Young Nikolai, hero, or subject, of Childhood, Boyhood, Youth, is spending the summer before starting college at his family's country house. He learns to play the piano - "fancying that classical music was easier, and partly for the sake of being original, I suddenly decided I loved German music" - and reads:
Reading French novels, of which Volodya had brought a large store with him, was another of my occupations that summer. At that time Monte Cristo and the various Mystères were only just beginning to appear, and I devoured volume after volume of Sue, Dumas, and Paul de Kock. All the most unnatural characters and adventures were as much alive to me as reality. I not only never dared suspect the author of lying but the author himself did not exist for me, and real live people and real events appeared before me out of the printed book. If I had never come across people like those I read about, I never doubted for a moment that I should one day. (Youth, Ch. 30)
Sounds wonderful. A nice summer.
I discovered in myself all the passions described in every novel, as well as a likeness to all the characters - both heroes and villains - in the same way a nervous man who reads a medical work detects in himself symptoms of every possible disease.
He enjoys the fact that the good characters are good and the bad bad, "just as I imagined people to be in my early youth." He concocts stirring French phrases and witty comebacks to humiliate his enemies, whoever they might turn out to be, and to woo her, whoever she might turn out to be. One might wonder if there is a bit of mockery here. Wonder no more:
I remember that in one of the hundreds of novels I read that summer there was an extremely passionate hero with bushy eyebrows, and I so much wanted to be like him in appearance (in character I felt I was exactly like him) that one day looking at my eyebrows in the glass I conceived the idea of clipping them a little to make them grow thicker, but when I began to cut them..."
All right, we all know where this is going now. Yes, mockery.
The premise of Tolstoy's novel is directly opposed to the French romances. Here we have a book that is virtually without plot, where many incidents are insignificant and others (deaths in the family, say) are ordinary parts of life, where every action, every detail, every character must be judged by their plausibility, a novel of natural characters who have no adventures at all. And in the center is an confused boy, an unheroic adolescent with whom I can closely identify, just as Nikolai does with the Dumas heroes, except that in this case the identification is painful and humiliating - yes, adolescence was just like that. An ugly business.
Dumas and company return near the end of the novel, in Chapter 43. Nikolai joins a study group of social inferiors, all of whom are real students. Nikolai tries to impress them with his knowledge of literature only to discover that they "despised Dumas, Sue and Féval alike" and "knew and could appraise English and even Spanish authors," and read Pushkin as literature, not as "little books in yellow covers which one read and learned as a child." In other words, they are developing adult tastes and judgment. Poor Nikolai has to catch up.
I wonder what Tolstoy had planned for the last, unwritten volume of the novel. Would it have been a novel of artistic development, perhaps, how the mediocre dandy and failed student becomes a real writer? Or would that have been a little too close to Tolstoy? I would regret the loss of that story if Tolstoy hadn't been so amazingly productive. The Cossacks and War and Peace seem like a fair trade.