I have read up to page 127 of Volume X of the Novels and Works of Lyof N. Tolstoi or Chapter III of Boyhood. Really, I’ve come to see, this book is a gathering of three novellas. They are not as good or profound reading as War and Peace or Anna Karenina but still very good and worth reading. I’ve also finished reading Talks With Tolstoy last night and will probably today start reading A Sentimental Journey by Laurence Sterne, one of Tolstoy’s favorite books and one I’ve never read. I am interested to see how much it is like or unlike The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, perhaps the world’s funniest book.
What strikes me about Childhood and the first two chapters of Boyhood. For one, you can see all of Tolstoy here in embryo, so to speak. The same masterful descriptions of people and landscapes, the same tendency to lecturing or didacticism (and the same ability to pull it off, at least for me) and the same tendency toward sentimentality. Yet you have to combine the latter with the same tendency to unflinching devotion to the whole experience. In that way you could say Tolstoy’s sentimentality is just being true to life; sometimes we are sentimental. Our mother dies (this happens in the book) and we miss her and cannot understand how she can be gone, but her body also stinks as it decays.
And this reminds me of one of Tolstoy’s greatest strengths, which is his ability to get inside the mind of a character and describes the flux of consciousness, the mix of thoughts and emotions that show what it’s like to be human from the inside.
As in this passage from Childhood when the narrator has gone into the room where his mother’s body is laid out:
“I could not believe that that was her face. I began to examine it attentively, and little by little I began to recognize the dear familiar features. I shivered with terror when I had convinced myself that it was she; but why were the closed eyes so sunken? Why that dreadful pallor, and the blackish spot beneath the transparent skin on one cheek? Why was the expression of the whole face so stern and cold? Why were the lips so pale, and their outline so very beautiful, so majestic, and so expressive of an unearthly calm that a cold shudder ran down my back and through my hair when I looked upon it?
“I gazed, and felt that some incomprehensible, irresistible power was drawing my eyes to that lifeless face. I did not take my eyes from it, and imagination sketched me a picture of blooming life and happiness. I forgot that the dead body which lay before me, and upon which I stupidly gazed, as upon an object which had nothing in common with me, was she. I fancied her now in one, now in another situation–alive, merry, smiling. Then all at once some feature in the pale face upon which my eyes rested struck me. I recalled the terrible reality, shuddered, but did not cease my gaze. And again visions usurped the place of reality, and again the consciousness of the reality shattered my visions. At length imagination grew weary, it ceased to deceive me; the consciousness of reality also vanished, and I lost my sense. I do not know how long I remained in this state, I do not know in what it consisted; I only know that, for a time, I lost consciousness of my existence, and experienced an exalted, indescribably pleasant and sorrowful delight.”
I would like to include a description of a thunderstorm in Chapter II of Boyhood because it has the same richness of detail, but will move on to Talks With Tolstoy.
p. 42: “‘The following are the chief obstacles which hinder even very remarkable men from creating true works of art: first, professionalism . . . . the school . . . . True art is always original and new, and has no need of preconceived models.'”
p. 43: “The days were spent more or less in this way: After breakfast every one goes to his work.”
p. 45: “‘The mark of foolish people is: when you say anything to them they never answer your words, but keep on repeating their own. . . . Though . . . one has to respect every one. Among the virtues the Chinese place respect first. Simply, without any relation to anything definite. Respect for the individual and for the opinion of every man.'”
pp. 46-47: “‘There is also the superstition of the possibility of a “school” in art. Hence all institutes and academies. The abnormal form which art takes now, however, is not the root of the evil, but one of its symptoms. When the religious conception of life changes, then art, too, will find its true methods.'”
p 48: “‘Besides, compared with the enormously important question of how to live one’s life in the best and most moral way, the question of town or country has no value at all.’
“Before this L. N. said with a smile:
“‘I once said, but you must not talk about it, and I tell it you in secret: woman is generally so bad that the difference between a good and a bad woman scarcely exists.'”
Must stop here at misogyny. The quandary is how someone who wrote so beautifully and sympathetically about women–I’m thinking especially because I read it last night of his portrayal of the family servant, Natalya Savischna, in her grief at the narrator’s mother’s death–could express such hatred of women. But as Wilson writes in his book, you have to accept both in Tolstoy; not approve, but accept as part of him. As when I did my Pecha Kecha and after I sat down Josh Bodwell said, that’s the first time we’ve ever heard the words gonorrhea and Gandhi in the same presentation: that wasn’t me, that was Tolstoy. You could psychoanalyze and say, as I read somewhere, that he hated women because his mother died when he was two and he idolized her, and so hated real women. Or you could talk about patriarchal oppression but neither of those covers the whole truth.