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Mikeharvey



Joined: 22 Nov 2008
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Location: Lancashire

PostPosted: Tue Dec 02, 2008 10:05 am    Post subject: Tolstoy and other Russians  Reply with quote

I took my Tolstoy stories down from the shelf and read "Three Deaths" (translated by Constance Garnett) and "Two Old Men" (Trans. by Louise and Aylmer Maude). When confronted by a major literary talent like Tolstoy it seems almost absurd to comment, but what a marvellous writer he is.  I was struck, as I was  earlier in the year when reading "Resurrection" and "The Death of Ivan Ilyich", by the immediacy and detail of his stories.  He notices everything and you seem to live the stories with the characters and see everything they see.  He can see deep into his characters and their foibles and weaknesses - like Chekhov - maybe he is not so forgiving as Anton - but his characters live as real people.  The first story is about two deaths - Tolstoy is obsessed by death and dying - which occur on a journey. An old lady and a peasant they encounter on the way. The third death is a tree which is cut down to make a churchyard cross for the peasant.  The second story, which is  one of Tolstoy's Christian parables, is about two pilgrims to Jerusalem.  Both get there but in different ways. Splendidly written and vividly depicted - I try to resist T's sermonising.
But both are marvellous. And there are lots more to read. Good!!


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TheRejectAmidHair



Joined: 19 Nov 2008
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Location: Staines, Middlesex

PostPosted: Tue Dec 02, 2008 11:43 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

I don't know that one can ignore the fact that virtually all of Tolstoy's later works are sermons. We modern readers tend very often to be embarrassed by this, since preaching is considered nowadays to be an unpardonable aesthetic blemish - but these works are intended to be sermons, albeit sermons in fictional form. They are no ordinary sermons, of course - any more than those great sermons of John Donne are ordinary sermons: these are the sermons of a visionary, and reading something like Resurrection, say, one is forced to turn one's gaze deep into oneself.

The one late work by Tolstoy that isn't a sermon, by the way, is that brilliant short novel Hadji Murat, and Tolstoy admitted in his diary that he felt guilty writing this. The fact is, I think, that Tolstoy just couldn't help being an artist - even in his sermons.

My favourite of Tolstoy's late work is a long short story called "Father Sergius", in which a proud, worldly man turns his back upon the world to live the life of a hermit. It seems a simple idea, but nothing is simple in Tolstoy, and very soon, Tolstoy is grappling with the uncomfortable truth that a man proud by nature cannot merely will away his pride: by a great, uncomfortable paradox, the protagonist, forcing himself to be humble, finds that he takes pride in his humility. It is a tremendously intense story, and the final pages are about as moving as anything I've read.

Chekhov, by his own admission, felt himself to be under Tolstoy's shadow, and had to work very hard to establish his own individuality. I find it very hard to make any pronouncement about Chekhov, since just about anything one can think to say about him, the opposite seems also to be true. He was, as you say, forgiving and humane; and yet, there were certain characters whom he could not forgive - the predatory Natasha in Three Sisters, say, or the brutal Aksinya in the story "In the Ravine", the shallow protagonist in the story "The Two Volodyas", etc. I love Chekhov, but find him a very elusive writer: I can never quite pin him down. Just when I start to feel that I am beginning to understand his moral & aesthetic outlook, I come across something that indicates to me how very little I have understood!


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Mikeharvey



Joined: 22 Nov 2008
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Location: Lancashire

PostPosted: Wed Apr 29, 2009 10:07 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

I just read Tolstoy's "The Kreutzer Sonata" in the Maude translation.  I remember Himadri remarking on reading Tennyson's "Maud" that it was like being inside the head of a madman.  I felt very much the same way while reading this Tolstoy novella.  What are we to make of the storyteller's obssesion with sex, his horror of the marriage state, his seeming misanthropy, his appallingly fraught relationship with his wife and his insane jealousy? Is this Tolstoy's own response to sexual relationships?  How far does it reflect his relationship with his own wife?  As a piece of writing it's powerful and intensely readable.  I was there in the railway carriage as the narrator poured out his obsessions and horrors.  A superb tale, but appalling.


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TheRejectAmidHair



Joined: 19 Nov 2008
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Location: Staines, Middlesex

PostPosted: Wed Apr 29, 2009 11:18 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

"A superb tale, but appalling" is a good summary of this extraordinary work.

I think this is Tolstoy going into Dostoyevskian territory. Most of Russian literature has its roots in the works of Pushkin and Gogol, and here, I think it is Gogol's "Diary of a Madman" that we should take as a starting point. (Gogol's story is similarly at the root of Dostoyevsky's Notes From Underground.) I don't know that we should take the narrator to be Tolstoy, for the rather obvious reason that Tolstoy himself never ended up killing anyone. The narrator does share many of Tolstoy's beliefs and preoccupations, but it is almost as if Tolstoy, in this story, is taking his own beliefs as far as they'll go to see where they lead. And where they lead is, as you say, appalling.

It is a terrifying story, and the fact thatteh narrator and Tolstoy have certain features in comon shouldn't blind us to the fact that this is, in effect, a diar of a madman. With characteristic honesty, Tolstoy subjects his own beliefs and values to the utmost scrutiny, and finds that they lead to conclusions that can only fill one with horror.


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Mikeharvey



Joined: 22 Nov 2008
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Location: Lancashire

PostPosted: Thu Jul 02, 2009 11:09 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Yesterday I read Gogol's short story "The Nose" in a translation by Constance Garnett.  What a bizarre and rather inexplicable tale it is. Kovalyov wakes up one morning to discover that his nose has disappeared. At the same time the barber discovers a nose inside a loaf of bread. He throws the nose in the river.  Later the nose is seen about St Petersburg dressed in the gold-laced uniform of a Civil Councillor. It's all very surrealistic. What is it all about?  If anything. Is it simply a nonsense tale?  At the end of the story Gogol washes his hands of any logical explanation which means that it's open to any interpretation that fits the incidents.  It seems that the Russian title is the word for 'dream' backwards. Some literary critics have declared that the missing nose is a castration complex.


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TheRejectAmidHair



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PostPosted: Thu Jul 02, 2009 11:50 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

I don’t think one should attempt to explain it all away. One should savour its dream-like quality. Instead of assuming that A must mean B, and then worry about what that B may be, one should, perhaps, enjoy A for what it is.

One problem with a story such as this is that it doesn’t sit easily with literary theory. If this story had been written in the 20th century, we could stick a label such as “modernist” on “surrealist” on it, and rest easy. But this story is written in an era that is supposed to be the high-point of realism.

I personally think Gogol’s fictional world is not too far from that of Kafka’s. I was about to say that Gogol was a precursor of Kafka, but that rather gives the impression that Gogol was but a step on the path that culminates in Kafka, and that’s not what I mean at all: I mean that Gogol, like Kafka, introduced strong elements of unreality into what is otherwise a very realistic environment. (Dickens did the same: both Dickens and Gogol were major influences on Kafka.) And of course, the idea of a man waking up in the morning to find himself irrationally metamorphosed is the theme not only of The Nose, but also of an extremely famous short story of Kafka’s. To attempt to explain away this dreamlike fantasy as a mere expression of a “castration complex” won’t do! It neatly irons out too much that really shouldn’t be ironed out.

The Nose seems to me a very characteristic example of Gogol’s very idiosyncratic artistry. It is very funny, I think, but there is throughout a sense of nightmare, a sense of the irrational, that undermines all the solidities of life that we take for granted.


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Mikeharvey



Joined: 22 Nov 2008
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Location: Lancashire

PostPosted: Thu Jul 02, 2009 11:57 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

While I was reading "The Nose" I was reminded, strangely of "The Third Policeman" by Flann O'Brien.  I found O'Brien's book disturbing and strangely frightening in its depiction of a world that can't be explained.  Both it and "The Nose" inhabit a world that upsets the reader's equilibrium.


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Mikeharvey



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PostPosted: Fri Jul 03, 2009 10:23 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

It's very tempting to try to find a meaning in "The Nose", Himadri, but I take your point that one should try to accept it for what it is.  But, when one reads a lot, especially literature of some quality that isn't just surface glitter, one is always tempted to read meanings. It's the curse of having a literary education with its fondness for deep analysis.


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TheRejectAmidHair



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PostPosted: Fri Jul 03, 2009 11:29 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Hello Mike, I think you have caught me contradicting myself, because, on a thread on reading deeply, I argue that when one tackles works that have depth, one has to go beyond the story to interpret (see my post at the bottom of Page 3 in the following thread: http://bigreaders.myfastforum.org/ftopic639-0-asc-20.php ). So, for the sake of consistency if noting else, I had better clarify.

Of course one should interpret. I don’t see the urge to interpret as a curse. But the interpretation must not, I think, be simplistic. An author of the stature of a Gogol has a certain way of looking at life – a certain artistic vision. This vision is communicated through fiction because it is too subtle or too intangible or too profound to be communicated directly and simply. So, any attempt to rephrase the author’s vision in direct and simple terms must necessarily be a simplification, and all too often, I feel, such simplification robs a work of its richness.

This shouldn’t mean, of course, that we cannot talk about these works, or explain what they mean to us. But it does mean that we should beware of reducing the complexity of a work. One cannot – indeed, one should not – read a work such as “The Nose” without attempting to interpret; but to interpret it merely in terms of a “castration complex” seems to me too neat, too pat, too reductive.

I don’t know that I understand Gogol’s artistic vision sufficiently well to attempt an interpretation that would do justice to the work, but it does seem to me that at the centre of this story is the sense of the absurdity of human life – an absurdity that is simultaneously funny and sinister – comic and painful. I do not mean to imply that this is what the story is about: a work of art isn’t, after all, a puzzle awaiting solution, like some crossword. But any work of art attempts to convey something of the way the artist sees the world, and a profound sense of the absurdity of life – an absurdity that we would like to be able to laugh off, but can’t – does seem to me central to Gogol’s very idiosyncratic vision.

I’m afraid I haven’t expressed myself at all well in this post, but this is all I have time for right now, I’m afraid! I’ll try to return to this later.


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Mikeharvey



Joined: 22 Nov 2008
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Location: Lancashire

PostPosted: Wed Feb 17, 2010 12:04 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Just read 'The Elagin Affair' (1925) by Ivan Bunin (1870-1953)  
Bunin was a contemporary of Chekhov but outlived him by nearly fifty years. He was the first Russian to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature, but he has never been particularly famous in the west.  
When 'The Elagin Affair' opens a young man, Elagin, confesses to having shot his mistress, Sosnovskaya. The rest of this longish short story unravels the events leading up to the murder. I found it rather uncongenial.  As far as this reader is concerned Bunin fails to make either of his characters beliveable.  Sosnovskaya is an actress, decidedly unhinged, who has a morbid fascination with death.  An impossible character, who nevertheless captivates the idiotic Elagin and persuades him into a suicide pact, his own part in which he fails to fulfil.  I found the story overlong, unconvincing and melodramatic.  
It was interesting to read this shortly after several Chekhovs. Bunin, although a talented and acclaimed writer, doesn't have AC's genius for character drawing, illuminating incidents or detailed description.  But I do remember enjoying Bunin's excellent  and often anthologised 'The Gentleman From San Francisco'.



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