Leo Tolstoy, the author of the novel widely regarded as one of the world’s greatest, War and Peace, not only crafted characters we love and care about – Pierre, Natasha, Anna Karenina, and many others – but was also fond of sideways excursions into his theory of history during the course of a novel. So during War and Peace he gives us his theory of the rise of Napoleon on the world scene.
Some may read War and Peace and skip those passages but when I read the novel as a teenager not only did I love and identify with Pierre, and become emotionally engaged with his hopes and longings, his mistakes and wrong choices, but I eagerly devoured those passages of historical and philosophical theory.
In one of them Tolstoy, writing about Napoleon, states that the times produce the man. This observation, incidentally, is borne out by the situation we find right now; the times have produced the man, Donald Trump, to lead the so-called ‘free world’ – as it is currently known, but may not be for much longer. Individuals may choose to be outraged that the American public has voted a man of Trump’s moral character to be their leader. But they are discounting the tide of history, and the spirit of the times. However my purpose here isn’t to discuss politics but to discuss Tolstoy’s impact on me as a writer and to show how this applies universally to writers.
Tolstoy takes as an example our inability to sense earth’s motion. He wrote that on learning of and accepting the laws that govern the movement of the planets in space, we had to say, “True, we are not conscious of the movement of the earth but if we were to allow that it is stationary we should arrive at an absurdity, whereas if we admit the motion we arrive at laws.” Likewise in history we must say “True, we are not conscious of our dependence but if we were to allow that we are free we arrive at an absurdity, whereas by admitting our dependence on the external world, on time and on causality, we arrive at laws.”
Just as we have had to “surmount the sensation of an unreal immobility in space” and “recognise a motion we did not feel, …. so in history the obstacle in the way of recognizing the subjection of the individual to laws of space and time and causality lies in the difficulty of renouncing one’s personal impression of being independent of those laws.”
So with the tide of events in human affairs, and in our lives, it is similarly necessary to “renounce a freedom that does not exist, and recognise a dependence of which we are not personally conscious.”
I first read those words as a teenager which was when I first read War and Peace, and they have stayed with me over the years, as words from a truly great writer do.
I think they apply specifically to the writing life and also to life in general. We may feel very isolated as writers, especially “indie” writers; and yet every so often we recognise that we are not alone, and instead are part of something much bigger. I believe individual freedom is a concept much abused and misunderstood; we are dependent on a tide of events in the world. (I’ll come back to this subject in at least two later blog posts, when I’ll consider the concept of Small is Beautiful, and when I reflect upon the tide at Lindisfarne sweeping in to cover the causeway).
Meanwhile, may I encourage you to read War and Peace if you haven’t already, and not to skip the passages when Tolstoy reflects upon the tide of history.
5 thoughts on “Staying Focused as a Writer: Learning From Leo Tolstoy”
That is one book that I have never quite got round to reading, but perhaps I should! 🙂
Yes, despite its rather intimidating reputation as “a central work of world literature”, when you read it, it is full of emotionally engaging, colourful characters and situations you can immediately identify with. I feel the same about Dostoyevsky’s novel “Crime and Punishment” The more BBC TV dramas we have of these great novels, the better!
I think it is the titles that put me off, the books seem very heavy going and arduous. I might reconsider based on your recommendation 🙂
For an introduction to Dostoyevsky, try his book “The House of the Dead” (interestingly enough it was written as a ‘pot-boiler’, and made him enough money to pay off all his debts). It is a harrowing description of his life in a prison camp in Siberia. I found it absolutely rivetting. One of the reviewers said, “I don’t know what it is about this author that stirs my spirit.” I think that sums up the Russian novelists – they stir your spirit. However reading tastes differ enormously and I often find that particular books ‘jump out’ at me when I’m in the right mood for them. That’s what happens with me anyway, esp when I’m going through my bookshelves with all my TBR books on them, choosing what to read next!