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War and Peace Part One: Tolstoy and Moscow

By Amy Mandelker


Moscow is choked with smoke from surrounding fires. I follow developments online, reading over the weekend that they have been digging trenches to cut off the path of the blaze before it detonates nuclear stockpiles. Moscow has burned before, as described graphically in Tolstoy’s great novel, War and Peace; the city was torched, historians tell us, by incendiaries who ignited and burned their great capital rather than succor the enemy. But in 1812, the city was evacuated by most of its citizens while now, my news screen shows endless images of people trapped in Moscow, trying to continue working and living in an asphyxiating cloud of crushing heat. Although Tolstoy also described those who remained in the city, in startling pictures of looting, rape, and street fighting, and sends his heroes hurtling impulsively into flaming houses to rescue babies, what seems more vivid, because it is closer to our own experience of spectatorship, is his account of Natasha, safely escaped into the countryside, gazing out the window at the glow on the horizon that is Moscow consumed by fire. Natasha is completely absorbed in her own problems, in the realization that the man she loves and rejected is dying in a bivouac next door to her family’s shakedown for the night. Her eyes take in the image, but her mind does not comprehend it.

So, too, we look through the windows that are our laptop screens, at video clips of Russians gagging on smoke, heat and pollution, and read the daily death toll, and yet, despite our momentary shock and horror, we must return more urgently to our immediate problems, car repairs, job searches, debt management, mortgage refinancing, illnesses and death in the family, emotional-fall out after a visit with an ex-spouse, a custody battle, a cancer treatment.

Those friends and colleagues who know me and my academic writing, will recognize my obsession with framed literary images in my choice of this scene of Natasha, gazing at the image of Moscow burning and framed by a window sash. This is one of my beloved literary passages where the story telling stops so that the author may frame a moment and an image. This was what I wrote about in my book, Framing Anna Karenina. When the author of an enormous, flowing narrative decides to stop the action in order to gain the freedom to present a still, the reason must be compelling enough to abandon the principle of “advancing the story.” Tolstoy is a master of the freeze-frame. In these moments, the action advances in those spectators in the text who, like the reader and audience, are viewing the image. Tolstoy’s flaming Moscow as a combustion of crimson and orange on a distant horizon is viewed first by a crowd of spectators: a group of peasants discuss and analyze what they see, strangely like art lovers in a picture gallery: “What is that crimson light, on the left?” “Look at the billows of smoke.” “Those black specks are the crows flying away.”

But Natasha gazes out the window at the city that was her home and stares unmoved at its immolation and destruction, just as earlier, she sat at the opera and saw only cardboard sets and embarrassing costumes. She is not moved by any show in a frame. She was the girl who wanted to break through the window frame and fly away into a glorious night. Is there something about the very action of watching itself, that desensitizes, and inures, blunts and numbs, distances our emotions from what we see?

Amy Mandelker has taught at UCLA, University of Southern California, Columbia, Brown, and Princeton Universities. Her books include Framing ‘Anna Karenina': Tolstoy, the Woman Question & the Victorian Novel and Approaches to World Literature: Tolstoy’s ‘Anna Karenina’. She has revised the acclaimed Maude translation of War and Peace, available this October.

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  1. [...] The ground in the front yard was shuddering like loose skin on an elephant’s back if the beast had been shrugging its shoulders to topple a rider. The earth rippled like water. There was nowhere to run to. I dropped down on all fours and closed my eyes. The world was shaking around me. And then it stopped.” I had written this much about my first encounter with Tolstoy when the earthquake in China struck. And then, I hesitated to send what I had written to my editor. My childish experience seemed trivial and jejune in light of the enormity of the tragedy unfolding. I was reminded of my ex-husband’s dilemma ten year’s earlier, when we were still married and had a new baby. And I had just been diagnosed with breast cancer. He was then working in conservation for the New York Zoological Society, on a campaign to prevent the destruction of the rain forest. He learned from my oncologist that a new drug, which might cure my cancer, was to become available only if we harvested in that jungle. Great principles, global concerns, and then the individual face of his family and the threat of one person’s death. I think that what is great in Tolstoy’s art is precisely this paradoxical experience of the overwhelming enormity and yet smallness of one person’s urgent needs and human fears against the vast almost inhuman face of great, national tragedies. Amy Mandelker has taught at UCLA, University of Southern California, Columbia, Brown, and Princeton Universities. Her books include Framing ‘Anna Karenina’: Tolstoy, the Woman Question & the Victorian Novel and Approaches to World Literature: Tolstoy’s ‘Anna Karenina’. She has revised the acclaimed Maude translation of War and Peace, available this October. You can read her previous blog post here. [...]

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