on February 17, 2010
Leo Tolstoy is of course best known and most acclaimed for long novels but is also one of the great short fiction writers. This collection has four of his best short works: "Family Happiness," the title story, "The Kreutzer Sonata," and "Hadji Murád." This may not seem like much, but as one might expect, they are not really that short, ranging from sixty to 120+ pages for a total of more than 350 - a substantial percentage of Tolstoy's non-novelistic fiction. More importantly, all four stories are superb. Two ("The Death" and "The Kreutzer") are masterpieces comparable to Tolstoy's great novels, and the other two would be nearly any other writer's best. The selection is also interesting in ranging over Tolstoy's career. "Family" is one of his earliest works, published in 1959 after a short series of autobiographical novels began to make a name for him but before the great works that earned him fame. The other three stories came in the decades after his most famous works and, postdating his religious conversion and transition to mostly non-fiction, are almost his last fictional pieces and so good that we see the full extent of literature's loss when Tolstoy turned from it.
The greatness of the stories ensures that anyone who likes classic literature must read them, but they are available in many editions, especially "The Death." Whether or not one will want this version depends on what translations one seeks and how much supplemental material one wants. "Family" and "The Death" are translated by Constance Garnett, the near-legendary translator responsible for first bringing most Russian classics into English. She remains perhaps Tolstoy's most widely read English translator, but some find her Victorian style off-putting. Much the same can be said of Alymer Maude, Tolstoy's chosen translator, whose "Hadji" is used, and the anonymous 1899 translation of "The Kreutzer." All these are widely considered accurate and readable, but those wanting more recent translations should probably look elsewhere. That said, editor David Goldfarb has updated the translations, making many changes for accuracy and consistency, achieving a sort of compromise that will satisfy nearly all.
As with other Barnes & Noble Classics, supplemental material is also very strong. There is a long Introduction giving much background on Tolstoy and the stories plus some critical analysis; a handful of notes for each story; a short Tolstoy biography; a Tolstoy timeline; a description of works inspired by the stories; a list of comments and questions; further reading suggestions; and opening quotes. Some of this is superfluous, but much is of great value. It will surely satisfy everyone except those wanting more extensive notes; these list only biographical names not widely known and major translation issues. The binding is also very high quality and will last through much browsing.
Then there are of course the stories. "Family" is notable in anticipating much of later Tolstoy with its female protagonist and focus on women's and other domestic issues. It is on one level a comedy of manners showing how upper class courtship worked in mid-nineteenth century Russia. The characterization is so strong and the story so well-told that it would be engaging even on this level, but there is far more. Most immediately and perhaps importantly, it vividly portrays universal emotions familiar to anyone who has fallen in love, dramatizing everything from initial euphoric excitement to last-minute doubt. However, it quickly turns darker, showing the disappointment and bitterness that often sadly result. This is all the more remarkable in being shown through a woman by a male writer - distinctly unusual then and still noteworthy. Tolstoy's knowledge of and sensitivity to women and their concerns is truly incredible; he pulls off the difficult narrative voice with as much verisimilitude as in more famous works. Some may find the ending too pat, and it is certainly not politically correct by our standards, even seeming to fall back on Victorian stereotypes about women's proper role. However, the important thing to pick up on is the glorification of traditional Russian family life, specifically its redemptive power. Tolstoy eventually had almost the opposite view, and it is very interesting to see how well and convincingly he argued for this early in his career.
The title story is Tolstoy's most famous short work and possibly his best - indeed, one of the best short works by anyone. His first work of fiction in some time, it was greeted with worldwide enthusiasm, and it is a testament to its greatness that it did not disappoint. That conversion had a profound effect on Tolstoy's fiction is almost immediately clear, but his genius is still very much intact. The most obvious change is greatly increased didacticism; his major works always had overriding themes, but suddenly he was not only trying to say something but to make us act on it. The story is in one sense a portrait of a type - the hard-working, upwardly mobile, middle-class worker whose rise is admirable but who is perhaps ambitious to a fault and becomes so obsessed with advancement, success, and impressing others that he neglects all else to the detriment of himself and those dependent on him. Such people are rarely happy despite all the ostensible success; ambition keeps them in constant frenzy, and they are always worried about falling behind, becoming irritable and impatient. Family life, if they have one, is superficial and often miserable. Eventually they find, as Ivan does, that none of their gains bring peace of mind. Ivan is thus a warning; we must see his hopeless path's folly unless, like him, we die before amends can be made. The essential moral is thus so familiar as to be sentimentally clichéd - we must realize that the everyday aspects of life that few even think of after all take up most of our time, and neglecting them for supposedly higher worldly things is hardly the best or easiest way to happiness. Tolstoy conveys this so convincingly - and, what is far more important, movingly - that we could forgive the hackneyed message even if there were nothing more. However, his presentation is so compelling that the simple message actually reaches sublime heights, creating a true masterpiece even on this very limited scale.
But of course there is far more. One need not look far to find strong evidence of the anti-capitalist, anti-materialist philosophy Tolstoy then held. The story is in great part a modern dramatization of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, the basis for Tolstoy's theology; we should renounce worldly vanities for truly higher things. Few have called "The Death" a Christian story, but it is in this way one of the most truly Christian works. The famed agnostic Robert G. Ingersoll said that Tolstoy was the truest and most sincere Christian alive, and this is evidence. Of course one need not agree with Tolstoy to appreciate the story, as its core messages are universal; by using one character (Jesus) as inspiration and another (Ivan) as his vehicle, Tolstoy speaks to all.
Perhaps the story's most elemental and sadly relatable element is its relentlessly unflinching, nearly obsessive death focus. Though only about sixty pages, it seemingly deals with all death's forms. The most immediate is simply a very detailed realist portrayal of a sick man's slow decline. Anna Karenina's long deathbed scene had already taken this tack, but this goes even further, emphasizing nearly every conceivable detail so painstakingly that we get a near-physical sense of how such a situation feels. Russian writers are famous for showing the dark sides of life that most authors, especially then, were unable or unwilling to even admit, and this is one of Tolstoy's major contributions. Death is also approached philosophically; this is indeed one of Tolstoy's most philosophical works despite the brevity. Ivan's ruminations are unfortunately representative to the extent that people think of death in any real way - it was but an abstract concept until it hit him. Tolstoy goes into the various psychological reasons for this with his usual acuity; his detailed, lifelike exposition of Ivan's thoughts is one of literature's most compelling psychological portraits. However, Ivan is again essentially a warning; few have ever been as fully aware of death as Tolstoy, and the work would serve a great purpose if it imparted even a little of his knowledge to readers - not because death is avoidable but so they can make their lives meaningful in a way Ivan was unaware that he could do until it was too late.
Those lacking Tolstoy's meliorism may consider pointing out such a thing useless - or even perverse -, and even many Christians will be puzzled. Christianity after all teaches that life is vanity, that we should focus on heavenly things, and that earthly suffering is of no consequence because the good will be rewarded eternally in heaven. Here we begin to see Tolstoy's unorthodoxy and get significant insight into why his theology was almost universally denounced. Lacking belief in an afterlife, he wisely thought that we must make the most of this life, though not of course by embracing materialism. The story does not go into detail about what we should do instead, though Tolstoy's non-fiction covers that in detail. What it does do is show the other path's fatal consequences, and whether or not we agree, it is impossible to deny the strength of the argument as thus dramatized or the story's central power. Perhaps the most remarkable thing of all is that, unlike most art that tries to alter behavior, the story is not heavy-handed. Didactic elements arise naturally from the story and never overwhelm it - a lesson from which most sociopolitically conscious writers have much to learn.
Though obviously famous for long works, those who read Tolstoy know that his prose is not overblown. He is indeed nothing less than precise and even concise, saying exactly what he needs to say straight-forwardly and - in the best sense - simply. His works are not lengthy because of excessive detail, overlong dialogue, or florid description but simply because they tackle so many issues and have so much depth. Nor is he hard to read in the usual literary way so feared by students; no Modernist, he avoids difficult language, is strikingly non-allusive, and otherwise writes in a way that anyone - or at least anyone willing to deal with length - can understand. "The Death" exemplifies this. It is the collection's shortest story, but its wealth of ideas and emotions are surely already clear. The economy of language is truly remarkable, definitively showing that Tolstoy is not only a master stylist but simply a master even in an area considered his weak point.
All told, "The Death" is so strong that one could justify buying the collection for it alone - and it is indeed often published by itself. However, though very different, "The Kreutzer Sonata" is at least as good. Extraordinary in every respect, it is remarkable even for sheer daring; it is not only a stunningly detailed account of wife murder told by the murderer himself but openly condemns many of Western society's most sacred institutions. It was also unprecedentedly frank about sexuality in an era when, we must remember, statues were covered and it was not socially permissible to mention legs or ankles. No one would even publish it in Russia, and it was banned in America and denounced by Theodore Roosevelt. It would be but a historical curiosity if it did nothing more than arouse a prudish world's ire, but it is in fact still shocking. As so often in such cases, what should have shocked passed mostly unseen, but time has made its true points clearer. That they were not picked up on more is truly astounding, because Tolstoy seems to have anticipated the problem and compensated - some might say overcompensated - by greatly increasing didacticism. Indeed, highly influenced by fellow Russian great Fyodor Dostoevsky and in distinct opposition to prior works, he practically abandons dramatization in what is essentially a long monologue. He uses the device of a long train ride to make such a thing seem plausible, and the train stops every dozen pages or so to remind us that other things are going on, but the Dostoevskian character Pozdnyshev's tirade is the clear focus. This was clearly a substantial risk, and some may say such a drastic method prevents truly great literature in the strictest sense, but Tolstoy was clearly long past writing for entertainment. Very few writers could pull such a thing off without disaster, but he manages for several reasons. Most obvious and perhaps most important is the unorthodoxy of his arguments, but this would very soon grow tired if they were not well told - which they are. Subtler but perhaps at least as important is how Tolstoy somehow creates sympathy for the character almost against our will; though conventionally despicable - not to mention simply outrageous by the era's standards -, we feel perversely drawn. He lacks the evil charm of Shakespeare's Richard III but has something more fundamental - that indefinable spark of humanity that we cannot deny, however otherwise revolted. Like Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness," the story unearths the bestial forces hidden just beneath an ostensibly civilized surface. Much as we may wish to condemn Pozdnyshev, he has many valid points, and whether or not we can bring ourselves to agree, there is an indisputable humanity to his character, actions, and thoughts that, if we look hard enough, we will see in ourselves.
Without going into the story, such as it is, it is sufficient to say that "The Kreutzer" advances the more radical parts of Tolstoy's philosophy that he was unwilling or unable to attempt a few years before in "The Death." Specifically, it takes up St. Paul's abstinence call and essentially writes off marriage. That the work was banned on sexual grounds when it in fact demonizes sex may seem strange - not to mention the irony that it was banned with self-righteous piety despite being a truly Christian, Biblically sound work by a real Christian -, but it is easy to see how superficial readings could give the wrong impression. The story is indeed in some ways even more shocking in our sex-heavy culture; it condemns sex not as a pleasure to be virtuously avoided but as inherently depraved - a filthy animal act unworthy of civilized beings. Pozdnyshev is unafraid to take the argument all the way to its logical conclusion, saying it is better to let humanity cease than to perpetuate itself so disgustingly. It is easy to come up with intellectual arguments against such a stunning claim - and of course all too easy to come up with more visceral ones -, but the case is put forth so forcefully that few could deny there is much to it. This is in any event not the only polemical element; Pozdnyshev's long misanthropic rant is full of unconventional complaints about the corrupt hypocrisy of nearly every aspect of society. Not the least interesting applications, especially today, are those relating to women's issues. Ingersoll criticized the story for supporting female subjugation, but Tolstoy truly believed its proposals would liberate women. He had long been disgusted by the ignorance in which women were kept, especially in regard to sexuality, which he thought made them easy prey for hedonistic men. The story strives to correct this and other social iniquities.
All told, whatever one thinks of "The Kreutzer," it is one of literature's most thought-provoking works, especially considering its length; it deals with more serious issues and has more radical proposals than most full novels. It circulated widely in Russia and elsewhere despite bans and lack of publication and was often read aloud, sometimes by Tolstoy, provoking extensive debate - this last it continues to do now that it is widely available. Henry David Thoreau is the only major writer who even rivals Tolstoy in challenging society's most deeply ingrained beliefs and traditions with candor, strength, and art, and "The Kreutzer" is essential for this and other reasons.
"Hadji Murád" is the longest story here but in my view the least excellent, though greatness still shines through every aspect. It is thought to be Tolstoy's last fictional work, and he wrote it over a period of years, often struggling with sickness - yet he did not publish it, which shows just how little he then cared for fiction, especially considering its quality. However, it is easy to see why he would not follow through with it; unlike other post-conversion fiction, it is not didactic and is indeed in large part a throwback to prior work. Tolstoy apparently came to identify with the protagonist, a non-Russian Muslim fighting against Russian colonialism, and it is again easy to see why - Hadji is almost a stand-in for Tolstoy, whose increasing radicalism made him ever more of a target to the Russian government and church. The story is thus on the simplest level a stirring anti- or Romantic hero tale, and even those not keen on Tolstoy can enjoy it in this way. It is firmly rooted in history and has many exciting battle scenes, recalling War and Peace, as does the implied determinism; fans of that much beloved work who are disappointed by later Tolstoy can rejoice in this. However, it also has many other elements, including subtle aspects of Tolstoy's later thought. For example, it supports his increasing anti-government stance, showing the justice and bravery of fighting against oppression. It also condemns colonialism generally and has a particularly unflattering view of Czar Nicholas I - possibly part of the reason it was not published. These differences from the other three stories make it an interesting close to the collection, at once ending Tolstoy's fictional career and looking back to its early era.
Much the same can be said of the collection itself, which is not the least of its virtues. As the length of Tolstoy's great novels can be intimidating, this is a good place to start, and those who love the novels should certainly read the stories also, whether here or elsewhere. They are an essential part of Tolstoy's genius and legacy, which is probably all that need be said.
on April 11, 2014
The marvel of Tolstoy is his instinctive grasp of the desperate choices humans face in life.
He has an uncanny skill in both portraying our ability to love and hate, as well as our motivations and fears. When reading his stories, I often feel myself completely succumbing to his world, as if I've known the characters my whole life. The deep emotional and intellectual resonance of his works stay with me long after I close the pages.
Such a work is The Death of Ivan Ilych, a short story published in 1886.
In it, the reader can see the roots of the moral questions that Tolstoy himself will wrestle with his whole life. The primary question being: what is a good life?
For Ivan Ilych, he had answered this question by leading a life that was, "the most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible". A dutiful Russian bureaucrat, his navigated life by relying on the good sense of society to decide what was proper. His chief pleasure came from a sense of his own power over inferiors, and secondary pleasures from playing bridge and indulging in bourgeoisie tastes at home.
Yet throughout this innocent ascendance in social position, there were cracks that betrayed a denial of the truth underneath the life of "legality, correctitude, and propriety". The truth at last manifested itself in the form of physical and psychological pain, plaguing him endlessly and making life more miserable than death. Faced with this curse and sensing death's close presence, Ivan Ilych began to wonder, "What if my whole life had been wrong?".
Ilych looked backed at his life, and realized suddenly, "all that for which he had lived- and saw clearly that it was not real at all, but a terrible and huge deception which had hidden both life and death. This consciousness intensified his physical suffering tenfold."
The book ends without answering the question of what is the right life, and the only clue the reader is left with is the fresh and sunny image of Gerásim, a peasant in Ilych's household. Gerásim alone sympathized with his master's pain. Yet, his simple nature was unperturbed by the thought of death, and presumably his close relationship with nature allowed him to view it as a natural cycle.
In Gerásim's character, one can see Tolstoy's admiration for the life-affirming powers of the countryside, which is echoed in Anna Karenina and other works.
Tolstoy peeled back the layers of ordinary life to remonstrate against its lack of meaning, but because he was just as human as his characters, he could not show the path to a correct life. He leaves us with the image of Ivan Ilych screaming during his last days in anguish, encapsulating a hidden existential malaise that Tolstoy would struggle with his whole life.