Blog Post

Tolstoy Journal, February 21, 2017, The Loss of a Tooth

I did not read any Tolstoy yesterday but have read enough to have a surplus (I hope) of thoughts and memories of the territory I’ve covered in the last few weeks. Yesterday I included a photograph of the “travel books” I have on a shelf to help guide me on my journey through the works of Tolstoy. Now I’m going to start showing the covers of each one.

The above book, Tolstoy’s Diaries, edited and translated by R.F. Christian, is one I read years ago–I have underlined many passages in pencil. I will probably copy a lot of them into this blog at some point. My current idea for this blog is to give my thoughts about Tolstoy and passages from his work–the primary material in the first 500 words or so of my daily thousand–and then to share passages from the travel books. But to set nothing in stone; I might do a thousand words of primary one day and a thousand of secondary another.

One thing I noticed, or that stood out to me, and I think I have mentioned this before, is how Tolstoy knows we are physical beings and no matter how much we want to not be limited by our physicality, we are. (Which reminds me of the homily I heard this Sunday wherein our parish priest noted how often we want to be God one day, and a beast the next.) The detail that symbolizes this for me is how when Prince Andrei returns home after a long time away, everything seems unchanged (except everyone seems happy, but won’t admit it, that Prince Andrei was abandoned by his fiancee); however something is different about old man Volkonsky:

“The only physical change in the old prince was a gap left in one corner of his mouth, caused by the loss of a tooth; morally, he was just the same as before, only with an accentuation of his ugly temper and his distrust in the genuineness of everything that was done in the world.” The Prince realizes that the household, though the same and seemingly eternal on the outside, now internally consists of two camps and when his father presses him, he tells him plainly he does not like the old man “consorting” with the French tutor and mistreating the Princess Marya.

“The old man at first gazed at his son with staring eyes, and, by his forced smile, uncovered the new gap caused by the loss of the tooth, to which Prince Andrei could not accustom himself.” Then he goes on to explode at his son and throw him out, but what struck me is how Tolstoy shows how little things like that missing tooth can, against our will, repulse us, because we are physical beings. It also shows what a master he is of showing; he can get away with all the telling–the long lectures about destiny and history–not only because he is a master rhetorician but because when he does show, he shows so sharply and vibrantly, caressing, as Nabokov wrote, the divine detail.

Okay, here are some more quotes from Simmons:

p. 84, “The trip [to the Caucasus with his brother, Nikolai] made a lasting impression on Tolstoy. He described these days as the best of his life, and he once remarked that he could have written a whole book about the journey. For Russians at that time, the wild, spectacular Caucasus was a land fabled in song and story. Its mountains, precipices, and rushing torrents, its beautiful Circassian women and fierce, untamed tribesmen, had been the rich inspiration for exotic tales and poems of Marlinski, Pushkin, and Lermontov.”

p. 88, [from a passage in his diary] “‘I wanted to become fused with the All-Embracing Substance. I besought It to pardon my sins. . . . I could not separate the feelings of faith, hope and love from my general feeling. No, the feeling I experienced last night was love for God, uniting in itself all that is good and renouncing what is bad.'”

p. 91, “God, Epishka [an old Cossack who befriended Tolstoy] firmly believed, made everything for the joy of man. There was no sin in any of it. Man was like an animal, declared Epishka. Wherever it went, there was its home; whatever God gave it, that it ate. It was a fraud to teach man that he would lick red-hot plates in hell for enjoying the things of this earth. For when man died, said Epishka, the grass would grow on his grave, and that was all. Undeniably this was a comforting way of life in that wild country, and despite the unrelenting prick of conscience, much of Tolstoy’s stay in the Caucasus was influenced by the ancient Cossack’s forthright hedonism.”

p. 97, “For over a year now, very early in the morning, or late at night after hunting, carousing, or a day of activity with the battery, he had worked away at his novel [Childhood]. Sometimes in his enthusiasm over a particular chapter, he would read it to the critical and talented Nikolai or to a friend who dropped in, but he nearly always regretted these premature hearings. His periods of enthusiasm were very rare in the process of creation. More often he expressed acute dissatisfaction. Three separate drafts were written out, and a fourth, done by a copyist, also received Tolstoy’s corrections. Notations in the diary on the progress of the work reveal the stern demands he made on himself artistically at the very outset of his literary career. Time and again he noted that the writing went badly, the rewriting worse. ‘Without regret, I must destroy all unclear places, prolix, irrelevant, in a word, everything unsatisfactory, even though they be fine in themselves.’ Unswervingly he adhered to his own rule that no addition, however talented, could improve a work as much as a deletion. He fluctuated between satisfaction and utter dislike, and on occasion contemplated abandoning the work. At times he began to doubt that he possessed any ability. ‘Have I talent comparable to that of recent Russian writers?’ he asked himself in the diary and answered, ‘Positively no.’ Later speculation on this subject, however, left him undecided. Then there were rare and wonderful moments when he read over a particularly successful passage and felt that genius must have guided his pen. ‘I reread the chapter “Sorrow,” and while so doing wept from my very heart.’ He believed, like Gogol, that any work, in order to be good, should come singing from the author’s soul. This can truly be said about Childhood, despite all Tolstoy’s misgivings.”


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