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Saturday, 7 November 2015

Walter Allen on George Eliot and Tolstoy

In his book George Eliot, Walter Allen quotes W. J. Harvey as saying, whilst comparing Daniel Deronda to Anna Karenina, "One cannot imagine George Eliot encompassing either Levin's simple joy at being alive and in love or the complex intensities of Anna Karenina's passion". He goes on to write "In the same way, Middlemarch is not only much smaller, much more restricted, than War and Peace as a panorama of life in history, it also lacks entirely the simple, sensuous, almost animal joy in being alive that permeates Tolstoy's novel." 
Later he writes:
"... V. S. Pritchett has said, 'There is no real madness in George Eliot', meaning by madness the sense of the forces of the irrational, the daimonic, the incomprehensible in men's lives. This is to say that, for all her profound reverence, she is never a religious novelist; and the reality of sexual passion is also foreign to her. Her view of life was unswervingly and all the time a moral view, and nothing that existed outside the moral view, that could not be netted by it, existed for her. The loftiness of the moral view she held cannot prevent us from thinking that there is a great deal in life that cannot be adequately explained or illuminated by it. The world is not primarily, as it too often seems in her novels, a gymnasium for the exercise and development of the moral faculties. Her picture of life, then, is more limited than her most fervent admirers are always willing to admit." 


15 comments:

  1. Di,

    Harsh words. However, I don't think Eliot ever reached for madness or the daimonic as she had something else in mind, and, neither did Austen, or many other writers.

    To criticize authors for not doing something they never intended to do is unfair and shows a bias in the critic's thinking. Does Allen think this way or does he just bring them up to later disagree with them?

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  2. Identifying what artists don't or can't do can be as useful as understanding what they can. The one highlights the other. The critic is drawing a portrait using the negative space.

    Allen shows not his bias but his point of view. Not everyone can be a serene, bias-free, wet dishrag Appreciationist like me.

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    1. Amateur Reader (Tom),

      Aside from noting that a writer didn't do something, there isn't much more one can say that isn't mere speculation. Tolstoy didn't write about aliens on Mars.

      Therefore, according to Pritchett's reasoning, "(Tolstoy's) picture of life, then, is more limited than (his) most fervent admirers are always willing to
      admit."

      I'm far more interested in why some authors write about madness or the daimonic than why some authors don't. The first can lead to some interesting insights, the latter airy speculation.

      In any case, this is fiction we are talking about, whether there is or is not madness or the daimonic, it is still made up, created in the imagination of the author.

      To condemn a work because it lacks madness or the daimonic is a bias, just as to condemn a work because it depicts madness or the daimonic is a bias. Neither is superior, as far as I'm concerned.

      Your opinion, of course, may differ.

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  3. I see your point that "to criticize authors for not doing something they never intended to do is unfair", Fred, but:
    1/ George Eliot is often compared to Tolstoy, sometimes even called the British or English Tolstoy, and there are indeed similarities, so it is valid to point out the differences between the 2. There's no reason to criticise Tolstoy for not writing about aliens.
    2/ In both of your comments, you focus on this little part "the sense of the forces of the irrational, the daimonic, the incomprehensible in men's lives". I myself focus on these points:
    - "One cannot imagine George Eliot encompassing either Levin's simple joy at being alive and in love or the complex intensities of Anna Karenina's passion".
    - "it also lacks entirely the simple, sensuous, almost animal joy in being alive that permeates Tolstoy's novel".
    - "Her view of life was unswervingly and all the time a moral view, and nothing that existed outside the moral view, that could not be netted by it, existed for her.".
    - "The world is not primarily, as it too often seems in her novels, a gymnasium for the exercise and development of the moral faculties."
    And here I agree with him. George Eliot is more didactic, with a stronger sense of purpose, than Tolstoy; her stories are seen through the moral lens and her characters can be categorised by asking whether they act from self-interest or from love. Placed next to Tolstoy, of course most writers seem limited, but the question is why. The way I see it, Jane Austen's novels are limited mostly because of the small canvas, the narrow circle of characters, the limited range of experiences, but that's mostly it; whereas George Eliot's novels, next to Tolstoy's, are limited because she imposes on herself the task of enlarging readers' sympathies and therefore becomes too concerned with morality, sympathy and moral growth. George Eliot, at least in the novels I've read, doesn't write about being in love or about passion the way Jane Austen does, even; and if she writes about jealousy, it doesn't take up much space as Jane Austen depicts for a large part of Mansfield Park.
    3/ I don't think you should think of madness as madness as you seem to do. No, not the Dostoyevsky kind of madness, say. The way I understand it is that George Eliot, when writing about moral faculties and moral choices and moral growth, focuses on what is rational and deliberate, and thereby, fails to deal with the irrational and the incomprehensible in people's lives.

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  4. YEs, Eliot seems to want to present a certain 'moral' view — her own — of the world before public — that seems to be her 'purpose' in writing, her starting point, which she 'populates' later, with people and events ... unlike Tolstoy (in 'Anna') who has a story to tell ... a real-life event that he may have read about in newspapers, etc. and which fascinated him, to the extent where he couldn't but tell it to a wider audience by means of a novel.

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  5. I have known readers for whom the fact that Tolstoy did not write about aliens was a serious knock against him. These would be readers who only read books featuring aliens, or their elvish equivalents.

    If free imaginative invention is my greatest aesthetic value, neither Tolstoy nor Eliot will do much for me.

    Di, I don't remember if you have read Adam Bede. The best part of it is a story about the "irrational and the incomprehensible," so it exists in Eliot but the way she treats it supports your (and Allen's) argument. Eliot is in a sense writing about aliens.

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    1. No worries. We have got Android Karenina!
      Speaking of which, there are Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, now I want Middlemarch and Mermaids or Middlemarch and Minotaurs or Middlemarch and Manticores or something.

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  6. I do not concern myself with what writers do not write but try to focus instead only on what they do write.

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    1. Perhaps you don't remember this post of mine http://thelittlewhiteattic.blogspot.com/2015/02/other-possibilities-for-gwendolen-and.html ?
      Bad reading I call it. But I do think that thinking of "other possibilities", i.e. what George Eliot didn't write, shed some light on what she did write in Daniel Deronda.

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  7. Just a couple of observations (five years after this thread has died out...):
    - Tolstoy was also a moralist (and perhaps more conventional in being religious - Eliot's moral program pushed against the mores of her time in being humanist). I can't help thinking of the scene in Anna Karenina where Anna and Vronsky commit adultery for the first time and Tolstoy describes it as a murder.
    - Eliot did in fact write about madness and the demonic, often subsumed within her realist framework. Dr Lydgate fell in love with a French actress while studying in Paris who murders her husband because he bored her; Maggie Tulliver is frequently described in the language of the demonic (there's a great article on this by Nina Auerbach; Gwendolen in Daniel Deronda skirts the edge of madness as her pathologised conscience leads her to believe she has murdered her husband.
    - Eliot is also the superior prose stylist IMO - this might be due to reading Tolstoy in translation, but the translators' notes tend to describe Tolstoy's prose using adjectives like "robust". In Eliot you get lines such as "If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence". Still gives me goosebumps.

    I love both authors, but I felt like Eliot was getting short shrift here!

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    1. Hi,
      - "Tolstoy was also a moralist".
      I agree, and sometimes I struggle with his ideas. But he is a complicated man and often inconsistent- he is full of contradictions. For example, there is a misogynist in him, but at the same time he's capable of inhabiting women's minds and creating such complex, realistic, and vivid female characters, ranging from Kitty to Anna Karenina, from Natasha to Dolly, from Marya to Sonya, etc.
      Tolstoy is complicated, there is in him a preacher and an artist- the preacher may sometimes be insufferable, but when the artist takes over and triumphs, his greatness is unsurpassable.
      I do think George Eliot is a great writer, and in some ways she seems warmer than him, but next to Tolstoy, her moralism appears more simplistic in the way she categorises people into selfish vs selfless. Tolstoy's characters can't be categorised that way.

      - "I can't help thinking of the scene in Anna Karenina where Anna and Vronsky commit adultery for the first time and Tolstoy describes it as a murder."
      I don't recall this.

      - "Eliot did in fact write about madness and the demonic, often subsumed within her realist framework."
      Probably, I haven't read The Mill on the Floss, but I still think that her work "lacks entirely the simple, sensuous, almost animal joy in being alive that permeates Tolstoy's novel".
      As for Nina Auerbach, I know this is almost ad hominem, but so far nothing I've read from her has impressed me much.

      - "Eliot is also the superior prose stylist IMO".
      I don't think this is a fair comment to make when you read George Eliot directly in the original and read Tolstoy in translation.

      - "I love both authors, but I felt like Eliot was getting short shrift here!"
      I understand that you feel that way. The point of this blog post is not to argue that George Eliot is not great, nor even that she is a lesser author in every way. The comparison is about some specific aspects.

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    2. II.xi. for the post-sex murder language. Strictly speaking, Tolstoy describes Vronsky's feelings as "what a murderer must feel when looking at the body he has deprived of life" (rev. Maude).

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    3. Hi Tom,
      Thank you.
      I've just reread the chapter (on Gutenberg, so Constance Garnett 's translation), and now realised I didn't quite understand Tolstoy's meaning. It is not like what Camilla said, but I don't know what he meant.

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    4. I don’t think it’s Tolstoy who describes the act of adultery as a murder. It is Vronsky who feels “what a murderer must feel” (from Rosamund Bartlett’s translation). For Vronsky, this was an act of seduction, of love. He has obviously not inexperienced when it comes to sex, but here, it’s more than just another sexual encounter: he actually loves her.

      For Anna, too, it is more, much more, than a sexual encounter: for he, this is a momentous event. It is not merely that she will lose her standing in society (we aren’t at that stage yet), but that she loses her standing in her own eyes. She is not what she had been before the affair. She is not the decent honest woman she had thought herself. Her very perception of herself, her sense of her own identity, has collapsed. She no longer feels able to support her own self - which is why she tells Vronsky he is all she has, and adds that he should remember that. These words take on a terrible significance as the novel progresses.

      Vronsky is used to casual sex, but he is not used to this. But so strong is the bond of sympathy between him and Anna, he can sense the crisis Anna is going through. And he knows he has been instrumental in this. This is why he feels like a murderer. The Anna that has been is dead. And he feels as if it is he who had killed her.

      There is no going back. As if to confirm what they have just done, he starts kissing her. Or, by his own analogy, he presses home the fact that he has murdered her by hacking the body.

      I think this is wonderful writing. And Tolstoy isn’t, I think, being a moralist here: he is being a psychologist.

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