Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Had he been drunk one might understand it! - Tolstoy and The Cossacks

Have I played the What If He Had Died game before at Wuthering Expectations?  Not once, in all these years, I believe.  It is just another way of thinking about the reputation of an artist.  Maybe I should make it less morbid – if the artist had given up his art, if he had entered a monastery before writing whichever gigantic masterpiece casts shade on his other works.

I am rambling towards The Cossacks (1863), the short novel that would have been Leo Tolstoy’s best book if it had been his last.  After its publication he spent the next six years writing War and Peace (1865/1869); Anna Karenina and The Death of Ivan Ilych and many more significant works would follow.  Tolstoy would be seen as an innovative writer about war and the life of Russian officers, a theme he pursued from his first published short story (“The Raid,” 1853) through the rest of his career, on to the end of his life, actually, and the sublime Hadji Murad (written 1904 or so).  The emphasis on war would have been even more pronounced, though, if The Cossacks were the end of the bibliography – a mix of stories, The Sevastopol Sketches, and this.  Hemingway still could have picked up his strong Tolstoy influence, assuming Constance Garnett still translated The Cossacks for him.*

So now The Cossacks looks like a dry run for the later books.  Here is the combination of cold description and hot interiority that marks his later war writing; there is a young man tormented by a search for meaning and happiness, Anna Karenina’s Levin in embryo (or, really, in a late adolescence).

The book is a little hard to read on its own, now, is what I am saying.  I have been corrupted by knowledge.

Young Olenin, at risk of gambling away his estate in decadent Moscow, joins the cavalry in search of adventure and purpose.  He is stationed in the Caucasus, living amongst the Cossacks; he spends his time hunting, going on punitive raids against the Chechens, and mooning after his landlady’s spectacular daughter, Maryanka.  She has been promised, more or less, to the dashing, heroic Lukashka, which gives us a love triangle and a story; I have made the book sound a bit soapy, is a violation of its tone which is ironic rather than melodramatic:

'But what desires can always be satisfied despite external circumstances?  What are they?  Love, self-sacrifice.'  He was so glad and excited when he had discovered this, as it seemed to him, new truth, that he jumped up and began impatiently seeking some one to sacrifice himself for, to do good to and to love.  'Since one wants nothing for oneself,' he kept thinking, 'why not live for others?'.  (XX)

Olenin has this revelation of selfless purposefulness while lost in the woods, alone, so his impatience to do good is amusingly pointless.  And when he finally does make a sacrifice a bit later, giving a horse to Lukashka , the results are misunderstood (“Had he been drunk one might understand it!” Lukashka thinks) and eventually destructive.

Another day or two with The Cossacks, I guess.  The translation is by Louise and Aylmer Maude.

*  Or perhaps Tolstoy’s first book, the pseudo-memoir Childhood, Boyhood, Youth (1852-7) would be best known.  It is awfully good, too.


  1. I read The Cossacks years ago (uninfluenced by any reading of the later books) and greatly enjoyed it. Not that I can remember much about it now though. I re-read The Sevastopol Sketches quite recently, which is also very impressive. I've been thinking for a while of reading Childhood... next.

  2. All of the Early Tolstoy, pre-War and Peace Tolstoy, I have read had been impressive. He understood his voice and subject immediately.

    The first time I read The Cossacks, now that I think of it, I was reading War and Peace at the same time. So I was only semi-corrupted. Only a small stain.

  3. Tolstoy writing in an ironic tone? I can't believe it; not after the solemn, sober, tragic tone of W&P and AK.

  4. How interesting - I disagree strongly. Tolstoy is a master ironist. but I would not offer irony in opposition to any of the words in your list.

    "Tone" might be the wrong word on my part, though.

  5. I haven't played the "What if he'd died" game, but I have played the "What if he'd lived" game with Christopher Marlowe--during which I, likely unconvincingly, argued that it would be Marlowe and not Shakespeare that everyone was now in love with as the pinnacle of English literature, had Marlowe not gotten a knife in the eye at 29. (Although, I still think that title would, for me, have to go to George Eliot, regardless of whomever else might have lived or died.)

    It's like you're reading through the untouched parts of my book collection ahead of me. I've been carrying The Cossacks around for years. I once took, but then dropped halfway through, an entire uni course on Tolstoy. I recall that I loved Childhood, Boyhood, Youth and got halfway through WP before dumping the class--because it asked us to read and spend only one week on WP!!!!! I was a very bad reader then but it was abundantly clear to me that such quick work was an insult to both Tolstoy and to me. It's so long ago that it's like I never read any of it...which sounds like a good reason to start from the beginning (next year, if it turns out I hate Proust and can't continue after Swann's Way).

  6. Sections of Hadji Murad are in an ironic tone. So is most (all) of The Death of Ivan Ilytch. Are we differentiating between use of irony and the ironic tone of voice (what Dostoyevski calls "an ironical tone")?

  7. Do we have to go to Dostoevsky? I doubt I mean, or understand, whatever he might have meant.

    Am I differentiating - good question. Maybe not so well. In the passage above, Olenin is earnest. But the narrator - "as it seemed to him"? It's a dry irony, but pretty constant.

    I was thinking of Ivan Ilych, too, and about the opening chapters of Anna Karenina, or any scene with Levin's brother (the one who is a Turgenev character, not the Dostoevskian one). Or Karenin at the seance. Scenes like that.

    Colleen - Marlowe, yeah, that's a good one. Keats, Pushkin, Lermontov. Writers who seemed a long way from finished whatever it was they were trying to do.

    I took a Tolstoy class, too, which is when I last read The Cossacks. It was a third shorter stuff, a third W&P, and a third AK. We did not begin discussing any of the books until we had finished reading them, which is why I was reading W&P at the same time.

    Tolstoy is rewarding from the beginning. His more dubious stuff is off towards the latish middle. Although those works are rewarding, too, in a different way.

    1. You mention Lermontov: was The Cossacks influenced by A Hero of our Time, perhaps?

  8. I've long been of the opinion that what Dostoyevsky (or Constance Garnett, maybe) called "ironical" I would call "knowing," as in this definition stolen from the OED:

    Originally: (of a person) having or showing discernment, insight, cunning, etc.; shrewd, crafty, canny, worldly-wise. Later also: (of a look, gesture, etc.) indicative of such insight; showing or (esp. covertly) suggesting the possession of secret or exclusive knowledge or understanding.

    Which I might extend to the idea of an ironical tone, where the speaker (narrator or character) lets the reader or another character know he's fully aware of the irony of the situation. I don't know if "Cossacks" has this form of ironical tone or if there's irony. I can't imagine Tolstoy writing without irony. I can't imagine any Russian writing without irony. Some day I'll read W&P again. It's been...34 years.

    I've never read any Marlowe. I've read other Elizabethan playwrights and that's only left me with the impression that Shakespeare really was much better than his contemporaries. Was Marlowe any good? Should I get a copy of Doctor Faustus?

    The version of What If He Had Died? I like to play is concerned entirely with influence on later writers. Without X, what would Y have written? Beats watching reality TV.

  9. Lermontov, good question. By the time Tolstoy is writing, the "soldier in the Caucasus" genre is mature - not just Lermontov but a number of Pushkin stories and poems, especially The Captain's Daughter, are established masterpieces. Tolstoy is reacting to them in some way or another, but I do not want to speculate too much on how.

    Or maybe tomorrow I will speculate a bit. We'll see.

    As for Marlowe - what! what! Marlowe is awesome!

    FRIAR BARNARDINE. Thou hast committed--
    BARABAS. Fornication: but that was in another country; \ And besides, the wench is dead.

    A copy of Doctor Faustus? No, no, a copy of the complete plays, and then a copy of the complete poems.

    And then we can get into Ben Jonson and John Webster and so on and The Atheist's Tragedy.

    What a rich period. Why am I wasting my time in the 19th century?

  10. I'll take "Faustus" over "As You Like It" any day. Shakespeare was good, but his contemporaries were too.

    Did you know that Tristan Tzara translated part of "Faustus"? Another perfect literary pairing!

    1. I'm not a fan of Shakespeare's comedies as a rule. But "The White Devil" doesn't do it for me the way any of Shakespeare's tragedies do. It's monstrous and over the top, but the language is just not that fine.

      As I say, I've read no Marlowe at all but maybe it's time.

  11. Man, doggin' on Webster; I cannot believe it. "Fine" is definitely not the word for Webster. I'll warn you, then - Marlowe is pretty crude. No matter how long he lived, he never would have written anything like The Tempest.

    Tzara + Faustus certainly is a nice pairing of complementary insanity.

  12. Brachiano's fun and his death scene is pretty dandy. He's almost a precurser to Ubu. And the whole thing is, as I say, monstrous and over the top and I mean that in a good way. But yeah, I need better prose than Webster wrote.

    I don't understand the reputation of The Tempest. What do people see in that play? Maybe if I saw it performed I'd get it; I've only read it and it's not exactly full of life on the page. I am revealing my Philistine shallows. Or had I already done that?

  13. Well, for a sample of Marlowe's language, you can start with "The Passionate Shepherd"; if you like it, move on from there.

    I read Webster a long time ago; I think I enjoyed his excesses. Dekker and Kyd are worth reading, too; there are so many. And so many fine poets that didn't write plays: Sidney, Wyatt, Raleigh. Campion!

    Funny, I read "The Tempest" recently, and found it full of life, wild and puzzling. Maybe you have to be in the right mood.

  14. The Tempest! This is much to good to argue with or diminish in any way. O brave new world that has such people in't!

    A good alternative to seeing a performance is hearing John Gielgud read it. But that is close to cheating - he would improve any text.

    Doug: even lesser poets like Drayton or Daniel - it was a baffling explosion of creativity and talent.

    1. It was a baffling explosion of creativity and talent in prose as well as poetry: read The
      Unfortunate Traveller, Ralegh's History of the World and Letters, Florio's Montaigne...

  15. It's not that I dislike Shakespeare's contemporaries, it's just that I prefer Shakespeare's use of language to theirs. Tom's Barabas quote is funny to be sure, but there's a grace, a felicity and inventiveness in Bill's prose that I don't see in any other playwright from his era. I like a lot of the poets, though. Tom Campion's "Follow thy fair Sun" is a fabulous thing.

    I read "The Tempest" last month and it just seemed chaotic and pointless. Good characters in disconnected vignettes with nothing to do and nowhere to go.

  16. What a coincidence; I'm reading Drayton now. Yes, Drayton too.

  17. The comments took a funny turn, didn't they? A good turn, but funny.

    So, yes: The greatest 50 years in English literature, or let's say 60, from Marlowe to the closing of the theaters.

    Add in Spain and Montaigne - maybe the greatest 60 years in literary history.

  18. "A copy of Doctor Faustus? No, no, a copy of the complete plays, and then a copy of the complete poems.

    And then we can get into Ben Jonson and John Webster and so on and The Atheist's Tragedy.

    What a rich period. Why am I wasting my time in the 19th century?"

    YES, YES, YES--read the complete works of Marlowe. Crude, of course--who the hell wasn't during the Renaissance? My god, Shakespeare wrote Titus Andronicus, which is one of the most disgusting things ever written!

    I've always found Marlowe to manage hilarity and tragic simultaneously--something I don't think Shakespeare managed to do except by alternating turns till very late, as in The Winter's Tale and Cymbeline.

    He's a little later, but don't forget John Ford.

  19. Somewhere on the internet, not here but at someone else's site a couple of years ago, I enjoyed a 'Tis Pity She's a Whore readalong.

    The decadent end of the revenge tragedy tradition, I called it, or something like that. Wonderfully crazy. Characters actually flee the play, its events are so 'orrible.