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Mikeharvey

Tolstoy and other Russians

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!!
TheRejectAmidHair

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!
Mikeharvey

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.
TheRejectAmidHair

"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.
Mikeharvey

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.
TheRejectAmidHair

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.
Mikeharvey

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.
Mikeharvey

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.
TheRejectAmidHair

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.
Mikeharvey

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'.
Scousedog

So where does Turgenev fit in the scheme of things.  I've just read Fathers and Sons for the second time (as it was a christmas present) and I have to say, I enjoyed it very much more than the first time around.  After reading a few modern novels it was refreshing to read a novel that gave a bit of effort to establishing the characters.  The Russians seem to be able to do more in one paragraph than most modern novelists manage in a whole book.  But maybe it's unfair comparing a first time Booker nominee to the Russian masters!

Scousedog
TheRejectAmidHair

Hello there stranger! (And that dog in your avatar ain't scouse!)

Turgenev does get a bit overshadowed by Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, and unfairly so. I suppose it's because his novels are more modest in scale. And I supppose it's also because he was very level-headed, whereas the other two, for all their merits, really were complete nutters. Turgenev was also more Westernised than the other two, and there's not much of the "Holy Mother Russia" stuff in his works. Indeed, Dostoyevsky considered him a sort of traitor - someone who had betrayed his cultural heritage. Possibly this is why he is a bit underrated compared to the other two: when we read a Russian novel, we expect it to be about Holy Mother Russia - we expect it to be epic, and dealing with the existence of God, the fate of the human soul, and all that sort of thing. So when we come to Turgenev and find someone who is actually quite sane, and whose novels seem not too distant from the works of Gustave Flaubert and George Eliot and Henry James, we can't help feeling a bit disappointed: it doesn't have quite the flavour we think of as "Russian".

Fathers and Sons is a magnificent work, I think, and doesn't deserve to be overshadowed by any novel. Both Oxford World Classics and Penguin Classics have published new translations (by Richard Freeboorn and by Peter Carson), and I'd guess either of them would be worth a read. I still have the older translation buy Rosemary Edmonds, with a marvellous essay by Isaiah Berlin as introduction. (That essay can also be found in Berlin's collection entitled Russian Thinkers.)

Turgenev has written other very fine works, most of them sadly little known these days. His early collection of stories - Sketches From a Hunter's Album - are amongst the finest of all short stories. And I think you can still get the Penguin Classics editions of Rudin, On the Eve, and A Nest of the Gentry. (I still have the Penguin editions of these from my student days, but they don't seem very widely available now.) I think you need to hunt around a bit if you want his later novels Smoke and Virgin Soil, but they're worth hunting around for. Also unmissable is the lovely novella First Love.

One I haven't read, although I know it's available, is his novel Spring Torrents. Also, the A Month in the Country, the only play he ever wrote, is reputedly very fine. I have to look these up.
Evie

I adored Turgenev's novels in my late teens - Spring Torrents was the first one I read, and then Fathers and Sons and On the Eve.  I have to say I have never revisited them, and it is nearly 30 years now - I ought to re-read him, as much of the detail is hazy in my memory.
Scousedog

Thanks Himadri.  It was the Freeborn translation that I read, and it did flow very well.  And what a character Bazarov is!  Actually I think my favourite scenes involved the parents of both Arkady and Bazarov struggling to understand their sons.  Really moving.  

Turgenev did spend a lot of time with his contempories didn't he?  And lived in London and Paris for a while I think.  It's been a while so my memory is sketchy.  Talking of which, yes I've read Sketches from a Hunter's Album.  I went through a Turgenev collection phase a few years ago and have On the Eve, First Love, The Brigadier (and other short stories), Liza and Spring Torrents.  I should really get around to reading them.  First Love looks like a good place to start.  I think what has put me off reading more Turgenev is a general feeling that he is a bit dull.  Not sure where exactly I've got that impression from.  Maybe it's because he didn't go mad or get killed in a duel or something!

I really should get back into reading my Russians.  I've been through Pushkin, Gogol, Tolstoy and Lermontov, but I've still got stacks of books by Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Goncharov, Bulgakov and Gorky to get through.  Not to mention Nabakov!
Mikeharvey

Turgenev is a principal character in Tom Stoppard's trilogy of plays 'The Coast of Utopia' (2002). Part 1 -'Voyage', Part 2 - 'Shipwreck', Part 3 - 'Salvage'.  first performed at the National Theatre. The principal thread of the plays is the life and career of anarchist Michael Bakunin. These are very interesting, but sprawling plays, and bring in a huge cast of other people like Alexander Herzen and Marx.  
I saw the full trilogy on a single day starting at 10.30am. It was a mistake. By the time I sat down in the Olivier Theatre for Part 3 at 7.30 in the evening I was stuffed full of 19thC Russian politics.  But I recall a lovely performance from Guy Henry as Turgenev.
TheRejectAmidHair

Scousedog wrote:
I really should get back into reading my Russians.  I've been through Pushkin, Gogol, Tolstoy and Lermontov, but I've still got stacks of books by Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Goncharov, Bulgakov and Gorky to get through.  Not to mention Nabakov!


You missed out Isaac Babel, Vasily Grossman, Andrey Platonov and Boris Pasternak!  Very Happy  (And let's not forget Solzhenitsyn: I know he could be awfully ham-fisted at times, but for all that, The First Circle is a magnificent achievement.)

Another Russian novelist worth mentioning is Andrei Bely, whose novel Petersburg is mainly read in the western world because Nabokov rated it alongside the works of Joyce, Proust and Kafka as one of the major novels of the century. A couple of years ago, I read a translation by Robert Maguire and Joe Malmstad (I believe there also exists a more recenttranslation), and while it is clearly a major work, I could understand why it hasn't really taken off in the Western world: as the extensive notes at the back of the book indicate, the work is full of intricate wordplay that is inevitably lost in translation. The book is still worth reading, even in translation, if only to remind us that what we now call "modernism" seemed to be happening in Russia several years before it became a big thing in the West.

Another Russian novel from the early 20th century I'd love to get my hands on is The Little Demon (sometimes translated as The Petty Demon) by Fyodor Sologub, but all available translations seem to be out of print right now.
TheRejectAmidHair

And incidentally, a fine way to get an overview of russian prose fiction is through the Penguin anthology edited by Robert Chandler, Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida. I was at a lecture Chandler gave shortly after this volume was published: he sought out for this what he thought were the finest translations (he chose Rosamund Bartlett's translations of Chekhov), and also translated a few of them himself.
Scousedog

Oh yes, I do have Dr.Zhivago on my bookshelf!  The Penguin short stories has been on my wanted ist for a while now.
Evie

I also loved Mikhail Sholokhov's And Quiet Flows the Don, published in the 1930s.  There is a sequel too (The Don Flows Home to the Sea) which for some reason I haven't read.

It is fab to see you again, Scousedog!
TheRejectAmidHair

Is there a more evocative opening sentence of any novel than that of Doctor Zhivago?

On they went, singing Eternal Memory.

I haven't read the Sholokhov novels, and dson't see them much in bookshops these days. I should hunt them out.
Scousedog

Hi Evie, nice to see you and all the old faces too.  Wll not all of them, but enough!  I think I may have fell out of love with reading for a while, but getting Sky + didn't help either!

I've got The Don Flows Home to the Sea but not the first one.  Didn't realise it was a sequel when I got it!
Mikeharvey

Today (20/11/10) is the 100th anniversary of the death of Tolstoy at the railway station of Astapovo.  To commemorate the event I read, almost at random, his short story 'Fedor Kuzmich' (trans. Maude) dated 1905, but unfinished at his death.  It's a curious piece, purporting to be the memoirs of hermit, Fedor Kuzmich who was widely believed to be Alexander I. The latter is believed to have faked his own death, substituting another body in his place, and entering into a religious life.  It's a most intriguing piece, but frustratingly incomplete, a fact I didn't realise until I reached the last page. The hermit writes about his life and the people surrounding him in his childhood.  He also reflects on his unfortunate marriage, and more especially, about how one ought to lead a good life. One suspects that Tolstoy is here using the hermit to reflect on his own life and express his own views about religion and faith at that time.  It's a very interesting piece full of Tolstoy's characteristic love of detail.   One might almost call it Dickensian.
derfel

I'm just putting in a vote for 'War and Peace' - good book, lots of romance, culture, history, politics, philosophy; great book, and it will last all summer!

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