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Tolstoy Journal: May 1, 2017: “The mere thought of these details made a cold chill run down his back.”

The above is the frontispiece of Volume IX of The Novels and Other Works of Lyof N. Tolstoi; it is called, “The Scene in the Freight-House,” and is by E. Boyd Smith. So, I finished read Volume VIII last night, right on schedule! This month the two volumes I have to read are a bit longer than usual, 776 pages total. This means I have 25 pages to read a day. A little harder but then this is Tolstoy I’m reading.

The pages I read last night were harrowing. They described the death of Levin’s brother, Nikolai. What makes it harrowing? That he described everything in detail, slowly, not with an eye to shocking or grossing the reader out, but to just portraying what it was like. There are a couple of passages that stood out to me, which I will quote, but I also remembered the pages before these that I read but did not blog about.

The part I just remembered was about Vronsky and Anna living in Italy and meeting a would-be writer and a real painter. Tolstoy draws a contrast between Vronsky, the would-be painter, and the real painter. The latter, when painting, is all business, no more Mr. Nice Guy, as he was in his studio, and also that when the would-be writer refers to technique, the real painter has no idea what he’s talking about and thinks something like, What do they always mean when they talk about technique? For the real painter, there is just working at it till it looks right but never being satisfied with it. The other interesting part was that the would-be writer is shown as never giving up, not letting go despite his failure (and Tolstoy implies his never-ending future failures) whereas Vronsky, a more open and generous and decisive spirit, once he sees the real artist’s portrait of Anna, realizes that he, Vronsky, is not artist and freely and happily gives it up.

Now back to the two passages that stood out: one is about what Tolstoy views as the difference between men and women, one which, in general, I think is true; the other is a description of Levin having to turn his brother over. The one thing about Tolstoy is that he is in no hurry. He takes his time.

Here is the passage about the different ways Levin and his wife approach his dying brother: “The mere thought of these details [such as, “the horrid odor,” “the uncleanliness and disorder,” his brother’s groans] made a cold chill run down his [Levin’s] back; he was undoubtedly persuaded in his own mind that it was impossible to do anything either to prolong his life or to lighten his sufferings, and the sick man, feeling instinctively that his brother was powerless to help him, was irritated. And this made it all the harder for Levin. To be in the sick-room was painful to him; to be away from it was still worse. And he kept leaving the room under various pretexts, and coming back again, for he was unable to stay alone by himself.

“Kitty thought, felt, and acted in an entirely different way: as soon as she saw the sick man, she was filled with pity for him, and this pity in her womanly heart, instead of arousing a sense of fear or repulsion as it did in her husband’s case, moved her to act, moved her to find out all the details of his condition and to ameliorate them. And as she had not the slightest doubt that it was her duty to help him, neither did she doubt the possibility of it, and she set herself to work without delay.”

Here is the passage about turning his brother over: “Levin, terrible as it was to him to put his arms around this frightful body, to feel what he did not wish to feel under the coverlid, submitted to his wife’s influence, and assuming that resolute air which she knew so well, and putting in his arms, took hold of him; but in spite of all his strength he was amazed at the strange weight of these emaciated limbs. While he was, with difficulty, changing his brother’s position, Nikolai threw his arms around his neck, and Kitty quickly turned the pillows so as to make the bed more comfortable, and carefully arranged his head and his thin hair, which was again sticking to his temples.

“Nikolai kept one of his brother’s hands in his. Levin felt that the sick man was going to do something with his hand and was drawing it toward him. His heart sank within him! Yes, Nikolai put it to his lips and kissed it! Then, shaken with sobs, Levin hurried from the room, without being able to utter a word.”

Sometimes when I read Tolstoy, I wonder why read anyone else? It’s all here.

But I did finish George Steiner’s Tolstoy or Dostoevsky: An Essay in the Old Criticism [as opposed to what was then the New Criticism] over the weekend and it was an amazing piece of criticism. The short take is that Tolstoy saw himself as a Homer and strove to make his work epic-like, and although he said he was a Christian, he was basically a pagan in his soul. Dostoevsky, on the other hand, was more like Shakespeare; his writing is dramatic and he was Christian, albeit slightly heterodox, through and through. Steiner comes down on the side of Dostoevsky as being more true to the heights and depths of the truth about humankind. Tomorrow I will record the best quotes from his book. Yesterday, interestingly enough, I read a review of Steiner’s latest book–the man is almost in his 90s! Here it is: Last of the Great Elitists. I got this review via Arts and Letters Daily. The writer points out that Steiner writes for the general reader not for his fellow academics in esoteric jargon-speak. This most recent book is a series of interviews with Steiner.

 

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