THE PARADOX OF HISTORY: Stendhal, Tolstoy, Pasternak, And Others by Nicola Chiaromonte

THE PARADOX OF HISTORY: Stendhal, Tolstoy, Pasternak, And Others

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KIRKUS REVIEW

This collection of interrelated literary/historical essays is based on the author's 1966 Christian Gauss lectures at Princeton University. The articles investigate the various attitudes of such giants as Stendahl, Tolstoy, Malraux and Pasternak, plus other lesser-known authors, toward the idea of ""History"" as a replacement for earlier theocentric and rationalist world views. It's an ambitious undertaking for a mere 150 pages. Within such narrow confines, one expects cogent arguments framed in stripped-down prose. Unfortunately, what one gets is too frequently something else indeed. According to Chiaromonte, for these authors the ""force of History"" was exemplified by war's chaotic irrationality. The heroes of their novels--the uncomprehending Fabrizio wandering through the Waterloo chapters of The Charterhouse of Parma; idealistic Pierre in War and Peace, caught up in Napoleon's Russian exploits; the all-too-proper Antoine Thibault, gassed in the trenches of WW I in Martin du Gard's The Thibaults; Malraux's manipulative Garin in The Conquerors and his equally unscrupulous Katov and Kyo in Man's Fate, and Zhivago, buffeted by the Bolshevik upheavals of 1917--each confronts the meaninglessness of his situation with an ironic, political or quasi-religious sense of ""fate."" The concept remains, in Chiaromonte's hands, frustratingly undefined. Discussing Tolstoy, she writes, ""The great polemic of War and Peace not only fails to come to a final conclusion, but does not even reach a provisional one. One has the impression that the writer gets caught in the snares of his own argument."" The same critical judgment could, truth to tell, be directed against Chiaromonte herself. Owing to their verbal origins, perhaps, the essays are loosely organized. The author/lecturer digresses constantly, recapitulates arguments time and again, interrupts with more ""asides"" than the villain in a Victorian melodrama. On first reading, the effect is daunting. ""Antinomies"" proliferate like gypsy moths; points are swallowed up in a veritable Okefenokee of dependent clauses; inconclusiveness seems epidemic. Maddeningly opaque, occasionally insightful, never completely satisfying.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1985
Publisher: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press