Tuesday, March 9, 2010

All I had been thinking about was the most awful nonsense - Tolstoy's first book is Tolstoyan

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.


  1. Very interesting review-I just saw the new collection of novellas and long short stories just published by the in the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation-it is still I think in hardbound only-a beautiful and tempting book-I am set to read The Brothers Karamazov in a read along in april so maybe by year end it the new trans. will be out in paper back-

    Amateur Reader-I know you are busy and have lots of commitments but I want to invite you to join in Ford Madox Ford read along-Parade's End-to start april 1-no rigid schedule or anything like that

  2. The new collection does look good. I've read most of it in other translations, but I do want to fill in the ones I missed, and read Hadji Murat again. This early Tolstoy has been so rewarding that the idea of reading every scrap of his fiction is tempting.

    Yep, I'm up for Ford Ford, definitely. It's Karamazov that's got me worried.

  3. I'm very weak on the Russians, Amateur Reader, and here you are writing up one of the minor works with brio. You really know how to make a guy feel inadequate, don't you?!?

  4. Hehe, ditto Richard. I'm working on it though.

  5. Bravo! You have zeroed in on the one work by Tolstoy that ought to be required reading for everyone: "Hadji Murat." As for other Tolstoy works, I remain indifferent.

  6. Minor is right. Or almost minor. Or not quite major. The Childhood section is really quite good. I don't know.

    RT - you are so wrong about Anna Karenina, the Greatest Novel of the 2nd Half of the 19th Century, he said with blustery, ignorant confidence.

    And you are so right about Hadji Murat. It's essential Tolstoy. I have seen people express disbelief about this, but it's true.

  7. I was excited to see Hadji Murat is among the works translated in the new collection by P and V-

  8. You may chalk my aversion to Tolstoy's novels to my senior citizen attention span. Still, having heard the right kind of confident, enthusiastic, blustery encouragement, I might be persuaded to spend some time with Anna.

  9. RT - I am actually with you there. One subtheme of Wuthering Expectations, perhaps visible only to me, is that 19th century literature is not particularly characterized by long books. Everyone, pretty much everyone, should read Tolstoy. The Cossacks and The Death of Ivan Ilych are Tolstoy, really fine Tolstoy.