Monday, March 8, 2010

I wanted the lecture to be so clever from beginning to end that it would be impossible to omit or add a single word - enjoying early Tolstoy

When the professor entered and everybody first shifted about and then settled in their seats I remember extending my satirical observations to him, too, and was amazed that he should begin his lecture with an introductory sentence which, in my opinion, did not make sense. I wanted the lecture to be so clever from beginning to end that it would be impossible to omit or add a single word. (Youth, Ch. 36).

Boy oh boy do I hope my students were not expecting anything like that.  Doesn't matter if they did - they weren't going to get it. 

That's not my point, which is:  substitute "Tolstoy" for "the professor" and "novel" for "lecture,"and that's close to what I wanted from Leo Tolstoy's earliest publication, Childhood (1852), the first part of the novel Childhood, Boyhood, Youth (1852 / 1854 / 1857), although I don't think I exactly expected it.  Let's see how he did:

On the 12th of August 18--, exactly three days after my tenth birthday, for which I had received such wonderful presents, Karl Ivanych woke me at seven in the morning by hitting at a fly just over my head with a flap made of sugar-bag paper fastened to a stick.  His action was so clumsy that he caught the little ikon of my patron-saint, which hung on the headboard of my oak bedstead, and the dead fly fell right on my head.  I put my nose out from under the bedclothes, steadied with my hand the ikon which was still wobbling, flicked the dead fly to the floor, and looked at Karl Ivanych with wrathful if sleepy eyes.  (Childhood, Ch. 1)

Are we in a Gogol novel, with that fly, and that nose?  No, it's definitely Tolstoy, as we find a few paragraphs later, when little Nikolai works himself into a fit because he is: 1) irritated by his tutor, then 2) irritated at himself for being irritated, since he loves the tutor, which leads to 3) lying to the tutor rather than explaining why he is actualy upset, and claiming that he had a bad dream "that mamma was dead and they were taking her away to bury her," which is, unsurprisingly, foreshadowing.  Anyway, this, to me, is pretty typical Tolstoyan psychology, actions with multiple, tangled, half-understood causes.  Typical for him.

So not bad, right, not bad.  The beginning makes sense, although I'm not sure that one couldn't "omit or add a single word."  Besides Childhood, Boyhood, Youth, I've been reading other early Tolstoy works: The Sebastopol Sketches (1855), and now his first story, "The Raid" (1853).  It's all so good.  Ambitious, detailed, insightful.  Tolstoy.  Right away, he's Tolstoy.  This week, early Tolstoy.

Quotations from Childhood, Boyhood, Youth, tr. Rosemary Edmonds, Penguin Classics, 1964.


  1. Tolstoy writes, "I wanted the lecture to be so clever from beginning to end that it would be impossible to omit or add a single word."

    This seems perfectly plucked from Tolstoy's own experience. Should you ever get the chance to read parts of his diaries, you will encounter a man who was almost neurotically perfectionist, even as a teenager.

    Here's one of my favorite entries:
    11 June 1855
    Worked easily in the morning and with great pleasure, but started late and didn't resume in the evening. Apart from that, I twice showed lack of character over the cauterising with lapis, and also in eating cherries. That makes three.

    It's absurd that having started writing rules at fifteen I should still be doing so at thirty, without having trusted in, or followed a single one, but still for some reason believing in them and wanting them. Rules should be moral and practical. Here are practical ones, without which there can be no happiness: moderation and acquisition. Money.

    I hope your students enjoy Tolstoy, and you enjoy teaching him

  2. Teaching Tolstoy - no, I'm afraid my class has moved away from the 19th century, never to return. So this is the Amateur Reader again, just reading for fun.

    Those diary excerpts could have come from Childhood, Boyhood, Youth, every one of them. I knew the novel was partly autobiographical, but holy cow, that's the narrator of the novel. It climaxes with a tearful return to those "rules for life" he writes out in a notebook.

    Thanks for the excerpts - they are right on target.

  3. I have never read any of Tolstoy's diaries although I have read the novels - sounds interesting and a (not altogether flattering) window on the soul of the writer - great - thanks for sharing,


  4. Hannah, I can't speak for the diaries, but in this first novel, Tolstoy (or the narrator) is merciless at exposing the mistakes, nonsense, and petty vanities of his younger self. It often reminded me of Proust.