More about strangers.
I have just finished watching the six-part BBC adaptation of War and Peace, a 1200 page novel. I felt I was meeting old friends who were also (being fictional) strangers. It was nice to meet them again even if the way they were described and portrayed in the film was more superficial and abbreviated than meeting and getting to know them through reading the book. Like many I felt I knew the characters better than their TV version but was pleased to see them represented again. The difference between strangers and friends is that with a friend you meet them again, sure of something about them but boredom is not possible because in the deep familiarity new angles will always appear. So are the characters in War and Peace – that I know and always love to meet again – friends or strangers?
Tolstoy said his book was not a novel, even less a poem or a history. He claimed the real hero of the book is ‘truth’ and it was simply what he as the author ‘wanted and was able to express in the form in which it is expressed’. This explains why it is such a great novel (or non-novel). It is untidy and often badly written. It doesn’t have much of a plot. It is repetitive and he grandstands his own theory of history at some length in the middle of it. It is, in other words, like real life, not a fantasy but an emanation of real experience.
Fictional characters are just that – emanations or avatars. A good movie or soap-opera or Netflix series get people addicted to the plot which usually depends on an increasing rate of cliff-hanger moments. The better ones have interesting characters who show the capacity to change in the course of the story. But it is very rare for a writer – Tolstoy is one – who imagines characters who have a real, untidy and contradictory life of their own. Shakespeare stole his plots from other writers and also invested his gifts in the creation of human beings to whom we may feel closer than to real people in our lives.
No wonder Plato didn’t want poets in his ideal society. They challenge the boundaries between imagination and reality and arouse feelings that should be in real life but often seem unable to make it there. Easier to love Natasha than your partner? Who knows if this is not how we will one day understand many of our human relationships, the ones which did not flower into love, the strangers with whom we did not find the exchange of kindness? Maybe we will see that we only knew them as characters in our private imagination rather than as people who became an unruly part of our whole life.
Modern western culture has lost its Christian identity: maybe because it lost the art of reading the scriptures. It forgot how to see the luminous characters we encounter there as imaginative descriptions of real people who are present in life, not only in the past or in the imagination of the writer. For that reason the New Testament is a quicker read than War and Peace.