Some writers paint, as it were, with small brush-strokes. With the most meticulous precision, they delineate the most subtle and seemingly intangible of things with the utmost delicacy. One has to peer at the canvas very closely to see the brush-strokes, and even then they may elude the eye. Writers that come to mind at this end of the spectrum include Samuel Richardson, Jane Austen, Gustave Flaubert, Henry James, Edith Wharton.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are writers who paint with big, broad brush-strokes. Usually, though not always, these are writers whose works may, though not always, be described as “epic”. They are generally not too interested in pastel colours: they choose big, bright colours, and apply them with broad sweep and panache and vigour. Authors at this end of the spectrum include Charles Dickens, Honoré de Balzac, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Herman Melville, William Faulkner.

With Leo Tolstoy, I come across a problem. Is he a delicate short-brusher, or an epic broad-brusher? It’s not so much that he lies at some half-way point on the spectrum between these two extremes: rather, he seems almost effortlessly to encompass the entire spectrum. He could be as subtle and delicate as an Austen or a James; he could be as vigorous and epic as a Dickens or a Melville.

I am currently re-reading Anna Karenina for the umpteenth time, and reading it very slowly, savouring every single page. And it seems to me that, as a novelist, there was absolutely nothing he couldn’t do: there’s absolutely nothing beyond his range. Whether  depicting the physical exhilaration in the epic mowing scene, or dissecting with infinite delicacy the subtlest shades and nuances of Anna or of Karenin, he never seems out of his element. Whether he is describing the vast panorama of the field of battle at Austerlitz or at Borodino, or describingthe feelings of a teenage girl enchanted by a moonlit night, every sinngle aspect of human life appears to be within his range. And he varies the brush-strokes as he sees fit, confident thathe is the master of whatever style of brush-stroke may be required.

I’ve been meaning to write some posts on Anna Karenina, but I really don’t know where to start. I suppose I should justtake a deep breath and dive in.

4 responses to this post.

  1. My knee jerk reaction is this: small brush strokes, albeit on an epic scale. I’ve only read Tolstoy’s master works once, but it was the minor nuances which captivated and moved me.


    • Hello Steve, yes – your metaphor probably gets closer to the heart of the matter. But Tolstoy could apply the broad brush-strokes as well – e.g. in those magnificent panoramic scenes of battle!


  2. I’m starting War and Peace, so I’m curious to see if I see this quality in his work that you speak of 🙂

    Then I’m going to read Isaiah Berlin’s essay on him.


    • Hello Miguel, that Isaiah Berlin essay really is very good. I find it strange that while there is so much find critical writing on Dostoyevsky, there is comparatively little on Tolstoy. Perhaps it’s because Tolstoy is so direct and so comprehensive (“If the world could write, it would write like Tolstoy,” said Isaak Babel) that he leaves the critic with little more to say!


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