Thursday, March 11, 2010

Are there blue hares? - Tolstoy looses the bindings

A couple of bits from Childhood (1852), not presented for any particular reason besides their existence:

The collection of books on his own shelf, if not so large as ours, was even more miscellaneous.  I remember three of them: a German pamphlet on the manuring of cabbages in kitchen-gardens (minus a cover), one volume of a History of the Seven Years' War, bound in parchment with a burn at one corner, and a complete course in hydrostatics.  Karl Ivanych spent most of his time reading and had even injured his eyesight doing so; but except for the Northern Bee he never read anything else. (Ch 1).

I had only blue paint; but for all that I took it into my head to draw a picture of the hunt.  After representing in very lively style a blue boy on a blue horse, and some blue dogs, I stopped, uncertain whether one could paint a blue hare, and ran into papa's study to consult him.  Papa was reading something and in answer to my question 'Are there blue hares?' replied without lifting his head, 'Yes, my dear, there are.'  (Ch. 11)

Young Nikolai watches ants, and bars their way with a twig.  His father and the estate steward do the accounts on an abacus.  Nikolai, leaving the estate, kisses the servants goodbye "and the smell of tallow from their heads excited in me something like the annoyance irritable people feel" (Ch. 14).

I could go on and on, and perhaps already have.  All of this occurs in the course of a little more than a day, before anything at all happens in Childhood.  The day is, in fact an extraordinary one - it is the day before ten-year-old Nikolai leaves his country home to live in Moscow.  A hunt is organized, and a picnic.  The tutor, that reader of the course in hydrostatics, will be dismissed (there are a few very funny scenes about him), but on second thought, he can come with.  The hourly existence of the boy, though, is just as it is, no more or less real or interesting than on any other day.

James Wood recently needed an example of a "reality-artist," whatever that is, and reached for Tolstoy:  "When one first reads Tolstoy, one feels the bindings being loosed, and the joyful realization is that the novel is stronger without the usual nineteenth-century appurtenances—coincidence, eavesdropping, melodramatic reversals, kindly benefactors, cruel wills, and so on." 

I have no stake in the argument Wood is making, or not making - I am currently enjoying Robert Louis Stevenson's improbable Kidnapped (1886) about as much as I enjoyed Childhood, Boyhood, Youth - but that description is right, and it fits Tolstoy from his very beginnings as a writer.  He makes peers like Balzac or Dickens, whatever their strengths, seem so convention-bound.  Tolstoy wrote in the service of Truth.  His integrity is bracing.  Thank goodness, though, not everyone writes like him.  We, or I, need fantasists and pranksters, too.

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