Blog Post

Tolstoy Journal, April 17, 2017: “The work went on and on.”

Well, I did the Pecha Kucha and feel that I crashed and burned though people said I did great. I should have practiced more. The slides went by a lot faster than I thought they would and so after reading four or so cards, I put them down and winged it and did much better. Still, I wish I had practiced more and with a timer.

I am now up to page 68 of Volume VIII of the Works, or Chapter XV of Part Third of Anna Karenina. I have also finished reading Tolstoy by A.N. Wilson and read a good chunk of Emile by Rousseau, one of Tolstoy’s favorite books.

The above photo of Maxim Gorky’s My Childhood is a travel book because Gorky met and got to know Tolstoy and wrote about him. I have never read it but hope to during this, my Tolstoyan year. For the next blog I will have to remember to put the frontispiece of Volume VIII as the featured image.

What has struck me since the last blog? What is in my mind right now are the mowing scenes from Levin’s point of view. Anna has confessed–after the horrendous horse race, at the end of which Vronsky’s horse has to be put down because he has broken her back– to her husband that she is Vronsky’s mistress. He has decided to not divorce her because it would hurt his career but then said to himself that this is in accord with religion and feels proud of that.

But the mowing. Levin uses the scythe with his peasants and mows meadows all day and the descriptions of the work and the people are just beautiful:

“The work went on and on. Some of the swaths were long, others were shorter; here the grass was good, there it was poor. Levin absolutely lost all idea of time and knew not whether it was early or late. In his work a change now began to be visible, and this afforded him vast satisfaction. While he was engaged in this labor there were moments during which he forgot what he was doing and it seemed easy to him, and during these moments his swath came out almost as even and perfect as that done by Sef. But as soon as he became conscious of what he was doing and strove to do better, he immediately began to feel all the difficulty of the work and his swath became poor. . . . The labor seemed lighter to him during the heat of the day. The sweat in which he was bathed refreshed him; and the sun, burning his back, his head, and his arms bared to the elbow, gave him force and tenacity for his work. More and more frequently the moments of oblivion, of unconsciousness of what he was doing, came back to him; the scythe went of itself. Those were happy moments. Then, still more gladsome were the moments when, coming to the river where the windrows ended, the old man, wiping his scythe with the moist, thick grass, rinsed the steel in the river, then, dipping up a ladleful of the cool water, gave it to Levin.

“‘This is my kvas! It’s good, isn’t it?’ he exclaimed, winking.

“And, indeed, it seemed to Levin that he had never tasted any liquor more refreshing than this lukewarm water, in which grass floated, and tasting of the rusty tin cup.”

This is Tolstoy in his best “fox” mode, just describing life as it is lived, not worrying about saving the world.

Here are some quotes and whatever thoughts occur from Wilson’s Tolstoy:

“But the letter [to a friend while in Paris] was unfinished. The next day, he was–by his own confession–‘stupid and callous’ enough to go and witness a public execution by guillotine. It was an experience paralleled by Dostoyevsky’s Idiot, Prince Myshkin, who also saw a beheading in France. When Tolstoy returned to finish his letter to Botkin he had to admit that his whole mood had changed. ‘I’ve seen many horrible things in war and in the Caucasus, but if a man had been torn to pieces before my eyes it wouldn’t have been so revolting as this ingenious and elegant machine by means of which a strong, hale and hearty man was killed in an instant.”

This reminds me of the book I read on Camus by Alice Kaplan, Looking for The Stranger, in which she noted Camus’ revulsion at capital punishment. Part of this was that all he knew about his father was that he had witnessed an execution by guillotine and been made ill by it.

Wilson, discussing the story, “The Cossacks”: “It was the habitual process by which Tolstoy made experience into fiction. Events and experiences of the present, or near past, were fed back into the distant past. The little boy in Childhood is, in many ways, really a young man in the Caucasus. That actual young man in the Caucasus would become, when the time came to revise The Cossacks, a much more innocent fellow than Tolstoy had been.”

This reminds me of something I’ve noticed before, that many writers, especially, I think, male writers, make their protagonists, who often resemble them, more innocent than they were in real life when you read their biographies. Saul Bellow, for instance. I am reading Henderson the Rain King for the second time, and I have read Seize the Day, Herzog, Humboldt’s Gift, Mr. Sammler’s Planet, and The Dean’s December. In all of those novels, the main character resembles Bellow in certain ways though it’s obvious there are differences, that he is creating a character. And none of the main characters, as best as I remember it, are philanderers, habitual cheaters on their wives. But Bellow, it appears, from what I’ve read, was; not on a Bill Clinton level but he did fool around. Now what strikes me is that he never wrote, as far as I know, a novel about a man who did the same. For someone whose characters always seem to be on a quest for the truth, for authenticity, this strikes me as odd. Not that I still don’t enjoy and love his novels, but it makes me wonder about his sincerity. Perhaps we all have things about ourselves we don’t want to face, and that was his; or perhaps he just realized that would make his protagonists unappealing and he was presenting a character to be identified with.

Wilson calls Tolstoy’s habit, “laundering” the past. That’s a good word for it, I think. And perhaps we all do it. Perhaps, in a way, it’s a good thing in that it indicates that one is not smugly proud of it as John Updike seems to have been.

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