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Tolstoy Journal, May 23, 2017: There is little joy in the Tolstoys’ family life.

Now I am up to page 150 of Volume X of the Novels and Other Works of Lyof N. Tolstoi, or Chapter XI of Boyhood. I also read the first 15 pages of A Sentimental Journey, which in the Penguin Edition I have means I’m still in the introduction. On the face of it, I can’t think of two writers who would seem to be more different than Tolstoy and Sterne. Will have to read this book then go back and read Wilson to understand the influence.

What struck me in last night’s reading was when the narrator talks about how when you are in a family so much communication is done without words. In Anna Karenina, Levin says the same thing about his brother, Nikolai, and I think in both works Tolstoy is talking about him and his brothers.

“Who has not remarked those secret, wordless relations which are shown in an imperceptible smile, a motion, or a glance, between people who live together constantly, brothers, friends, husband and wife, master and servant, and particularly when these people are not in every respect frank with each other! How many unuttered desires, thoughts, and fears–of being understood–are expressed in one casual glance when our eyes meet timidly and irresolutely!” That’s from Chapter V of Boyhood.

Here was another passage I liked, describing how the narrator felt after talking with Katenka, the daughter of a servant, who fears that she and her mother will have to go live somewhere else since the mother of the family has died.

“Has it ever happened to you, reader, to perceive, all at once, at a certain period of your life, that your view of things has entirely changed, as though all the objects which you had seen hitherto had suddenly turned another, unknown side to you? This species of moral change took place in me for the first time during our journey [from the country to Moscow], from which epoch I date the beginning of my boyhood.

“For the first time a distinct idea entered my head that not we, that is to say, our family, alone inhabited this world; that all interests did not revolve about us; and that there exists another life of people who have nothing in common with us, who care nothing for us, who have no idea of our existence even. No doubt, I had known all this before; but I had not known it as I knew it now. I did not acknowledge it or feel it.”

This is the kind of passage Tolstoy does so well, says something so obvious and true, that it seems to me is not often said nowadays. I’ve been wondering why I haven’t been reading fiction as I get older; I’m not sure why, but one of the reasons is that so much contemporary fiction seems issue-centered and/or clever, “brain-spun,” as Tolstoy phrased it. There’s not enough anguish or wisdom or something–I don’t know–behind it. It seems thin. Watered down.

All right, time for some more passages from Talks With Tolstoy:

p 49: “Often L. N.’s corrections are written so closely that a magnifying glass has to be used to read them. Unless one has seen L. N.’s incredible work, the numerous passages that are rewritten, the additions and alterations, the same incident being sometimes written dozens of times over, one can have not the remotest idea of this labour.”

p. 50: “‘Let every one do his own work, if only it does not clash sharply with his convictions, and let him try to become better and better in his own situation, and then he will find new ways of life into the bargain. For the most part, all the external side of life must be neglected; one should not bother about it. Do your own work.'”

pp. 50-51: “I can’t understand how any one can write without rewriting everything over and over again. I scarcely ever re-read my published writings, but if by chance I come across a page, it always strikes me: All this must be rewritten; this is how I should have written it. . . .

“‘I am always interested to trace the moment, which comes quite early, when the public is satisfied; and the artist thinks: They say it is good; but it is just at this point that the real work begins!'”

Okay here is another unpopular sentiment, one that reminds me of C. S. Lewis’s point of view.

p. 53: “‘The modern family is like a tiny little boat sailing in a storm on the vast ocean. It can keep afloat if it is ruled by one will. . . . In woman a great evil is terribly highly developed–family egotism. It is a dreadful egotism, for it commits the greatest cruelties in the name of love; as if to say, let the whole world perish so that my Serge may be happy! . . .'”

Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity that the man should be the head of the family because he is more just to those outside the family. In The Four Loves, he said family love, as all loves, become demons when they are put above the love of God; when they are made gods they become demons. I don’t think he distinguished the demonization of family love–it strikes me that it is like nationalism, my country is number one!–as far as who was more prone to it, except that women, being mothers, tend toward it more perhaps. I think both sexes do it, just in different ways.

p. 54: “‘Man’s deeds are good, not in themselves, but because of the feelings which inspire him. That’s why I do not understand the desire of women to be doctors, trained nurses, midwives, as though by becoming a midwife everything is settled for the best.'”

p. 55: “There is little joy in the Tolstois’ family life, and to an intimate friend this is extremely marked.”

That, to me, is the saddest line in the whole book. I think it was so because of the discord between Tolstoy and his wife: she was focused on the family and he was focused on God. It sounds as though she was mentally unstable–from what I’ve read so far, but I still have more reading to do–but he was a very acerbic criticizing sort of man. Good at tearing down but not building up.


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