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Tolstoy Journal, March 2, 2017, Lermontov, Sterne, Nabokov, and “whited sepulchres, vipers, and hypocrites”!

Well laid plans. I was going to start Volume V yesterday but it was Ash Wednesday, I had a bunch of errands to do and a review book I’m trying to finish, so the upshot is I did not start Volume V. But I still have some untranscribed passages from Wilson so here goes.

“A sense of being a displaced person was a recurrent one in all Tolstoy’s great literary precursors in Russia, in none more so that Lermontov, whose  A Hero of Our Time, one of the most extraordinary novels in the history of the world, Tolstoy read at about this time. Pechorin, the ‘hero’, believes that ‘in our time’, happiness or moral certainty are impossible. When he has killed Grushnitsky in the duel, he proclaims, ‘Finita la commedia‘. Mortals, he says, in another place, can do no more than go on from doubt to doubt. Just as Onegin, in an earlier generation, was a conscious projection of Pushkin himself, so in A Hero of Our Times, the identification between artist and subject was absolute. Belinsky, when he first met Lermontov in 1840, declared that Pechorin was Lermontov.”

This passage forces me up from my desk to fetch my copy of A Hero of Our Times. I will take a photo of it and use it as my feature image; it is translated by Vladimir Nabokov himself “in collaboration with Dmitri Nabokov. I dipped into the Translator’s Foreword and immediately found one reference to Tolstoy, wherein VN says not to read Lermontov for the style but for “the superb energy of the tale.” The style he says is “awkward and frequently commonplace,” seeming to be “chaste and simple.” “But,” Nabokov goes on, “genuine art is neither chaste nor simple, and it is sufficient to glance at the prodigiously elaborate and magically artistic style of Tolstoy (who, by some, is considered to be a literary descendant of Lermontov) to realize the depressing flaws of Lermontov’s prose.”

I thought I had read that Tolstoy’s prose was simple and awkward, deliberately so; I’ll have to keep a look-out for more arguments about this. I wonder sometimes if Nabokov’s liking for certain authors and dislike of others (especially in the case of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky) has more to do with class than quality. That is, the aristocratic Tolstoy’s tone of voice appeals to the aristocratic Nabokov more than Dostoyevsky’s–I can’t say lower class or middle class– but he certainly wasn’t an aristocrat.

Back to Wilson: “But we do have incontrovertible evidence that A Sentimental Journey was what started Tolstoy off as a writer. The practice of getting up steam by reading English novels was to survive into his maturity. His wife records in her journals in 1878, ‘I happen to know that when Lyovochka turns to English novels he is about to start writing himself.’ Nothing so crude as imitation was at work in the mature Tolstoy. Rather, the absorption in a different mind engaged in an analogous creative process released something within him, providing, when it worked, the right blend of distraction and impetus.

“‘He is fretful because he cannot write; this evening, while he was reading Dickens’s Dombey and Son, he suddenly announced to me: ‘Aha! I’ve got it!’ When I asked what he meant he would not tell me at first, but eventually he said; ‘Well, I’ve been imagining this old woman–her appearance, her manner, her thoughts–but I haven’t been able to find the right feelings to give her.’

“He was not borrowing the feelings out of Dickens, but somehow or another, reading the work of another great writer stimulated his own daemon.”

Fortunately I also have a copy of A Sentimental Journey and will be reading that too. I’ve read The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman and loved it (and thought while reading, there was metafiction before there was “metafiction”!) but never this shorter work. When I think of Tolstoy liking the works of Dickens and Sterne, it kind of surprises me, just as I was surprised to learn that Graham Greene was a devout admirer of the works of Henry James.

“Sterne’s huge appeal as a writer (again, to use a criterion of Henry James) was that he did not strictly speaking write at all. The high popularity of A Sentimental Journey in the last forty years of the eighteenth century stemmed from its usability as a blueprint for Romantic egotists. Stylistically, it could have been penned by some lecherous parish clerk. It arrives in your hands half finished. The reader does the writer’s work for him, finding in it virtues which the reader has put there himself and therefore esteems much more highly than he would the virtues of another. Sterne not surprisingly enjoys great popularity in the twentieth century, with its mania for readers doing the work of writers, and discovering their own ‘text’ as they go along. Also, A Sentimental Journey is attractively short.”

And now, since I have run out of quotes to transcribe, I will lapse into the personal and say that I have been waking up hungover with disturbing dreams for the last year or two and don’t know if it’s mid-life or not enough exercise or what. The reason I mention it is that I hope this gives me some insight into Tolstoy’s mid-life crisis when he felt suicidal, not that I feel that way at all–I don’t–but it will be interesting to read about what he went through and relate it to myself. I think I prefer E.B. White’s solution of puttering around the workshop and listening to jazz records and sometimes I have wondered as I’ve read religious books if religion is sometimes just a form of self-seeking. It doesn’t have to be but reading about Dorothy Day or Thomas Merton or Tolstoy or Lewis, sometimes I get this feeling of revulsion that says, oh, come off it, stop worrying about God and just be human, for God’s sake. Of course, I have to say it to myself too, and I will continue praying and going to church but there is a healthy way to do it and an unhealthy way. When I used to take my grandfather to church, he would say, getting out of the truck, “Well, here we go joining the whited sepulchres and the vipers and hypocrites! Heh-heh.” Taking it all with a grain of salt, but still saying to God (or whomever), “Thank you, I have no complaints whatsoever.” (I stole that phrase from Mitchell’s translation of the Tao.)



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