Childhood, Boyhood, Youth is a short autobiographical novel in which an adult narrator describes his life from ages ten to seventeen or so. Tolstoy combined his own childhood with that of friends and relatives. He had been impressed by David Copperfield shortly before he began writing this novel, so that's probably one source for the idea of this account of an extraordinary ordinary life.*
The plot, as such, is minimal. The Childhood volume only describes a few key days: the day before young Nikolai and his brother leave their country house (and mother) to live in Moscow; a party at his grandmother's Moscow house; and a rush back to the country to see off the dying mother. Just ninety pages in my old Penguin Classics edition. Boyhood, even shorter, covers a day of humiliating punishment when Nikolai refuses to learn his lessons, and climaxes with the death of the grandmother. The final, longest volume, Youth is more diffuse. Nikolai crams for his university exams (separate chapters for history, math, and Latin), falls in love, or at least tries to do so, makes and loses friends, gets drunk, and ponders the meaning or meaninglessness of all things, depending on his mood.
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.
Along with the French dialogue, Tolstoy's essayistic philosophizing is already present - I seem to be ticking off the qualities of Tolstoy that most annoy people. Fortunately, it is mostly presented as part of the tangled thoughts of the adolescent, filtered through our older narrator:
This argument [about eternal life], which seemed to me exceedingly novel and clear and whose logic I can now perceive only with difficulty, pleased me mightily, and taking a sheet of paper I thought I would put it all down in writing; but thereupon such a host of idea surged into my head that I was obliged to get up and walk about the room. When I came to the window my attention fell upon the dray-horse that the coachman was just putting to the cart to fetch water, and my thoughts all centred on the question: what animal or man would that horse's soul enter when it died? Just then [my brother], as he passed through the room, smiled on seeing me absorbed in speculative thoughts, and that smile sufficed to make me feel that all I had been thinking about was the most awful nonsense. (Boyhood, Ch. 19)
If I were told that Childhood, Boyhood, Youth was the autobiography of Constantin Levin, from Anna Karenina, I would almost believe it, except that Nikolai is missing a brother. So many of Tolstoy's characters share this intellectual and spiritual restlessness.
The final chapter of the novel is titled "I Fail." Nikolai has somehow decided that he can pass his university finals by being extremely cool, by having, for example, perfect fingernails. Unfortunately, he is not actually that cool, and there may be one or two other flaws in the plan, although I have met students who are trying the same thing. Nikolai "experience[s] my first moment of repentance and moral resolution," and the novel ends with a dull thud. Tolstoy apparently meant to continue the book, and could have, indefinitely, but of course moved on to other characters and other books, which, as good as much of Childhood, Boyhood, Youth is, was lucky for us.
* He had also been translating(!) Laurence Sterne's Sentimental Journey through France and Italy, which to my eye has no relation to Childhood, Boyhood, Youth whatsoever, so who knows.