort entirely. At the turning-point of the book, and long before the turning-point is reached, she is simply the heroine of a particular story; what she had been—Tolstoy made it quite clear—was the heroine of a much more general story, when she came dancing in on the crest of the new wave.

It is a change of attitude and of method on Tolstoy's part. He sees the facts of his story from a different point of view and represents them in a fresh light. It does not mean that he modifies their course, that he forces them in a wrong direction and makes Natasha act in a manner conflicting with his first idea. She acts and behaves consistently with her nature, exactly as the story demands that she should; not one of her impulsive proceedings need be sacrificed. But it was for Tolstoy, representing them, to behave consistently too, and to use the facts in accordance with his purpose. He had a reason for taking them in hand, a design which he meant them to express; and his vacillation prevents them from expressing it. How would he have treated the story, supposing that he had kept hold of his original reason throughout? Are we prepared to improve upon his method, to re-write his book as we think it ought to have been written? Well, at any rate, it is possible to imagine the different effect it would show if a little of that large, humane irony, so evident in the tone of the story at the start, had persisted through all its phases. It would not have dimmed Natasha's charm, it would have heightened it. While she is simply the heroine of a romance she is enchanting, no doubt; but when she takes her place in a drama so much greater than herself, her beauty is infinitely enhanced. She becomes representative, with all her gifts and attractions; she is there, not because she is a beautiful creature, but because she is the spirit of youth. Her charm is then universal; it belongs to the spirit of youth and lasts for ever.

With all this I think it begins to be clear why the broad lines of Tolstoy's book have always seemed uncertain and confused. Neither his subject nor his method were fixed for him as he wrote; he ranged around his mountain of material, attacking it now here and now there, never deciding in his mind to what end he had amassed it. None of his various schemes is thus completed, none of them gets the full advantage of the profusion of life which he commands. At any moment great masses of that life are being wasted, turned to no account; and the result is not merely negative, for at any moment the wasted life, the stuff that is not being used, is dividing and weakening the effect of the picture created out of the rest. That so much remains, in spite of everything, gives the measure of Tolstoy's genius; that becomes the more extraordinary as the chaotic plan of his book is explored. He could work with such lordly neglect of his subject and yet he could produce such a book—it is surely as much as to say that Tolstoy's is the supreme genius among novelists.


And next of the different methods by which the form of a novel is created—these must be watched in a very different kind of book from Tolstoy's. For a sight of the large and general masses in which a novel takes shape, War and Peace seemed to promise more than another; but something a great deal more finely controlled is to be looked for, when it is a question of following the novelist's hand while it is actually at work. Not indeed that anybody's hand is more delicate than Tolstoy's at certain moments and for certain effects, and a critic is bound to come back to him again in connection with these. But we have seen how, in dealing with his book, one is continually distracted by the question of its subject; the uncertainty of Tolstoy's intention is always getting between the reader and the detail of his method. What I now want, therefore, will be a book in which the subject is absolutely fixed and determined, so that it may be possible to consider the manner of its treatment with undivided attention. It is not so easy to find as might be supposed; or rather it might be difficult to find, but for the fact that immediately in a critic's path, always ready to hand and unavoidable, there lies one book of exactly the sort I seek, Flaubert's Madame Bovary. Whatever this book may be or may not be, after much re-reading, it remains perpetually the novel of all novels which the criticism of fiction cannot overlook; as soon as ever we speak of the principles of the art, we must be prepared to engage with Flaubert.

This is an accepted necessity among critics, and no doubt there is every reason why it should be so. The art of Flaubert gives at any rate a perfectly definite standard; there is no mistaking or mis-reading it. He is not of those who present many aspects, offering the support of one or other to different critical doctrines; Flaubert has only one word to say, and it is impossible to find more than a single meaning in it. He establishes accordingly a point in the sphere of criticism, a point which is convenient to us all; we can refer to it at any time, in the full assurance that its position is the same in everybody's view; he provides the critic with a motionless pole. And for my particular purpose, just now, there is no such book as his Bovary; for it is a novel in which the subject stands firm and clear, without the least shade of ambiguity to break the line which bounds it. The story of its treatment may be traced without missing a single link.

It is copiously commented upon, as we know, in the published letters of its author, through the long years in which phrase was being added to phrase; and it is curious indeed to listen to him day by day, and to listen in vain for any hint of trouble or embarrassment in the matter of his subject. He was capable of hating and reviling his unfortunate story, and of talking about it with a kind of exasperated spite, as though it had somehow got possession of him unfairly and he owed it a grudge for having crossed his mind. That is strange enough, but that is quite a different affair; his personal resentment of the intrusion of such a book upon him had nothing to do with the difficulty he found in writing it. His classic agonies were caused by no unruliness in the story he had to tell; his imagined book was rooted in his thought, and never left its place by a hair's breadth. Year after year he worked upon his subject without finding anything in it, apparently, to disturb or distract him in his continuous effort to treat it, to write it out to his satisfaction. This was the only difficulty; there was no question of struggling with a subject that he had not entirely mastered, one that broke out with unforeseen demands; Bovary never needed to be held down with one hand while it was written with the other. Many a novelist, making a further and fuller acquaintance with his subject as he proceeds, discovering more in it to reckon with than he had expected, has to meet the double strain, it would seem. But Flaubert kept his book in a marvellous state of quiescence during the writing of it; through all the torment which it cost him there was no hour when it presented a new or uncertain look to him. He might hate his subject, but it never disappointed or disconcerted him.

In Bovary, accordingly, the methods of the art are thrown into clear relief. The story stands obediently before the author, with all its developments and illustrations, the characters defined, the small incidents disposed in order. His sole thought is how to present the story, how to tell it in a way that will give the effect he desires, how to show the little collection of facts so that they may announce the meaning he sees in them. I speak of his "telling" the story, but of course he has no idea of doing that and no more; the art of fiction does not begin until the novelist thinks of his story as a matter to be shown, to be so exhibited that it will tell itself. To hand over to the reader the facts of the story merely as so much information—this is no more than to state the "argument" of the book, the groundwork upon which the novelist proceeds to create. The book is not a row of facts, it is a single image; the facts have no validity in themselves, they are nothing until they have been used. It is not the simple art of narrative, but the comprehensive art of fiction that I am considering; and in fiction there can be no appeal to any authority outside the book itself. Narrative—like the tales of Defoe, for example—must look elsewhere for support; Defoe produced it by the assertion of the historic truthfulness of his stories. But in a novel, strictly so called, attestation of this kind is, of course, quite irrelevant; the thing has to look true, and that is all. It is not made to look true by simple statement.

And yet the novelist must state, must tell, must narrate—what else can he do? His book is a series of assertions, nothing more. It is so, obviously, and the difference between the art of Defoe and the art of Flaubert is only in their different method of placing their statements. Defoe takes a directer way, Flaubert a more roundabout; but the deviations open to Flaubert are innumerable, and by his method, by his various methods, we mean his manner of choosing his path. Having chosen he follows it, certainly, by means of a plain narrative; he relates a succession of facts, whether he is describing the appearance of Emma, or one of her moods, or something that she did. But this common necessity of statement, at the bottom of it all, is assumed at the beginning; and in criticizing fiction we may proceed as though a novelist could really deal immediately with appearances. We may talk of the picture or the drama that he creates, we may plainly say that he avoids mere statement altogether, because at the level of fiction the whole interest is in another region; we are simply concerned with the method by which he selects the information he offers. A writer like Flaubert—or like any novelist whose work supports criticism at all—is so far from telling a story as it might be told in an official report, that we cease to regard him as reporting in any sense. He is making an effect and an impression, by some more or less skilful method. Contemplating his finished work we can distinguish the method, perhaps define it, notice how it changes from time to time, and account for the novelist's choice of it.

There is plenty of diversity of method in Madame Bovary, though the story is so simple. What does it amount to, that story? Charles Bovary, a simple and slow-witted young country doctor, makes a prudent marriage, and has the fortune to lose his tiresome and elderly wife after no long time. Then he falls in love with the daughter of a neighbouring farmer, a pretty and fanciful young woman, who marries him. She is deeply bored by existence in a small market town, finds a lover, wearies of him and finds another, gets wildly into debt, poisons herself and dies. After her death Bovary discovers the proof of her infidelity, but his slow brain is too much bewildered by sorrow and worry, by life generally, to feel another pang very distinctly. He soon dies himself. That is all the story, given as an "argument," and so summarized it tells us nothing of Flaubert's subject. There might be many subjects in such an anecdote, many different points of view from which the commonplace facts might make a book. The way in which they are presented will entirely depend on the particular subject that Flaubert sees in them; until this is apparent the method cannot be criticized.

But the method can be watched; and immediately it is to be noted that Flaubert handles his material quite differently from point to point. Sometimes he seems to be describing what he has seen himself, places and people he has known, conversations he may have overheard; I do not mean that he is literally retailing an experience of his own, but that he writes as though he were. His description, in that case, touches only such matters as you or I might have perceived for ourselves, if we had happened to be on the spot at the moment. His object is to place the scene before us, so that we may take it in like a picture gradually unrolled or a drama enacted. But then again the method presently changes. There comes a juncture at which, for some reason, it is necessary for us to know more than we could have made out by simply looking and listening. Flaubert, the author of the story, must intervene with his superior knowledge. Perhaps it is something in the past of the people who have been moving and talking on the scene; you cannot rightly understand this incident or this talk, the author implies, unless you know—what I now proceed to tell you. And so, for a new light on the drama, the author recalls certain circumstances that we should otherwise have missed. Or it may be that he—who naturally knows everything, even the inmost, unexpressed thought of the characters—wishes us to share the mind of Bovary or of Emma, not to wait only on their words or actions; and so he goes below the surface, enters their consciousness, and describes the train of sentiment that passes there.

1  2  3  4  5     Next Part
Home - Random Browse