Resurrection

By Leo Tolstoy.

This was worth reading. And, it was a good tale – Tolstoy can tell a story. It doesn’t draw you in the same way as a Dostoevsky or Turgenev – it all seems a little too planned. Each scene has been mapped out, considered and fulfills its purpose precisely. I don’t believe great (important) works of literature work in this way: the random disordered elements and the frenzied activity of the writer as he or she throws what they have out on the page makes something unique. This is a novel by numbers, and it is well done but nothing special.

The themes are well worth considering – the inhumanity of the prison system, the lot of the working people and the different universe that the privileged inhabit. Finally, of course, ‘where is meaning to be found?’ – which is the major tenet of the book.

 

 

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The Cossacks

By Leo Tolstoy.

A very early book by Tolstoy and it shows, parts are a little stilted and cliched. But, there’s enough here to make it worth reading – the study of Cossack life in the Steppes. I listened to this book as an audio-book while doing other things and it transported me into another world for a few minutes at a time. It is interesting to analyse Tolstoy’s superfluous man – Olenin, who he treats with sympathy, but the main element that you take away is the atmosphere of the Caucasus.

 

 

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War and Peace (original version)

By Leo Tolstoy.

Having read so much Russian literature I finally decided it was time to read War and Peace despite misgivings about the size and the importance of the novel. I found that there isn’t just one authoritative text – there was the original serialised version which was first published in 1865 based on Tolstoy’s first drafts of 1863. However, Tolstoy wasn’t happy with this version and decided to make it broader in scope – so he did additional research and a number of versions appeared over the coming years and these were much larger with a different ending. What causes difficulty in determining an authoritative version is that Tolstoy lost interest in the novel and so his wife Sophia kept adding and editing over the years with many more different renderings.

I decided to read the original version which some commentators have described as less war and more peace. There is something special about a first draft – it can be seen as a snapshot of something a bit more raw before things get too considered.

It was good to read this impression first. The novel really was great – I read it quickly – in nine days, the translation was smooth and it felt cohesive. The text did seem quite a ‘light’ read at times – it didn’t require too much discipline as the story carried me along and I just kept on reading. There were some excellent characters and the narrator’s occasional intrusions were very welcome to break up the plot. The writing was masterful and controlled – Tolstoy really knew what he was doing. Most of all I like the fact that the characters change and develop as the novel progresses – you can see personalities react in response to the events of the novel. As a result, I have found myself thinking about the various characters and relationships since finishing. There was also much left unsaid in this version in both the backstory and future events. I suspect Tolstoy, in broadening his scope in the later versions, may have left less to the imagination – in the same way that George Lucas did in editing his own ‘epic’ creation – which is a pity.

The main idea that interested me was Tolstoy’s argument that history is created by movements of people. Only afterwards, with the benefit of hindsight, do historians reevaluate and then paint in broad brushstrokes the individuals that supposedly shape history. Why do they do this? Maybe it is a basic human desire to prove that geniuses exist that can alter the path of history and/or mankind, and the knowledge of these higher beings gives some comfort. The wise are those that are aware of the irrational flow of events and move with it as shown by the actions of the commander Bagration early on in the novel.

As I really did enjoy the novel I find myself curious about the longer more epic version and I think I will have to read it. It is quite ridiculous really – because I read the original version of one of the longest novels ever written, I now have to read an even longer version. Maybe in March next year I will become a mad March hare and read about more war and less peace.

Soundtrack: Belle & Sebastian – I Fought in a War.

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Childhood

By Leo Tolstoy.

This was an interesting short piece but not a work of genius or even close. I guess Tolstoy was still flexing his literary muscles. The autobiographies are probably a reasonable entry point into his work. I read Anna Karenina previously and thought it was good. I do intend reading War and Peace, but I have always struggled to justify the time it would take to read with the many great shorter novels I could finish in that time. I  should take the plunge, probably with a more modern translation.

As for ‘Childhood’ – I am not sure it is worth a look unless you are really interested in Tolstoy. He is very frank throughout but I didn’t think his childhood was interesting enough to be immortalised in an autobiography – unlike Gorky of course.

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Anna Karenina

wrBy Leo Tolstoy

(this review contains spoilers if you haven’t read the novel)

I read a great 1957 edition of the novel with excellent illustrations by Roland Topor. The work by Tolstoy was very good as well.

The final excerpt from Bukowski’s ‘The Captain is Out to Lunch…’ collection has Bukowski stating ‘Screw you, buddy! And I don’t like Tolstoy either.’ I have always considered that maybe Tolstoy could be a bit fatuous but many people have recommended Anna Karenina to me. After the recent ‘Sting Debacle’ where I found that Lolita was an amazing read and I shouldn’t have tarred it with the Sting brush of insipid mediocrity simply because he did a ‘shout-out’ to Nabokov, I decided to read Tolstoy. The strength of the novel is the fact that the characters are nearly all ambiguous, they have both negative and positive qualities and Anna herself is the principle embodiment of this discord. I don’t think she is quite the feminist role model that many have made her out to be as she is inconstant and at several points shows her dependance on the patriarchal system she wants to escape from. But does she want to escape the patriarchal system? It could be said she simply wants Vronsky’s love and that is the primary motivating factor and when she is not sure of this she kills herself. Hardly the actions of an independent woman. But still in other instances she is: her appearance at the opera when all society has spurned her is very courageous and her ongoing lack of compromise in dealings with her husband when he holds all the cards.

The other characters all contain a variety of sometimes conflicting qualities and there is none that you can empathise with fully. This is a strength of the novel and one that I didn’t expect – I thought things would be far more definite. The only negative is the way Levin is converted at the end – it just seems a little trite. His conversion, where Tolstoy states that he will still do things that offend people, be irritable and sin etc… but he will at last have found a meaning can be seen as summing up the novel. All the characters are the same – they are human and imperfect but Levin is saved because he has found meaning. It’s unclear whether the only meaning that can be found is Chrtistian because Anna’s husband finds meaning in spiritualism after she has left him. Levins brother in his novels, Vronsky in the new war. I think these are interpretations that are present although Tolstoy seems to come down only on the side that  that only Christian faith can provide the substantial meaning. As a member of wealthy Russian society he would have to be seen as stating and promoting this. I think the overiding themes are that of the ambiguity of humanity – both good and bad and the search for meaning. As you can see from this short analysis this is a complex novel and it raises many good questions which I continue to think about after finishing. The main talking or thinking point is how to consider Anna, who is understandably  the pivotal force of the novel.

I definitely recommend reading Anna Karenina if you haven’t already. It isn’t too difficult a read and took me less than a week. But, Tolstoy is not Dostoevsky, obviously.

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