Sunday, January 31, 2016

Tolstoy and Dolokhov.

Fyodor Tolstoy the American.
Photo of C19 o/c portrait by Shakko.

Tolstoy based Dolokhov, a curious secondary character in 'War and Peace", on several real-life men. One of them was Fyodor Tolstoy the American (Толстой-Американец), Leo Tolstoy's cousin-uncle. As a young boy Tolstoy the future writer knew him personally and was very impressed by his personality and the legends that surrounded him.

Fyodor Tolstoy, among other things, killed eleven people at duels and was demoted to the ranks several times but got restored after feats of heroism in Russia's many wars of the time, including the main battle with Napoleon in 1812, the Battle of Borodino. He got the nickname 'Amerikanets' after taking part in a round-the-world sea expedition.

There is a portrait of Fyodor Tolstoy as a young man in Leo Tolstoy's Moscow house, now a museum.

The new TV adaptation of 'War and Peace,' currently running on BBC 1 and cable channels around the world, plays up the characters of Dolokhov and Sonia to the point of overshadowing the main characters, Pierre, Andrei and Natasha.

At first glance, it may seem a fault with the script author Andrew Davies and director Tim Harper. However, a more careful look at the character of Fyodor Dolokhov makes it clear that 'reading up' Dolokhov is a valid choice that may explain a lot in Leo Tolstoy's novel and the reappraise the comparative weight of characters in the book.

In a sense, Dolokhov is as much a Leo Tolstoy as Pierre, into whom the writer and thinker put most of himself, as conventional interpretation tells us. A writer, especially a great one, cannot help splitting his soul and putting bits of it into the characters he creates. Dolokhov is a kind of horcrux of Tolstoy himself. He reflects the character of Tolstoy the man as much as the floppy humanist Pierre. The cold fury, the anger against conventions, the scornful nationalism, the desire to be accepted rivalling only the desire to humiliate the accepting, the grand society, — those are the traits that were driving Leo Tolstoy too, in life and in writing.

The writer, before his marriage, was not alien to excessive drinking, partying with the gypsies and losing and winning, though mostly losing, in card games.

Tolstoy's appearance and peculiar mannerisms bear striking resemblance with that of Dolokhov. Here is how WS Maugham describes Tolstoy:
"He was irritable, brutally contradictory and arrogantly indifferent to other people's feelings. Turgenev has said that he never met anything more disconcerting than Tolstoy's inquisitorial look, which, accompanied by a few biting words, could goad a man to fury."

Tolstoy challenged Turgenev to a duel and friends had difficulty in preventing him from actually fighting while reconciliation took more than ten years. Tolstoy's stare, that unnerved Turgenev so much, is the same as Dolokhov's: "Dolokhov looked at Pierre with clear, mirthful, cruel eyes, and that smile of his which seemed to say, 'Ah! This is what I like!'" (from Garnett's translation.) This is from the scene at the English Club in Moscow when Pierre challenges Dolokhov to a duel.

That same straight, cruel inquisitional look follows Dolokhov in all his appearances in the novel, all the way to the last episode with him, when he orders that no French prisoners should be kept alive. Before that final scene with Dolokhov, he and Denisov, both commanders of small partisan troops that raided Napoleon's army behind the lines, have a fierce argument about the treatment of the prisoners. It appears that Dolokhov, unlike Denisov, was systematically slaughtering them. Denisov is repulsed by that.

But where does Tolstoy, the great humanist, stand in that argument? Curiously, when Pierre meets Prince Andrew on the eve of the Battle of Borodino and listens to his friend's famous monologue on the 'latent patriotism' of the Russians, Prince Andrew says exactly what later Dolokhov says to Denisov, even with greater clarity and ferocity: "One thing I would do if I had the power," he began again, "I would not take prisoners. Why take prisoners? It's chivalry! The French have destroyed my home and are on their way to destroy Moscow, they have outraged and are outraging me every moment. They are my enemies. In my opinion they are all criminals. And so thinks Timokhin and the whole army. They should be executed!" And later, in the same monologue: "Take no prisoners, but kill and be killed!" Pierre looks at Andrew, both frightened and compassionate, but agrees with everything he said.

Horcruxes are from JK Rowling's Harry Potter. They are magical objects where the dark wizard hides parts of his split soul. In Somerset Maugham's essay on Tolstoy in the book 'Great Novelists and Their Novels' (1954) there is a shrewd observation:
"There is a point in the writer's psychology that I have never seen mentioned, though it must be obvious to anyone who has studied the lives of authors. Every creative writer's work is, to some extent at least, a sublimation of instincts, desires, daydreams, call them what you like, which for one cause or another he has repressed, and by giving them literary expression he is freed of the compulsion to give them the further release of action. But it is not a complete satisfaction. He is left with a feeling of inadequacy. That is the ground of the man of letters' glorification of the man of action and the unwilling, envious admiration with which he regards him."

Applying this to Dolokhov, it becomes apparent that the character is part of Tolstoy, the part that the writer couldn't admit in himself or couldn't allow in himself, and so decided to give it to his literary creation.

And yes, JK Rowling took her Antonin Dolohov, a Death Eater, one of the cruellest wizards, from Tolstoy's 'War and Peace.'

Note: Wikipedia has an article on Maugham's book, referring to it as 'Ten Novels and Their Authors' of 1954. My American paper edition of the book is titled 'Great Novelists and Their Novels' with copyright dated 1948. 

In this video Dolokhov and Pierre duel, from Sergey Bondarchuk's cinema version (1965-67) -

The Borodino Battle, 1972 series, Prince Andrei's monologue with 'No quarter!' at 24 min. into the video -

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