Reading Tolstoy

I’m not, but these posts really make me wish I were. It was Early Tolstoy Week recently at Wuthering Expectations, beginning with Chldhood, Boyhood, Youth:

It’s Tolstoy’s first novel, yet is so Tolstoyan. The obsession with death, for example, the way death mingles with life. In Chapter 23 of Boyhood the children are all sent on a surprise sleigh-ride. What a lark!:

As we drew up to the house on the way back I open my mouth to make a fine face at [my sister] when my eyes are startled by a black coffin-lid leaning against one panel of our front door, and my mouth remains fixed in its distorted grimace.

‘Votre grand’mère est morte!’ says St-Jérome with a pale face, coming out to meet us.

Yes, the novel has a healthy sprinkling of the untranslated French that we all loved in War and Peace. The Sevastopol Sketches, written at the same time, contain untranslated Polish, so count your blessings, I say.

The single great touch, though, the art of that passage, is the boy’s frozen mouth.

The series continues here, here (“He makes peers like Balzac or Dickens, whatever their strengths, seem so convention-bound. Tolstoy wrote in the service of Truth. His integrity is bracing. Thank goodness, though, not everyone writes like him”), and here (with “Sevastopol Sketches”–“Many passages…would not seem out of place in War and Peace. It all sounds like Tolstoy. What a powerful writer”).

And at The Millions, Kevin Hartnett writes beautifully about reading War and Peace:

In the end, though, the reason I read novels is not because I can talk about them with other people, or because I’m looking for ideas to explain the world. I read them for the pure aesthetic moment that comes from seeing life perfectly distilled into words. In this respect, I don’t think there is a more able book than War and Peace. Tolstoy’s singular genius is to be able to take the torrent of conscious experience and master it. There are countless moments in the book where this happens, but the one that left me reeling was Tolstoy’s long, exquisite depiction of the Battle of Borodino, which was the deciding battle in the war and one of the bloodiest in history.

The night I finished reading about Borodino, it was plainly obvious that I had just read something great. Yet here I was sitting in a corner of my couch, just the same as I had been an hour before. I thought about the question with which I opened—what is it that greatness does? An encounter with greatness, I would say, is like a bright light fixed in time, a marker that defines memory and makes it clearer than it otherwise might have been, that we were here.

I’ve been feeling dissatisfied with much of my recent reading, much of which has been second-rate, but under the pressure of a term with lots of assigned books I’m wary about picking up something that deserves my full attention and probably can’t get it. I think I’ll put my copy of War and Peace out where I can see it, as a promise to myself that there are better things ahead.

6 Comments to Reading Tolstoy

  1. Colleen's Gravatar Colleen
    March 16, 2010 at 11:02 pm | Permalink

    The term will be over soon, won't it?

    That frustration is one of the many reasons I couldn't bear to pursue an academic career!

  2. Sam's Gravatar Sam
    March 17, 2010 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

    You know what I, Sam, do when I've been disappointed in my recent reading? I turn to Steve! He's always got lots of helpful suggestions, because he's read everything and his brain is so enormous. And he always tells me, "That's OK Sam, I'm here to help." What a guy!

  3. Rohan Maitzen's Gravatar Rohan Maitzen
    March 17, 2010 at 10:11 pm | Permalink

    @Colleen: don't rub it in.

    @"Sam": You're turning into the Genial Troll. 🙂

  4. Amateur Reader's Gravatar Amateur Reader
    March 18, 2010 at 6:14 pm | Permalink

    Hey, thanks. I'll trade you Tolstoy for Aurora Leigh.

  5. Colleen's Gravatar Colleen
    March 19, 2010 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    I didn't mean to rub it in! In a weird way, I miss such fat books being a reward for something.

  6. March 29, 2010 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

    Reading War and Peace was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had in my life. In the years since I’ve picked up Anna Karenina two or three times, never getting beyond page 100. Perhaps its a raised expectation, lowered attention span thing…

    Thanks for the Hartnett link Rohan!

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