Henri Troyat Henri Peyre - Essay

Henri Peyre

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"The Red and the White" is Troyat's most ambitious and most successful novel to date. It is a variegated picture of Russia during World War I and through the two revolutions of 1917 and the subsequent civil war….

The reader is at first bewildered by the profusion of details and the multiplicity of scenes and characters. [Five] or six secondary plots unfold simultaneously. Characters appear and disappear. A few lines of narrative recall the general background of events that filled history in 1915–19. The individual fortunes of the members of one large family and of their friends are the warp and woof of this bulky novel. (p. 7)

The author is an expert story teller, omniscient but never obtrusive or pedantic, able to shift his point of view from the battle scenes at the front to dismal hospital rooms, then to the mob discontent with the Czarina and Rasputin, to the revolution of February, 1917, and to the inevitable triumph of the Bolsheviks in November of the same year. Few narratives of the Russian revolution are as clear and illuminating as this historical fresco in fictional form.

Some passionate partiality might perhaps have served him better. The reader is almost won by the smooth, fluent quality of the narrative and the author's mastery over his score of characters; almost, but not quite. The great battle and revolutionary scenes lack vividness. One does not see the Russian masses in their revolt. Tania, her husband, her lover remain average, cool, unconvincing. We never whisper of them what Troyat said of Dostoevsky's creatures, that "they are what we dare not be ourselves." They are perhaps too true to life to acquire the stature of visionary characters. We experience too little surprise with them. We do not feel a shiver run down our spines at the tragic moments. We are not impelled to run to Tania and warn her away from her selfish seducer as we are with Natasha in "War and Peace."

As story teller, the author, who at times invites comparison with Tolstoy, is almost faultless. But his power of imagination and of style lacks the daring and the intensity that a very great novel on such a great theme should possess. (p. 23)

Henri Peyre, "Between Two Worlds," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1957 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 14, 1957, pp. 7, 23.