I’m feeling slightly overwhelmed at having a) read so much Tolstoy in such a short space of time and b) set myself the task of condensing this down into one blog page. In the interests of sanity my plan is to use this space to summarise Tolstoy as relevant to this project, basically, mostly focussing on how he fits into what I’ve read so far. Of course, this is Tolstoy, so the odd lengthy digression into philosophy/personal agenda is entirely to be expected; you have been warned.
Also, I already have a page dedicated to ‘War and Peace’ under Reading Long Books so I’m going to try not to repeat myself, but you may find it helpful if you’re planning on setting some time aside to read this amazing epic.
One more disclaimer – I really don’t recommend anyone binge read Tolstoy like this. The problem with the chronological approach is that Tolstoy basically got weirder as he got older. Not that his writing became less accomplished, but that his subject matter becomes increasingly unsympathetic. As is becoming a pattern with the authors I’m now covering, his ideological agenda does not help his writing and the more it intrudes the more insufferable he becomes. Because of this, I’m going to work the page backwards, so that I can get the nasty taste left by ‘The Kreutzer Sonata’, ‘The Diary of a Madman’ and ‘Father Sergius’ out of my mouth before moving on to the good stuff.
Tolstoy and sex: Tolstoy thought that sex was evil. The moral of ‘The Kreutzer Sonata’ is clear, the world will become perfect through abstinence. When the main speaker in the story is challenged on the problems of such a theory he explains that the point of the human race is to perfect itself, at which point its raison d’être will be met so it dying out will not be problem. I’m as willing to read ravings as the next person, but it does frustrate me when the narrative agrees with them without so much as a shade of irony. The problem with these later works is that they exaggerate the introverted philosophical tendencies which are frustrating even in Tolstoy’s best novels. Because Tolstoy himself appears to only really credit mental, rather than physical, anguish these stories are full of characters torturing themselves, if they find peace it’s often only through physical hardship (i.e. virtue). I don’t want to denigrate metaphysical angst, but it’s hard to sympathise with and, frankly, re-reading these works was more of a chore than joy.
Tolstoy and characters: my most enjoyable ‘wow’ moment was re-reading everything about Oblonsky (Anna Karenina’s brother) and wondering how much he might be a response to Oblomov. I realise I’m stretching a point, but the names sound a bit similar and both of them are explicit satirical St Petersburg caricatures. My insight also works as an example of how Tolstoy does characters in a way that shows off all of his skill. They always work on multiple levels, as believable realist creations and also as literary or Russian archetypes. Reading ‘War and Peace’ after ‘A Hero for Our Time’ made me aware of how many of the major male characters (Pierre, Prince Andrew, Nicholas) were all riffs on the same idea – how can one be a heroic Russian man and how selfish do you have to be to succeed in this role? I felt like I was getting a real reward for embarking on this project when I became aware of how much more I could get out of the characters by reading on this level.
Tolstoy and revolution: I felt really proud of myself for finally caring about the Napoleonic setting for ‘War and Peace’ thanks to reading the books with an awareness of their context. After all, the Russian revolution is speedily approaching so an obsession with Napoleon, supreme figure of the French revolution, suddenly makes sense. Also, the novel ends with hints towards the Decembrists uprising of 1825, suggesting that this attempted revolution/coup had its origin in the Napoleonic wars. In a slightly less obvious way, there is a sense of crisis throughout ‘Anna Karenina’; the lack of harmony in society is echoed in the infidelities of the main characters and the fear of progress and the future is continually evoked through the railways that play such a central narrative and symbolic role in the story.
Ultimately, Tolstoy is one of the great writers of world literature. He can be read without any contextual awareness (trust me, I’ve done it) and, with his best works, his characters jump off the page. Except for the moralising stories that he wrote towards the very end, his work is consistently readable, and even in the later stories there are gems – I recommend ‘Master and Man’ ‘Alyosha Gorshok’ if you want to avoid the worst, but still want to read some late Tolstoy. His hit rate is astonishing – take ‘War and Peace’ and ‘Anna Karenina’ for example, massive heavy tomes that are pretty consistently engaging (even if, like me, you lose patience with Levin’s farm work and the explanations of ‘the forces that move nations’). I don’t see myself taking Tolstoy back off the bookshelf for a while yet, this has been a pretty intense reading experience, but when I do I’m confident I’ll find something new to enjoy. Oh, and I might just re-read ‘Three Deaths’ a beautiful short story I’d never encountered before that literally took my breath away. Later writers will have a lot to live up to.