Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Tolstoy II: Horsiness

Here's a thought experiment. Or if you prefer, a writing exercise. You might do this as sort of guided meditation, or actually sit down and try to write your way through it.

Picture an animal, one you have seen often enough and know well enough to be able to call it to mind. Think your way through how you would go about describing it. What would you say to someone, what would you write down, to bring this animal to life in the mind of someone else? If you wish, take a few minutes now to do a freewrite. Or have a mental conversation with yourself about this animal.

Finished? Very good. Now read this. It's a passage from Anna Karenina where Vronsky, about to be take part in a horserace, goes to the stable to check on his mount:

He opened the door, and Vronsky went into the stall, faintly lit by one little window. In the stall stood a dark bay horse, shifting her feet on the fresh straw. Looking around the half-lit stall, Vronsky again took in at a glance all the qualities of his beloved horse. Frou-frou was of average height and not irrrproachable. She was narrow-boned all over; though her breast-bone protruded sharply, her chest was narrow. Her rump drooped slightly, and her front legs, and more especially her hind legs, were noticably bowed inwards. The muscles of her hind and front legs were not particularly big; on the other hand, the horse was of unusually wide girth, which was especially striking now, with her trained shape and lean belly. Her leg bones below the knee seemed no thicker than a finger, but were unusually wide seen from the side. Except for her ribs, she looked was all squeezed from the sides and drawn out in depth. But she possessed in the highest degree a quality that made one forget all shortcomings; this quality was blood, that blood which tells, as the English say. Her muscles, standing out sharply under the web of veins stretched through the thin, mobile and satin-smooth skin, seemed strong as bones. Her lean head, with prominent, shining, merry eyes, widened at the nose into flared nostrils with bloodshot inner membranes. In her whole figure and especially in her head there was a distinctly energetic and at the same time tender expression. She was one of those animals who, it seems, do not talk only because the mechanism of their mouths does not permit it. (181-2)

Now that you've read this passage, go back and make note of the places where Tolstoy does something as a writer that surprises you or interests you, something that you yourself did not think or would not have thought to have done in this way. Chances are that you'll find quite a few instances, and that all of the ones you find will be instructive.

One move I notice, for example, is when Tolstoy actually pushes down past a description of the major bodily parts to a description of the horse's lower legs: "Her leg bones below the knee seemed no thicker than a finger, but were unusually wide seen from the side." Embedded in that description is an implied shift in observational perspective: looking not just at the lower legs—which would be perhaps a more specific focus than most of us might have attempted—but looking at the legs first from the front, and then from the side. This is a writer who is paying very close attention, to the extent that he seems to be conducting a sort of almost three-dimensional physical examination. He not only notes the Frou-frou's flared nostrils, he goes so far as to look up the animal's nose and remark on its "bloodshot inner membranes."

Then there's the elegant and rather surprising move that concludes the paragraph. It's a variation on a stock descriptive device, the move we often find in narrative that begins "he was the sort of person who..." Here it comes out as "She was one of those animals who, it seems, do not talk only because the mechanism of their mouths does not permit it." This sentence is an amplification by categorical example of the move, begun in the previous sentence, away from physical description and toward what might be called spirit or intellectual character: this is a horse smart enough to speak if only she had the physical ability to do so.

I could go on in this vein for some time. In almost every sentence, there is an artfulness on display that arises from the quality of the attention that Tolstoy is paying to this horse, this wholly imaginary horse that he is in essence calling into existence by virtue of the words he is writing on the page. I say Tolstoy, rather than Vronsky, because in fact all of what Tolstoy is at such pains to present to us is absorbed instantaneously, holistically, by Vronsky "at a glance." He already knows this horse, her strong and her weak points. Vronsky is deeply into a psychic relationship with this horse, and the depth of his knowledge implies that he loves her and cares for her. And all of the close attention, leading to a sort of sympathetic attachment, that Tolstoy encourages us to pay to this very particular, very beautful horse, is by way of setting up our reaction when, less than twenty pages later, Vronsky, in the race, overreaches himself and drives the horse to her death. At which point we begin to come to some conclusions about the sort of person Vronsky is.

The point being that nothing here is wasted. This careful, measured, almost obsessive description is not an indulgence in art for art's sake. It is integral to everything we are learning about Vronsky, and it is relevant to everything else that happens in the book.

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