A friendly anonymous commenter asked if The Cossacks has any relation to Mikhail Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, published over twenty years earlier. It’s a good question. By the time Tolstoy was writing, Russian literature was already thick with Cossack literature: Lermontov in the novel and some poems, Pushkin’s The Captain’s Daughter and a number of shorter works, Gogol’s Taras Bulba. In other words, all of the major writers of the generation before Tolstoy had written about Cossacks in one way or another. What was Tolstoy adding to the tradition?
I am not sure. For one thing, there was surely a shelf of non-canonical Cossack novels that I know nothing about. Any element of parody or imitation I see in Tolstoy is as likely to be about some book I have never heard of. Oh well.
Tolstoy does give some clues. Olenin, the naïve young Russian nobleman, enters military service as part of a search for a meaningful life and an escape from his tailor (he is ashamed to face his Moscow tailor):
The farther Olenin travelled from Central Russia the farther he left his memories behind, and the nearer he drew to the Caucasus the lighter his heart became. "I'll stay away for good and never return to show myself in society," was a thought that sometimes occurred to him. "These people whom I see here are not people.” (III)
Olenin will be our point-of-view character for a tour of the exotic Caucasus where he will learn his Important Life Lessons.
But Tolstoy pulls off a nice surprise by abandoning Olenin. Rather than approach the village with him, Tolstoy switches to the kind of God’s-eye description I described yesterday, then to an old Cossack woman, and then to the young Cossack soldier Lukashka. Olenin vanishes for twenty eventful pages. These “not people” are people, Tolstoy insists, and he is not going to wait for Olenin to figure that out. They are going to be people immediately.
Completely convincing people, too, not exotic, but different. Their culture is taken seriously, meaningfully. Tolstoy’s capacity for imaginative sympathy is astounding.
Another touch that may or may not be a parodic response to his predecessors is that Tolstoy’s Russian protagonist, while indulging in some classic Romantic self-pity, is in no way Byronic. He’s a bit of a wet noodle, even. His Cossack double, Lukashka, is the Byronic hero, although his story takes an ironic anti-Byronic turn or too as well.
Yet another amusing irony is that with two exceptions all of the combat in this novel of soldiering on the frontier is kept offstage. The exceptions are admittedly pretty important. But mostly I kept expecting War but kept getting Peace.
There’s also a dangling, unresolved plot line that has a surprisingly modern feel. Now I’m rambling. Just enjoying an evening stroll with Tolstoy.
Here’s an idea: read some of the Cossack classics, Tolstoy and Pushkin and so on, and then read Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry (1926), a quite different anti-Romantic take on the subject narrated by an outsider, and then write a series of penetrating and original blog posts. This is my gift to you.