Blog Post

Tolstoy Journal, June 1, 2017: “The sense of shame is lost.”

The photograph is of the video I wrote about yesterday. It looks kind of hokey but it was a moving video to watch with the kids.

I got my reading done, finished both Volume X of The Novels and Other Works of Lyof N. Tolstoi and A Sentimental Journey by Laurence Sterne, one of Tolstoy’s favorite books. This month I have 604 pages to read, Volumes XI and XII, so that comes out to 20 pages or so a day. And I will read 20 pages a day from one of my travel books also. I have taken Volume 1 of the Simmons biography from the shelf, will try to read those until both are done, though I might detour into other books.

What struck me about this last thirty pages of Youth? First thing that pops into my head is Tolstoy’s relentless honesty about himself and others. He has some wonderful descriptions of nature in these pages, nature and people and his own adolescent character. The narrator talks about how his father marries a neighbor lady who soon drives the father crazy because all she wants to do is live for his love, to sacrifice everything for him, etc. The narrator goes to his first semester of university, is an insufferable snob but somehow ingratiates himself into a group of poor but intelligent scholars; he fails out nevertheless. He describes an official “carouse,” drinking party during which he feels sure that everyone else is as bored as he is and fakes having a good time just to fit in with everyone else. Tolstoy is a master–how many times have I said that?–of showing the plight of the individual standing out from the herd, not understanding how the herd, the group of people, can give up their individuality for the group. I’m not sure he meant it to be in a certain sense, but I think it is one of his main themes.

“But I remember chiefly that in the course of the evening I constantly felt that I was behaving very stupidly in feigning to be very jolly, to be very fond of drinking a great deal, and did not think of being drunk, and all the time I felt that the others were behaving very foolishly in pretending the same. It seemed to me that it was disagreeable for each one individually, as it was for me; but as each supposed that he alone experienced this disagreeable sensation, he considered himself bound to feign gayety in order not to interfere with the general jollity. Moreover, strange to say, I felt that dissimulation was incumbent on me simply because three bottles of champagne at ten rubles apiece, and ten bottles of run at four rubles, had been poured into the soup-tureen, which amounted to seventy rubles, besides the supper. I was so fully convinced of this, that I was very much surprised the next day at the lecture, when my comrades who had been at Baron Z.’s not only were not ashamed to mention that they had been there, but talked about the party so that other students could hear. They said that it was a splendid carouse; that the Dorpat fellows were great hands at these things, and that twenty men had drunk forty bottles of rum between them and that many had been left for dead under the tables. I could not understand why they talked about it, and even lied about themselves.”

A lot of what Tolstoy does is to proclaim that the emperor has no clothes.

Here are some passages from Talks With Tolstoy:

p. 90: “‘The sense of shame is lost. I cannot call it anything else–the sense of aesthetic shame.'”

I’m not sure why I thought of this now, but I have been meaning to mention how when I read Tolstoy’s simple fables, tales, and fairy tales, I often feel joyful, a simple plain joyfulness. I feel happier after I’ve read them. That’s a pretty amazing gift, to be able to write that way.

p. 92: “‘I listened [to a conversation] and said to myself: This is how one ought to write for the stage. It is not one speaking and the others listening. It is never like that. It is necessary that all should speak, and the art of the writer consists in making what he wants run through it like a beautiful thread.'”

Which, I think, is what Hemingway was after in his dialogue. Speaking of Hemingway, I want to devote one of these blogs, maybe more, to Hemingway on Tolstoy.

p. 96: “Of Chekhov Tolstoi said:

“‘He is a strange writer: he throws words about as if at random, and yet everything is alive. And what understanding! He never has any superfluous details; every one of them is either necessary or beautiful.'”

p. 100: “‘I am always afraid of falling into the old man’s habit of being unable to appreciate or to understand the present. But I try my best and genuinely can find no beauty in the modern tendencies of art.'”

pp. 105-106: “‘I think that every great artist necessarily creates his own form also. If the content of works of art can be infinitely varied, so also can their form. Once Turgenev and I came back from the theatre in Paris and discussed this. He completely agreed with me. We recalled all that is best in Russian literature and it seemed that in these works the form was perfectly original. Omitting Pushkin, let us take Gogol’s Dead Souls. What is it? Neither a novel nor a story. It is a something perfectly original. There there is the Memoirs of a Sportsman, the best book Turgenev ever wrote; then Dostoevsky’s House of the Dead, and then, sinner that I am, my Childhood; Hertzen’s Past and Thoughts; Lermontov’s Hero of our Time. . . . ‘”

p. 109: “‘I remember how a long time ago some one gave me a travelling candlestick for a present. When I showed the candlestick to our Yasnaya Polyana carpenter, he looked at it, looked again, and then sighed and said: “It is crude stuff!” The same applies to my present work: it is crude stuff.'” He was working on Hadji-Murat.


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