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The smaller Tolstoyan platforms
on October 28, 2015
NOTE: This review is of the Richard Pevear/Larissa Volokhonsky translation.
One thing that Leo Tolstoy could never be accused of was being a minimalist. He is best known for the massive novel 'Anna Karenina' and the even more massive 'War and Peace'. Almost all of his fiction seems to be an attempt to pack in as much panoramic life as possible. This characteristic applies to his shorter pieces as well as his novels.
This new translation (2009) assembles his best known stories as well as some lesser known ones as well and is presented chronologically, from the earliest, "The Prisoner of the Caucassus", written between the composition of 'War and Peace' and 'Anna Karenina', to his final novella, "Hadji Murat," written over the last two decades of his life and published posthumously a few years after his death. All of the stories deal with the themes familiar in his other works—how can a man lead a moral life, what should his attitude be toward the pleasures of the flesh, honor in the midst of war and equality among the classes.
"The Prisoner of the Caucassus" deals with a young soldier who has obtained leave from his regiment to visit his ailing mother and perhaps marry before she dies. On his way through the mountain passes he takes a wrong turn and is pursued by Tartars. His bafflement as to why these people would want to kill him is similar to young Nicolai Rostov in 'War and Peace', who had grown up in the bosom of family love and could not conceive that anyone would wish him harm. The naiveté quickly disappears as a steely resolve to survive takes its place. Tolstoy is a master at depicting wartime action and the campaigns of pursuit, capture or killing which are inherent in war.
"The Death of Ivan Ilyich", "The Kreutzer Sonata" and "The Devil" are largely concerned with the subjective evolutions of individual consciousness in relation to external perceived challenges. My early exposure to the psychologically penetrating tales of Henry James has made me predisposed to be more comfortable in these subjective realms where specific characters undergo psychological/spiritual journeys. "The Death of Ivan Ilyich" depicts the life of an attorney/judge who has gone through all the right steps and played by the societal rules for reaching success and prosperity in life. He believes that his life has obtained a stability and order and that he has reached the pinnacle of success, until a random accident resulting in a bruise in his side, seemingly inconsequential but escalating to severe internal pain disrupts all of his sense of order. His selfish wife now seems self-absorbed and irritable with Ivan's health crisis as it presents an inconvenience in her life. His escalating illness, never named but presumably cancer, forces Ivan to reevaluate his life and question all his previous judgments. He goes through all the stages of dying to the point of ultimate acceptance. He reaches that point which always fascinated Tolstoy and compelled him to contemplate the process to the ultimate last step of consciousness that he also depicted in 'War and Peace', as if he wanted to venture as close as possible to the 'final frontier' and still be able to return to tell the tale. Ivan's serenity precedes his physical death and achieves the ultimate transformation.
The character in 'The Kreutzer Sonata" seems like he just stepped out of the pages of one of Dostoevsky's intense novels and wandered into Tolstoy's universe. Like Raskolnikov, he is a killer and, also like Raskolnikov, he needs to make a complete, thorough confession to another human. His jealousy and ambivalence to his wife's beauty and seductiveness has culminated in murder. The character repents of the murder, but not, as Tolstoy later made clear, of his aversion to sexual pleasure. Tolstoy's own revulsion toward sexual pleasure in his later life made explicit his own attitude. Despite this obvious bias, the story can be read as a compelling psychological fable without knowing the feelings of the author.
"Master and Man" is one of Tolstoy's most evocative tales. A greedy landowner, Brekhunov, takes his servant, Nikita, with him to a neighboring landowner in order to purchase a valuable piece of land. In his haste to reach his destination before other prospective buyers, he speeds his horse and servant on through a snowstorm, gets lost and, as night approaches, appears to be stranded through the frigid night. The horse is pushed beyond endurance and dies and he abandons his servant, who is succumbing to hypothermia, to find his way, gets lost and ends up back at his sleigh. He undergoes a radical spiritual transformation from self-obsessed aristocrat, willing to sacrifice anyone in behalf of reaching his goal to resignation. This predicament is no one else's doing but his own. He has refused a previous offer to stay with a family overnight and resume his journey in the morning. He realizes too late that he should have accepted that offer. Left with no one else to hold responsible but himself, he decides to cover his dying servant with his own body in the back of the carriage, dying in the process but enabling his servant to survive. Like Ivan Ilyich, he travels through different stages before reaching a spiritual epiphany and considering the worth of someone other than himself. The nocturnal cold and the slow, inevitable acquiescence to the harshness of the environment is reminiscent of the equally chilling Jack London tale, "To Build a Fire".
The final story in the collection, the novella "Hadji Murat," take us full circle back to the Caucassus and tells the story of real life Chechen rebel Hadji Murat who, through a chain of circumstances, felt forced to retain his honor by defying the more militant rebel Shamil, who has held Murat's mother, wife and son captive, and defecting to the Russian forces. Murat is constantly aware that he may be placing himself in an untenable situation in which he is not fully trusted by either the Russians or the Chechens. Against this foundation, Tolstoy wanders into the minds of various rebels and Russians, even launching into a tirade against the lecherous and cruel Tsar Nicholas I who prided himself on being against the death penalty while also condemning prisoners to run gauntlets of thousands of blows resulting in certain fatality. Tolstoy lost none of his descriptive powers in the final years of his life. 'Hadji Murat" is as compellingly cinematic as anything he had written previously. My only reservation with the story, as for most of the others in this collection, is that they could all benefit from being fleshed out in greater length. He has the material for several novels here and, while I'm not advocating expanding them to the sizes of his magnum opuses, I feel that they could have been improved by more intensive exploration of the characters and circumstances. The tales race by through successions of characters we don't have enough time to get to know thoroughly before being thrust into another setting. In my view, Tolstoy never reigned in his maximalist tendencies, even in his shorter works. Nonetheless, what we have are still vital and indispensable contributions to a titanic literary career.