Sadly, Denis Johnson is no longer my favorite living author. But he knew death was coming, and left us with his best work since Jesus’ Son—which spent a few decades as my favorite book in my lifetime*. That’s a lot to live up to, and I was a bit disappointed by the first two stories, which were good, but not classic. (Yes, an insane bar.) But “Strangler Bob” turned me around, and “Triumph Over the Grave” was extraordinary. The final lines of “Triumph”… I wrote in my copy, “What a send off. Who could ever top that?”
The closest thing to reading The Largesse of the Sea Maiden for me was listening to Warren Zevon’s The Wind album, recorded as he was dying of lung cancer. Both extraordinary works, weaving the artists’ final days, and their reflections about them, into timeless art. I will treasure both of them for as long as I’ve got down here, and I have a feeling I’ll be thinking about them as I kiss this place goodbye.
(A functional bonus for travelers: Largesse is slim and light. I spent much of the year chasing the Parkland kids, and packed this wherever I went. I also enjoyed it in small doses of wonder. There are magical moments in here. And about that title: I hated it until I reached the end of the title story. Now I smile every time I think of it.)
Now about that asterisk. Jesus’ Son was my uncontested favorite recent book until 2015, when Farrar, Straus and Giroux published a story collection by the obscure late author Lucia Berlin, A Manual for Cleaning Women. Lucia rocketed from unknown to legendary overlooked genius. I was lucky enough to know her well; we were thrown together by blind luck. Lucia taught me much of what I know about writing, both directly, and by example. I’ve been reading these stories over and over since grad school in the ’90s, but I keep hesitating to read new ones. They’re all that’s left of her, plus my slightly fading memories, and I can’t bear to run out of Lucia to discover.
FSG released another volume this November, Evening in Paradise. I had read about two-thirds of them, gobbled up a few more and made myself stop. They are too priceless to gobble; I want to savor each one. I went to a release event where Ruth Franklin read one of Lucia’s earlier stories, “Point of View.” I must have read it 20 times, but it’s been a while, and I was taken aback by how tight it was. A whole world unfurling each paragraph, fully formed, without a word to spare. I had taken a break from editing my book to run over to the reading—actually brought pages with me to edit—and felt the urge to shred them. I’m not prone to those feelings of unworthiness. I usually only get them after a dose of Nabokov or Tolstoy, or Denis Johnson, wondering how I will ever do that. Of course they are all doing something different that I’m driving at, but still. If someone can be that enthralling, in so few pages… well, that’s something to aspire to. Lucia fits comfortably in that extraordinary cast.
What is it about those Russians, by the way? The 19th-century Russian Empire seems like the last place I should go searching for a kindred spirit, yet I keep finding them there. I finally dove into Anna Karenina in 2016—the first half glacially, over the course of 18 months, then devouring the second 400 pages in three to four weeks. I kept going back to it this year, rereading vivid passages, mostly Levin’s immersions in serf life. Levin tended to annoy me as a character, but his serf-envy was endearing, and his moments among them glorious. (It’s pretty clear Tolstoy envied them as well, and illustrated why.)
I thought about diving into War and Peace next—which I aborted in my 20s, before Anna taught me I just needed to keep a character list to keep them all straight. (My translation of Anna comes with one in the front. I photocopied it to use as a bookmark, and added to it, liberally.) What I really wanted was another dose of Anna Karenina, though, and since my all-time favorite author is Nabokov, I spent early 2018 on his Lectures on Russian Literature. It covers 13 works, yet nearly a third of it is devoted to Anna. My fear was that Nabokov would contradict everything I thought, and I’d be irritated by both of them. Nope. Nabokov has no trouble both choosing it as the masterpiece of Russian literature and pointing out major flaws. Like the first half: way too long and repetitive. Thank you! (Why, Leo? No editor? Didn’t listen to him or her?) And way too much dialectic on both the philosophy and minutia of Russian collective farming. He really lost his focus there.
I find two things refreshing about that, as a reader and a writer: towering achievements can have gaping flaws. Same with humans. Same with everything. It doesn’t denigrate a treasure to acknowledge where it went astray. And it’s comforting to know that even the geniuses I aspire to get some of the big things wrong. Though I haven’t found any glaring flaws in Lucia’s work yet. Maybe I’m still too close.
Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.
This past winter I wrote a pair of essays about The Brothers Karamazov that included the admission that I preferred “Tolstoy’s ability to see the angles of everyday life to Dostoevsky’s taste for the manic edges of experience.” That line elicited more of a reaction from readers than anything else I wrote, which prompted me to dive deeper into the question: Just which of these two titans of Russian literature is considered the greater novelist?
As it turned out, I was not the first to consider the provocation. The literary critic George Steiner has provided the most authoritative resolution to the problem with his book Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, which positions Tolstoy as “the foremost heir to the tradition of the epic” and Dostoevsky as “one of the major dramatic tempers after Shakespeare.” Isaiah Berlin considered the seemingly opposing qualities of the two authors in his enduring essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox.” Nabokov argued in Lectures on Russian Literature that it was Tolstoy in a landslide, while America’s First Ladies have tended to give the nod to Dostoevsky: both Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush cite The Brothers Karamazov as their favorite novel.
Still, I wasn’t satisfied with the answers I found online so I decided to get a second opinion — or rather, eight more opinions. I reached out to the foremost scholars of Russian literature as well as avid lay readers I know and asked if they’d be willing to contribute 500 words weighing the respective merits of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Almost everyone said yes, though a few echoed the sentiments of a distinguished emeritus professor who replied to me from a beach in Mexico, writing, “There really is no competition on Parnassus. From my point of view at least, they are both great writers and now live in a realm beyond competition.” And of course that’s true — just as it’s true that it is fun (and often illuminating) to debate Williams vs. DiMaggio and Bird vs. Magic even though at the end of the day we acknowledge that they’re all irreducibly great.
So with that, enjoy eight very knowledgeable, passionate takes on two of the great storytellers of all time. And when you’re done reading, please go ahead and share your own views in the comments section.
Carol Apollonio, Professor of the Practice of Russian, Duke University
The question shot straight into my brain and disabled the parietal cortex. There was a sizzle and a puff of smoke, and the smell of sulfur filled the air. I groped in the dark for a 50-kopeck piece and tossed it upwards. It clinked hollowly on the linoleum. The flickering light of the candle from above illuminated the tiny but unmistakable image of the double-headed eagle. Heads up: Dostoevsky, then.
His protagonist is the head: bait for smart people. The intellect sends forth an unending flow of words. YES! You’ve thought this exact same thing so many times! How can there be justice on earth if it comes at the cost of a child’s tear? How can God be all good and all powerful, yet allow suffering in the world? If God exists, then how can he allow ME to walk the earth, sick, sniveling, spiteful creature that I am, scrawny spawn of the most abstract and premeditated city on the earth? If God does not exist, though, how can I be a captain? Should I return my ticket? Read on! They give us the bread that we ourselves have made, and we accept it back from them in exchange for our freedom: cheap sorcery in place of miracle. I love mankind, but how can you expect me to love the stinking, jabbering drunk across the table, the loser who sold his own daughter into prostitution so he could sit here and drink? Prove that you exist, then! Move this mountain, and I will believe!
His protagonist is the head, but his hero is the heart. Logic and words will get you nowhere: the more talk, the less truth. Twice two is four, but twice two is five is a charming little thing too. A hug, now, a kiss, a fall to the earth, a leg over the iron railing of a cold St. Petersburg bridge, a pouring forth of tears, a pouring forth of blood, a turning pale, a fainting dead away, an issuing forth of the spirit of decay, a slamming of your own finger in the door, the plaintive sounds of a pipe-organ on the street, ragged orphans begging, the dying gasps of the overworked, bludgeoned horse, the barely detectable breathing of the doomed old woman on the other side of the closed door — you, YOU are the murderer — the clink of coins in the cup, the dizzying whirl of the roulette wheel, brain fever, a silhouette in the doorway, the noble young lady bowing down to the earth before you, YOU, you lustful worm! Shrieks, a rope, a gun, a slap on the cheek, and suddenly…
Suddenly an image appears in the darkness: a thin, timid girl in a green shawl, her face pale and drawn from illness. She smiles joyfully and stretches out her hand to me. I must go, for if I do not, I will keep on talking and will never stop….
Ellen Chances, Professor of Russian Literature, Princeton University
The question, in my mind, is meaningless. One of the worrisome tendencies of contemporary society is its impulse to rank. Who is better? Who is Number One? The question should not be, “Who is the greater novelist?,” but rather, “What do I learn from reading the books of Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, or of anyone else?
Why does everything have to be a race? Why does everything have to be competitive? This implies that there is a winner and a loser. Why does the reading of Tolstoy or Dostoevsky or of anyone else have to be part of a “success” or “failure” story? Framing the question, “Tolstoy or Dostoevsky: Who’s the better novelist?,” in this way does a disservice, it seems to me, to the act of contemplating the meaning of these writers’ books.
Asking the question is equivalent to asking, “Which is the greater food, milk or orange juice? Which is the greater food, blueberries or strawberries? Which is better, the sky or the grass, night or day?”
To me, both Dostoevsky and Tolstoy are equally great writers. Each focused on some of the important “big questions” of life. Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov, in The Brothers Karamazov, asked how a just God could have created a world that includes the suffering of innocent children. Tolstoy, through his character, Levin, in Anna Karenina, asked what the meaning of life is. Both Dostoevsky and Tolstoy asserted that the essence of life cannot be found by relying on the intellect alone. Both Dostoevsky and Tolstoy understood that being true to the authentic rhythms of life means respecting the non-linear nature of life.
Each of the two offers profound insights about psychology. Tolstoy emphasizes the ways in which people relate to one another in a societal context. Dostoevsky digs deeply into the individual human psyche. Tolstoy paints a world in which extreme things happen to ordinary people. Dostoevsky shows us the extremes of which people are capable. Each of the two writers describes crises in faith. Each describes the journey to a life of spiritual values.
Both Dostoevsky and Tolstoy write in a way that conveys the energy of life. That energy comes about, in Dostoevsky, through the clash of ideas, through the tension he creates through suspense and the use of words like “suddenly.” Ivan Karamazov says that he loves life more than the meaning of life. Tolstoy shows a love of life of this world – the smell of the earth, the beauty of a flower. He speaks about living a life of authenticity.
Both Dostoevsky and Tolstoy make me think about what is important in life. Both urge the reader to appreciate those things that money or competition cannot bestow – love, and life itself…
…So who is the greater writer, Dostoevsky or Tolstoy? Both Tolstoy and Dostoevsky are great…And then there is Chekhov, and Pushkin, and Mandelstam and Akhmatova and Bitov… And that’s just the Russians…
Raquel Chanto, Graduate Student, Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs
It is likely that these words express more about me than about Tolstoy or Dostoevsky. I have long ago given up on the idea of objective appraisal of literature: reading is a much more mediated process than we would like to admit. All sorts of ghosts crawl into the pages, a prehistory of tastes and experiences and prejudices and fears. So if I say Dostoevsky is a greater writer than Tolstoy, I only mean he has been greater to me.
My first encounter with Russian literature was as random as can be expected for a twelve-year-old girl growing up in suburban Costa Rica. Both Tolstoy and Dostoevsky emerged like potatoes out of a giant plastic bag containing several books of ranging worth. I was lucky enough to be, at the time, very young, very curious and seriously uninformed. Unlike most people, I read War and Peace without having the faintest idea of the book’s reputation. Crime and Punishment followed shortly after, with the same scandalous lack of veneration. I loved them both: Tolstoy, for the story he told, and Dostoevsky, for the thoughts he provoked.
Many years and many books later, the two authors continue to inhabit different places in my mind and in my memory. Tolstoy conjures up images of endless steppes and elegant Petersburg homes, where great and complex characters go about the business of living. His books are showcases of literary craftsmanship, epic tales told with impeccable skill. Dostoevsky’s work is less precise, more ambiguous. I experience his books as a ceaseless battle of demons that never rest — not even as you turn the page, as you end a chapter, as you finish the novel and read it again. A Dostoevsky novel sitting on a shelf is a bowl of anxiety and confusion, a bundle of frustrations marked by a desperate need for redemption. His protagonists are shown in extreme situations, where not only their personality but their very nature is put to the test.
What I find mesmerizing in Dostoevsky is not just the details of the story, the particular twists and turns of the lives of Rodion Raskolnikov or Dmitri Karamazov; it is the mere possibility of their existence. It is, in the end, the mind-bending notion that we could be just like them — that any of us, any ordinary, simple human being, carries around the highest plane and the lowest point of moral capabilities. Tolstoy’s characters tell me a lot about themselves. Dostoevsky’s characters tell me a lot about myself. If that is not writing of the ultimate importance, I do not know what is.
Reading Tolstoy transports me to another world; reading Dostoevsky makes me feel alive in this one. As I’m reading Tolstoy, I’m drawn into a dream of serfs and country estates, endless royal titles and army ranks. So many beautiful horses! A loyal dog! Women like Kitty and Anna Karenina! But then I put the book down and I find myself using a coat hanger to get the hair out of the shower drain, and it doesn’t feel like the Battle of Austerlitz. It feels like my life again.
On the other hand, many times someone will frustrate me at work, and I hear these words from The Brothers Karamazov thundering in my head:
‘Why is such a man alive!’ Dmitri Fyodorovich growled in a muffled voice, now nearly beside himself with fury, somehow raising his shoulders peculiarly so that he looked almost hunchbacked. ‘No, tell me, can he be allowed to go on dishonoring the earth with himself?’
I say this kind of shit to myself all the time. It’s part of the fun of being alive.
As I lead my every day life (so unlike ice-skating in Moscow or cutting grain on my estates), just imagining that I resemble beautiful Levin is to invite self-ridicule. I like him more than he would like me. I’m not nearly as nice, nor as sincere. I find that I can openly admire Prince Myshkin, however, because in The Brothers Karamazov, I’m right there doing it. I’m Dmitri or Ivan, holding Alyosha’s hand. The message of the brothers is that we are all each other; we share each other’s passions. We suffer identically. We demonstrate things differently. I can be innocent and guilty both.
That, to me, is life.
Borges, I believe, said there was something adolescent about a love of Dostoevsky – that maturity demanded other writers. All I know is, when I first read Crime and Punishment, that book represented a lot of work for me. I didn’t get it! What did I have to feel so guilty about, at eighteen? I hadn’t DONE anything. I was frantic with potential energy. I would have been better off with War and Peace – because I had the temperament of Prince Andrei, ready to go to war. I was angry with myself and frustrated, but I had no major regrets. I certainly could never have understood Ivan Fyodorovich’s madness. I had just spent a summer drifting with a beautiful 17 year-old girl on Harrison Lake; if you’d asked me why Prince Myshkin pursued the troubled Nastassya or allowed the beautiful Aglaya to get away, I would have had no idea.
In adolescence, I was loyal with my friends, but also so fiercely uncompromising that I would never have endured a friend like Myshkin’s Rogozhin. That kind of bond would only come later for me, when I understood what it was like to tie myself to someone for life- when I understood what mutual forgiveness was. When I was in my early twenties, one of my friends drunkenly stabbed another. It wasn’t serious. One of my best friends asked me not to see a girl he’d broken up with. Instead, I married her. Later on, I lost her. I chased her in the snow, like Dmitri. I understand Dostoevsky now. What adolescent understands these things?
In any case, I realize that the “competition” between Dostoevsky and Tolstoy is just an exercise in love. No one really has to choose one or the other. I simply prefer Dostoevsky. For my last argument, I will simply cite an expert far older and wiser than me:
Just recently I was feeling unwell and read House of the Dead. I had forgotten a good bit, read it over again, and I do not know a better book in all our new literature, including Pushkin. It’s not the tone but the wonderful point of view – genuine, natural, and Christian. A splendid, instructive book. I enjoyed myself the whole day as I have not done for a long time. If you see Dostoevsky, tell him that I love him.
All mediocre novelists are alike; every great novelist is great in his own way. Which is why the choice between nineteenth-century Russia’s two supreme prose writers ultimately boils down to the question of which kind of greatness resonates with a particular reader. My own sympathies are with Tolstoy, and even my criteria for judging a work of fiction, I admit, are relentlessly Tolstoyan.
“The goal of the artist,” Tolstoy wrote, “is not to solve a question irrefutably, but to force people to love life in all its countless, inexhaustible manifestations.” By this standard Tolstoy’s novels succeed where Dostoevsky’s fall short.
True, Dostoevsky saw and felt modern experience in all of its isolating, tragic depth. He showed the obsessive power of ideas and the psychological crises, cracks, and explosions of the soul that have become familiar in our modern world. What he doesn’t do, however, is make you love life in all its manifestations. In fact, when he tries to do so, he reveals his deficiencies.
At the end of Crime and Punishment Raskolnikov flings himself at the feet of Sonya, who has followed him to Siberia where he is serving his sentence for double homicide. Sonya jumps up, looks at him and trembles. “Infinite happiness lit up in her eyes; she understood, and for her there was no longer any doubt that he loved her, loved her infinitely, and that at last the moment had come…” If this smacks of modern soap opera or those maudlin French novels Dostoevsky was raised on, that’s because it is melodrama. Sonya’s “infinite love” is an ideal, “the moment” that has supposedly come, an abstraction.
What modern readers need, Tolstoy believed, is not more lurching after “infinite happiness” or “the Great Idea,” as Stepan Trofimovich, near the end of The Demons, claims to have discovered, but the ability to embrace an imperfect reality. The author of Anna Karenina teaches us how to seek meaning not through grandiose romantic strivings, like Anna and Vronsky, but within the limits of imperfect social and family structures, like Kitty and Levin.
Tolstoy’s novels depict the norms and continuities of human behavior by means of grand narratives that expand slowly over time and against the backdrop of vast natural tableaus. “As is usually the case” and “such as often occurs” are phrases you encounter frequently in Tolstoy. Dostoevsky’s world, by contrast, is one in which you can come home one evening and “suddenly” find an axe buried in your skull. Life is always on the verge of imploding on itself. Tragedy is just around the corner, or in your living room.
Tolstoy’s living room is a place where people, well, live. It’s where dark-eyed, voluble twelve-year old Natasha Rostova comes running with doll in hand, or where, a decade later, she enjoys with Pierre one of those endearingly mundane conversations between wife and husband about nothing and everything.
“I am a realist in a higher sense,” Dostoevsky rightfully claimed. But Tolstoy was a realist in the total sense. “The hero of my tale… is Truth,” he wrote. And that truth is one every generation recognizes as its own, not just those in a state of social crisis or existential despair. If Dostoevsky urges us to reach for the heavens, then Tolstoy teaches us by artistic example how we may touch the transcendent here and now in our messy, fleeting world.
Gary Saul Morson, Frances Hooper Professor of the Arts and Humanities, Northwestern University
A Soviet anecdote has it that Stalin once asked the Central Committee: which deviation is worse, the right or the left? Some fearfully ventured “the left,” others hesitantly offered, “the right.” The Great Helmsman then gave the right answer: “Both are worse.” I answer the question, “Who is the greater novelist, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky?”: Both are better.
Dostoevsky spoke to the twentieth century. He was unique in foreseeing that it would not be an era of sweetness and light, but the bloodiest on record. With uncanny accuracy, The Demons predicted, in detail, what totalitarianism would be.
Bakhtin understood the core principle of Dostoevsky’s ethics: a person is never just the product of external forces. Neither heredity nor environment, singly or together, fully accounts for a human being. Each person retains a “surplus,” which constitutes the self’s essential element. True, some people, and all social sciences aspiring to resemble physics, deny the surplus. But they apply their theories only to others. No matter what he professes, nobody experiences himself as a mere play of external forces. Everyone feels regret or guilt, and there is no escaping the agony of choice. We behave as if we believed that each moment allows for more than one possible outcome and that our freedom that makes us in principle unpredictable. Without that unpredictability we would lack humanness. We would be zombies, and no one has ethical responsibility to zombies. Hence ethics demands: always treat another person as capable of surprise, as someone who cannot be explained entirely at second hand.
Dostoevsky despised both capitalism and socialism because each treats people as the mere product of economic (or other) laws. If socialism is worse, it is because it also presumes that experts know how to organize life for the best and socialism not only denies but actively removes choice for a supposedly higher good. At best, this view leads to the Grand Inquisitor, at worst to the nightmarish plans of Pyotr Stepanovich.
Tolstoy speaks more to the 21st century. His novels’ key concept was contingency. At every moment, however small and ordinary, something happens that cannot entirely be accounted for by previous moments. Like Dostoevsky, Tolstoy also denied the possibility of a social science, which must always wind up resembling the “science of warfare” preached by the generals in War and Peace. Like macroeconomists today, these “scientists” are immune to counter-evidence. To use Tolstoy’s word, social science is mere “superstition.”
If social scientists understood people as well as Tolstoy, they would have been able to depict a human being as believable as Tolstoy’s characters, but of course none has come close.
If we once acknowledge that we will never have a social science, then we will, like General Kutuzov, learn to make decisions differently. We intellectuals would be more cautious, more modest, and ready to correct our errors by constant tinkering.
If we have left the age of ideologies behind, we may need Dostoevsky’s warnings less than Tolstoy’s wisdom.
Donna Tussing Orwin, Professor of Russian and Chair, Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Toronto, and author of Consequences of Consciousness: Turgenev, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy
I inclined first to Tolstoy. His combination of moral sensibility and love of life appealed to me, and I didn’t like Dostoevsky’s over-the-top world of the self in crisis. The two authors have much in common, and yet diverge in ways that make comparison irresistible.
Both associate the self with moral agency; for both therefore, the individual is the ultimate source of good and evil. For both, goodness, which consists in overcoming selfishness, is natural but weak. For both feelings trump reason in the soul, though Tolstoy is closer to the Greeks and the Enlightenment in his association of virtue with reason. For Dostoevsky, reason is always tainted by egotism, and therefore he relies on love to spur moral impulses. Dostoevsky concentrates more on evil; for this reason his writings anticipate the horrors of the twentieth and the nascent twenty-first centuries. Tolstoy depicts crimes, such as the lynching of Vereshchagin (War and Peace) or uxoricide in Kreutzer Sonata, but not the pure malice embodied in such Dostoevskian characters as Stavrogin (Demons) or Smerdyakov (Brothers Karamazov). Tolstoy’s most evil characters, like Dolokhov in War and Peace, seem to invade his texts from another (Dostoevskian?) world. Dostoevsky also portrays pure goodness. Prince Lev Nikolaevich Myshkin (The Idiot), even though he is named after Tolstoy, is more virtuous than any Tolstoyan character could be, and so is Alyosha Karamazov. Both authors are wicked satirists. Tolstoy’s rationalizing solutions to social ills can seem naive, while Dostoevsky’s high-minded ones seem sentimental.
Tolstoy’s fiction encompasses a broader range of experience than Dostoevsky’s. No one has described childhood, family life, farming, hunting, and war any better. This reflects his affinity for the physical and the body. Not coincidentally, Tolstoy is also celebrated for his portraits of nature and animals. Dostoevsky usually associates the physical with the base. (Compare fleshy old Fyodor Karamazov with his ethereal son Alyosha.) In his writings illness often brings insight, while Tolstoy mostly (though not always) prefers healthy states to unhealthy ones.
Dostoevsky’s fiction aims at the revelation of character to the fullest extent possible. He believes that each individual is unique, however, and therefore ultimately inaccessible to others. His protagonists vacillate between good and evil; this makes the future of any one of them, even the most virtuous, unpredictable. Tolstoy’s characters are complex but not unique. The variety among them (greater than in Dostoevsky) is a result of a practically but not theoretically infinite number of combinations among all the possibilities inherent in human nature, and the interaction of these with the outside world. Tolstoy depicts the intersection of chance, historical forces, and character. In his view, the more disengaged we are from outside circumstances, the freer we are. Tolstoy gravitated in old age toward Christian anarchy, while Dostoevsky in his last novel (Brothers Karamazov) seems to advocate for a Christian theocracy headed by someone like Zosima.
I still prefer Tolstoy’s earthiness and expansiveness to Dostoevsky’s brilliant, edgy anatomy of the psyche, but I can’t imagine life without them both.
I have the usual reasons for thinking of Tolstoy as the “better” — really, as the best — novelist. There’s the incredible variety of scenes and subjects he explores; there’s his precise, uncluttered style; there’s his epic tone, with its special combination of detachment and humanity. And I’m always overpowered by the way his novels describe everyone from the inside, even the dogs and horses. I have the same reaction to Tolstoy’s writing as his sister-in-law, Tanya Bers, who was the model for Natasha in War and Peace: “I can see how you are able to describe landowners, fathers, generals, soldiers,” she told him, “but how can you insinuate yourself into the heart of a girl in love, how can you describe the sensation of a mother — for the life of me I cannot understand.” I think Tolstoy is better at “insinuating himself” than any other novelist.
It’s Tolstoy’s scenes, though, which impress me most. Tolstoy, I’m convinced, is the single greatest writer of scenes in literature. Dostoevsky is often given credit for being more “dramatic” (George Steiner, in Tolstoy or Dostoevsky?, calls Dostoevsky “one of the major dramatic tempers after Shakespeare”). But Tolstoy’s novels are unique in the way they’re constructed entirely out of short, perfect, easy-to-read scenes, and in the way those scenes build on one another until they address the most complex issues in a nonchalant, natural way.
Take the run of scenes around Kitty and Vronsky’s ball in Anna Karenina. In the first scene, Kitty and Anna are sitting on a sofa. Kitty invites Anna to the ball, and suggests that she wear a lilac-colored dress. Then a gaggle of children run to Anna, Anna takes them in her arms, and the scene ends. Reading the scene, we understand that that’s how Kitty sees Anna: as a mysterious, beautiful, poetic young mother. Then, two scenes later, Kitty arrives at the ball, wearing a peach-colored dress, and sees Anna — in black velvet. That’s the scene when Anna steals Vronsky from Kitty. Right there, in the juxtaposition of those two scenes, which are only two or three pages apart, you have the difference between childhood and adulthood, and between sexual innocence and experience. No other novelist can show you so much, so quickly.
It’s not just that his short scenes move quickly, though; it’s that they let Tolstoy focus on very ordinary things, like the color of a dress. One of the best scenes at the end of Anna Karenina is organized around a thunderstorm; in War and Peace, he does two scenes around an oak tree, bare and then in bloom. In each scene, the details feel unremarkable — but, over many scenes, they assemble themselves into a structure that’s more than the sum of its parts. Tolstoy called that structure a “network.” Dostoevsky built up networks, too, of course, and in some ways they’re more powerful. But I prefer Tolstoy’s ordinary materials to Dostoevsky’s extraordinary ones, because they can teach you to uncover the “scenes” and “networks” in your own life.
Downtown Brooklyn was awash in tents and stages on Sunday, with publishers, authors, and bookish types swarming the plaza like ants feasting at a picnic. Colson Whitehead walked down the sidewalk pseudo incognito with shades on, while Wallace Shawn stood by to sign copies of his new book, Essays. Thomas Sayers Ellis sat at a table talking up Tuesday; An Art Project, a handsome journal featuring poetry and photographs printed on postcards. Later on, Laura Albert jumped up to greet Mary Gaitskill before her conversation with Jonathan Lethem. The Paris Review was selling original copies of its Spring 1958 issue, the one with George Plimpton’s interview of Ernest Hemingway, and that also features the first Philip Roth story they published. “Can you believe his name isn’t even on the cover?” remarked the man tending the table. I couldn’t believe the cover price (only one dollar).
As time passes, prices change and so does technology, and along with it, publishing. At The Brooklyn Book Festival, digital publishing, the internet, and attenuated attention spans weighed heavily on the minds of many panelists. Maud Newton moderated a panel called Literature in a Digital Age, which took these topics on directly. The conversation began with New York Times book critic Dwight Garner stating his fear of “the fragmenting of the attention span.” Granta’s editor John Freeman agreed, and voiced a strong preference for reading books printed on paper. Freeman finds the difference between paper and screen as stark as the one between “having sex with a person and having sex with a piece of technology,” but added that if you don’t have one you sometimes have to resort to using the other. Freeman also remarked on how the constant influx of news updates is ill-suited to the world of literature, where writers need to focus on what they are writing, not what is timely or relevant.
While the conversation centered on fears of how digital publishing will alter reading habits and preferences, the general Luddism transformed to optimism by the conversation’s end. There was excitement about the increased availability of books. Web sites such as The Second Pass and Open Letters Monthly, was well as Newton’s own blog, were praised for their commitment to longer, more thoughtful considerations of literature. Newton said that she rejects the label “book blogger.” Garner seemed to concur when he stated that Newton stands out for her wit and intelligence, and that he thinks of her more as a columnist, only more intimate. It was heartening to hear praise for literary sites that offer quality content and intelligent analysis of literature.
Much later in the afternoon, Mary Gaitskill and Jonathan Lethem picked up the digital thread (or threat, as it often seems) in a lively discussion, where each seemed to riff off of the other. Despite this panel falling at the end of a day packed with constant chatter about books, their time seemed to run out too soon. Gaitskill spoke about how with digital technology, children develop a sophisticated understanding of images and sound, but their reading has become stunted because they must slow down to process words. Gaitskill claimed that even the way she processes information has changed, and that she can’t imagine how digital literacy will affect the minds of the children who grow up with it. Lethem added that predictions are often extreme, and that literature will adapt in ways we can’t yet foresee. He spoke of living in the Bay Area in the 1980s, when there was a general consensus that the coming technology would destroy language. And yet, this is what gave way to a culture where everyone communicates via emails “like 19th-century London where the mail came four times a day.”
Since literature and narrative will persevere, it’s good that their discussion touched on greater topics, such as the function of literature. Lethem and Gaitskill began their conversation by responding to Walter Benn Michaels’ Bookforum essay, “Going Boom,” where he claims, “The past twenty-five years have been a pretty sad time for the American novel,” and urges novelists to tackle greater social issues in their fiction. Lethem found fault with the expectation that art must have a productive value, and asked, “What should fiction do other than come to life?” He urged writers to seek out the irresponsible, to “make things peculiar” and to create literature “defiantly outside the structures of use.” To which Gaitskill responded by singing the lyrics to “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell” and cited the song as proof that society often embraces the preposterous, albeit a far different type of preposterous than what Lethem had in mind. She then directed us to Nabokov’s consideration of Nikolai Gogol’s story, “The Overcoat,” in which Nabokov praises the story for its illumination of the “futile humility and futile domination,” the madness of life.
When I went home I turned to the essay in Nabokov’s Lectures on Russian Literature. It begins, “Gogol was a strange creature, but genius is always strange; it is only your healthy second-rater who seems to the grateful reader to be a wise old friend, nicely developing the reader’s notions of life. Great literature skirts the irrational.” This is precisely what Lethem and Gaitskill were getting at, literature cannot be limited by calling for a certain use, nor can you provide a recipe for generating great literature. Or as Paula Fox said earlier in the day, all fiction is derived from life, but “one can make as bizarre a replica as one chooses.” A multitude of ideas and opinions about literature, its creation, its current state, and its future were bandied about over the course of the day; in fact the volume of panels and publishers’ stands and attendants was almost overwhelming. With a cornucopia of compelling panels occurring simultaneously, decisions about what to see may have been made haphazardly. But regardless of the anxieties about the future, the festival made the case for literature living on in the borough of Brooklyn.