Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Leo Tolstoy on How to Read

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.


  1. I am enjoying your ongoing encounter with Tolstoy. Your previous posting (with the discussion that followed) hints at a question that I now ask: Does not translation become a bit of a problem in Tolstoy? For that matter, let me state it as an assertion: Almost all literature suffers through translation; e.g., the Russian novel is best read in Russian; the French novel is best read in French; the best American or English novel is . . . Well you get the idea. Language is so nuanced that translation is always a problem for which I wish there were a really good solution (other than the reading learning other languages before tackling those other texts). Here are three examples of texts that I much admire but fervently wish I could read in the original languages: the plays of Sophocles, Aeschylus, Euripides, and Aristophanes; the novels of Gabriel Garcia-Marquez; the short works of Chekhov (and other Russian masters of the short story, even including Tolstoy).

  2. Translators are professionals and scholars, and I think they know what they're doing. I want a lot more translation. I am very strongly pro-translation. Translation is the good solution.

    I would love to read the Classical Greek Aristophanes as well. But I'm sure glad I read William Arrowsmith's Aristophanes!

  3. I read this work several months ago and also was disappointed that it stopped when it did. I had the impression from the work itself (never did read anything he said that suggested this) that he had planned at least one more volume.

    I recently grabbed another book from the unread stack, and it was Gorky's _My Childhood_, the first volume in his autobiographical trilogy.

    His childhood is strikingly different from Tolstoy's--

    --an abusive grandfather with a penchant for frequent flogging, deserved or not, but who also alternated with signs of affection.
    Gorky was flogged once so severely that he spent 3-4 days in bed.

    --an absent mother who couldn't stand her family but who left her son with them while she went off on her own.

    --a deceased father who had also been hated by the grandfather

    --a grandmother whose patience and love and spiritual values probably are the reason Gorky didn't turn out to be the monster he should have been.

  4. That's my understanding, too - one more volume was planned. I would have read it.

    Very interesting about Gorky - could his book have been, in part, a response to Tolstoy? There is one other author, Sergei Aksakov, working in the same "chilhood memoir" genre at the same time as Tolstoy. I want to try him, and Gorky, too.

  5. It's possible that there is a connection to Tolstoy's work, but I've never seen anything definitely. The editor/translator of the Gorky text, Ronald Wilks, never mentions Tolstoy in the Intro, except to say that Gorky outsells him and Dostoyevsky in the Soviet Union.

    This was written in 1913, some 60 years after Tolstoy's work, so, if it is a response, it's not a direct and immediate reaction.

    The other two volumes in the Gorky autobiography are _Among the People_ which tells of what happened to him after he left his grandfather's place (or kicked out actually), and _My Universities_, the third volume.
    I just discovered that a film was made of the Gorky autobiographies--the Gorky Trilogy.

    from the Wikipedia entry:

    "The Gorky Trilogy is a series of three feature films—The Childhood of Maxim Gorky, My Apprenticeship, and My Universities—directed by Mark Donskoi, filmed in the Soviet Union, released 1938-1940. The trilogy was adapted from Gorky's autobiography."

    I doubt if they're available on Netflix.

  6. I'm reading Turgenev's 1859 Dvoryanskoe gnezdo [A Nobleman’s Nest, also tr. Liza and Home of the Gentry] and was struck by the following passage (in Hapgood's translation):

    "All her thoughts, all her feelings, circled about Paris. Pánshin turned the conversation on literature: it appeared that she, as well as he, read only French books: Georges Sand excited her indignation; Balzac she admired, although he fatigued her; in Sue and Scribe she discerned great experts of the heart; she adored Dumas and Féval; in her soul she preferred Paul de Kock to the whole of them, but, of course, she did not even mention his name."

    This is very similar to the Tolstoy quote you open with; both men are clearly describing the same cultural moment. (The Turgenev novel is set in 1842.)

  7. Yes, hey, there's Féval again - truly obscure now.

    I just read Alphonse Allais, in the 1890s, use Paul de Kock's name in a dirty joke. A universal pastime.