I said yesterday that Tolstoy was a mediocre philosopher. He is. I also said he was a good writer. That was an understatement. In technical terms, he's one of the best writers I've ever read. He captures characters, times, places, events, emotions, revelations, and pretty much everything else he undertakes to write about, in the most vivid and eloquent terms. For clarity of expression (excluding his philosophical arguments), I can't think of a single author I've ever read who stands above him. I'm not sure I can think of any who equal him.
He's not poetical and he's not abstract, which could be seen as good or bad. There's not much to interpret in his writing; he makes everything straightforward, describes the characters, their thoughts, their personalities, their motives, in terms so precise and thorough as to leave little to the imagination. Hugo and Dickens both took a similar approach to their characters, but Hugo was more sentimental, Dickens more superficial. Technically, one could say that Tolstoy surpasses them both.
Surprisingly, he's also less long-winded than either of them. He takes up a lot of pages writing about things that could just as easily have been left out -- but he never belabors a point (except determinism!). He doesn't get carried away by his metaphors, or waste time showing off his cleverness in needless but amusing phrases; he doesn't trim his language with frills of any kind, or wander off onto tangential subjects.
Ultimately, I was annoyed by him not because his book wasn't brilliant, but because it felt as though he had written the whole thing, a 1400-page epic, as a mere preface to his fifty-page thesis-epilogue on determinism and God. (Rand in Atlas Shrugged, at least, was clever enough to put her 60-page thesis in the middle of a chapter, and in the mouth of one of her characters.)
But even if it weren't for the last fifty pages, I feel there's something missing in Tolstoy's writing.
I can't put my finger on what it is. What can he have missed? He managed everything impeccably. He captured women as well as men, young as well as old, and a dozen or more different types of each, all with astonishing realism. What can have possibly been missing?
Maybe it's just that there was nothing to hold it all together -- nothing except a fifty-page thesis on determinism and God. Maybe it's that ultimately the book wasn't about the physical or spiritual journeys of man, or his nature, or his struggles with morality or salvation or death or love or any of the thousand items touched on briefly throughout the book... it wasn't about any of those things. Just: que sera, sera. Plain, hard, disinterested intellectualism, as the theme for all the lives and triumphs and defeats -- futility, and not even a tragic futility, just a scientific, statistical futility.
Tolstoy captured the many and varied types of humanity better than any other author I've encountered, and yet it feels there was something nearly inhuman about the book, in the end. Henry James once said, in criticism of Charles Dickens, that to be a great novelist, one "must know man as well as men." Maybe that's what Tolstoy is missing, too. He has a wonderful grasp of men, of a depth and breadth to put even Dickens to shame. But as for man... I think that may have been the one essential character he left out.
I don't know what I'll be reading next. The reason it occurred to me how far I'd underestimated Tolstoy is because I've been trying to start on some other book, but nothing I pick up comes anywhere close to Tolstoy's eloquence, and I find myself doing more criticising than reading. So far, King Lear is the only thing I've tried that I haven't been able to find fault with. ...So much for lighter reading. :P