Monday, April 28, 2008

Tolstoy IV: The Hunt

I’ve written previously about Tolstoy’s attentiveness and sympathy with regard not just to his characters but to animals as well. There’s a remarkable passage in the second half of the book where he actually works his way directly into the mind of an animal. Levin has been out hunting snipe with two visitors, and in his self-consciousness has had a terrible day. He misses his first shots and that sets the pattern:

It always happened with Levin that when his first shots were unsuccessful, he would become angry, vexed, and shoot badly all day. That was happening now. There were a great many snipe. Snipe kept flying up from under the dog, from under the hunters’ feet, and Levin might have recovered; but the more shots he fired, the more he disgraced himself in front of Veslovsky, who merrily banged away, in and out of range, hit nothing, and was not the least embarrassed by it. Levin rushed, could not control himself, became more and more feverish and finally reached the point of shooting almost without hope of hitting anything. Even [his dog] Laska seemed to understand it. She began searching more lazily and glanced back at the hunters as if in perplexity or reproach. (583)

At the end of the day’s hunting, Levin returns with his friends, one of whom, his brother-in-law Oblonsky, has bagged 14 birds to Levin’s 5, which fills Levin with frustration and regret; there has been a friendly rivalry between them that has been threatening to turn nasty. The next morning gets up early and goes out to the marsh on his own, with Laska. There follows an extended passage in which Tolstoy begins by describing the details of the hunt objectively in the third person, but then works his way ever-so-deliberately down into and inside of the consciousness of Laska herself:

Not feeling her legs under her, moving at a tense gallop so that she could stop at each leap if necessary, Laska ran to the right, away from the morning breeze blowing from the east, and then turned upwind. Breathing in the air with flared nostrils, she sensed at once that there were not only tracks but that they themselves were there, but precisely where she was unable to tell. She had already begun a circle to find the place when her master’s voice suddenly distracted her. ‘Here, Laska!” he said, pointing in a different direction. She paused briefly, as if to ask if it would not be better to finish what she had begun. But he repeated the order in an angry voice, pointing to a water-flooded hummocky spot where there could not be anything. She obeyed him, pretending to search in order to give him pleasure, ran all over the hummocks and then back to the former place, and immediately sensed them again. Now, when he was not hindering her, she knew what to do, and, not looking where she put her feet, stumbling in vexation over high hummocks and getting into the water, but managing with her strong, supple legs, she began the circle that would make everything clear to her. Their smell struck her more and more strongly, more and more distinctly, and suddenly it became perfectly clear to her that one of them was there, behind that hummock, five steps away from her. On her short legs she could see nothing ahead of her, but she knew from the smell that it was sitting no more than five steps away. Her tense tail was extended and only its very tip twitched. Her mouth was slightly open, her ears pricked up a little. One ear had got folded back as she ran, and she was breathing heavily but cautiously, and still more cautiously she turned more with her eyes than her head to look at her master. He, with his usual face but with his ever terrible eyes, was coming, stumbling over the hummocks, and extremely slowly as it seemed to her. (593)

Soon, the interaction between them has devolved into a sort of comic dialogue:

‘Flush it, flush it,’ cried Levin, nudging Laska from behind.

‘But I can’t flush anything,’ thought Laska. ‘Where will I flush it from? I can sense them from here, but if I move forward, I won’t be able to tell where they are or what they are.’ Yet here he was nudging her with his knee and saying in an excited whisper, ‘Flush it, Lasochka, flush it!’

‘Well, if that’s what he wants, I’ll do it, but I can’t answer for myself any more,” she thought and tore forward at full speed between the hummocks. She no longer smelled anything, but only saw and heard, without understanding anything.

Ten steps from the former place, with a thick creech and the swelling noise of wings peculiar to its kind, a single great snipe flew up. And following a shot it plopped down heavily, its white breast against the wet bog. (594)

The episode ends with the Levin, his confidence and equanimity newly restored, walking homeward in a world transformed in his consciousness:

By the time Levin reloaded his gun and started off again, the sun, though still invisible behind the clouds, was already up. The crescent moon, having lost all its brilliance, showed white like a cloud in the sky; there was no longer a single star to be seen. The marshy patches, silvery with dew earlier, now became golden. The rustiness turned to amber. The blue of the grass changed to yellowish green. Little marsh birds pottered by the brook, in bushes glistening with dew and casting long shadows. A hawk woke up and sat on a haystack, turning its head from side to side, looking with displeasure at the marsh. Jackdaws flew into the fields, and a barefoot boy was already driving the horses towards an old man, who had got up from under his caftan and was scratching himself. Smoke from the shooting, like milk, spread white over the green grass. (594-5)

Again, what I find myself admiring in this episode, and in this last passage in particular, is the craft: the extraordinary precision with which Tolstoy renders the physical sequence of events of the hunt, even what’s going on in the mind of the dog. Then at the end he makes the description of the landscape the perfect mirror of Levin’s endorphin-drenched consciousness (“The marshy patches, silvery with dew earlier, now became golden. The rustiness turned to amber.”) culminating with an image harmonizing even the shotgun smoke with the morning landscape: “Smoke from the shooting, like milk, spread white over the green grass.”

Great stuff.

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