The map above is from the Modern Library edition of The Cossacks, a translation by Peter Constantine with an introduction by Cynthia Ozick from which I want to include passages in here.
I think took another good step in thinking about the book I will write next year based on this blog. I had already picked out Geoff Dyer’s book about D. H. Lawrence, Out of Sheer Rage. I was thinking about getting the book on Montaigne by Sarah Bakewell but then thought, no, I want it to be more personal. Then I thought of books I had that were the sort of mix of memoir, literary criticism, biography, and personal tribute that I vaguely have in mind for my book on Tolstoy. I thought of Henry Miller’s The Time of the Assassins, about Rimbaud, which is better than The Books in My Life because it is about one writer not a hundred. Then came Pico Iyer’s The Man Inside My Head, about Graham Greene, then Horace and Me by Harry Eyres, then Nikolai Gogol by Nabokov. So that made five and I felt I needed to have six because a long time ago I read a book on writing by Lawrence Block about how you should start writing in a genre, pick six books from that genre and read them first then start writing. And because I feel this need to follow “rules,” or guidelines, I thought, I need one more model book for this genre I want to write in and I would like it to be a book I don’t need to buy because I already have it. I went to the bookshelves in the living room and lo and behold, there was The Magician’s Book by Laura Miller, which is about C. S. Lewis. And there I have it, six books to read and re-read and be my guides or models for the book I want to write about Tolstoy. I’m not sure about the Gogol book but despite its faults I still love the book.
All right, so back to Tolstoy. I have read up to page 80 of Volume XI of The Novels and Other Works of Lyof N. Tolstoi, or Chapter XVI of The Cossacks. I also read another 20 pages in Volume I of Simmons’ biography of Tolstoy so am up to p. 250 in there.
What strikes me about The Cossacks? Well, the first thing I thought of was that in real life, Tolstoy went with his brother to the Caucasus, but Olyenin goes only with his personal servant. Then the other thing is that after the first chapter or two of the novel–I called it a novella the other day, but it is 201 pages in this volume and that is really a short novel–Tolstoy shifts abruptly from Olyenin’s point of view to an omniscient one of exposition about the Cossacks and their villages and then to a description of three Cossacks and how one of them kills a Chechen. He also introduces us to the family Olyenin will stay with. It seems a bit clumsy, at first, because you are wondering what the hell happened to Olyenin? When he comes back in Tolstoy tells you he has experienced a lot in three months and looks healthy, has forgotten his first-world, so to speak, problems, etc. It works anyway and that’s what matters.
Here is a passage from The Cossacks that describes the scene after Lukashka, a young Cossack, kills a Chechen warrior:
“No one had anything to say, and again the angel of silence spread her wings over the Cossacks.
“The sun had now risen, and its broken rays flecked the dewy green. The Terek murmured as it flowed not far away through the awakening forest. On all sides the pheasants cried to one another, greeting the morn.
“The Cossacks, silent and motionless, stood around the dead man and looked at him. The cinnamon-colored body, in wet blue drawers alone, now made darker by the water, and belted tight about the hollow belly, was well proportioned and beautiful.
“His muscular arms lay rigidly along his ribs. His livid, closely shaven, round head, with the clotted wound in the temple, was bent back. The smooth, sunburnt brow was sharply defined against the line where the shaven hair began. The glassy, open eyes, with deep-set pupils, gazed up, as if beyond them. A good-natured, shrewd smile seemed still to hover over the thin, curling lips, half covered by the red, clipped mustache. The small finger joints were covered with reddish hairs; the fingers were doubled in and the nails were tinged with red.
“Lukashka was not yet dressed; he was dripping wet [because he had waded into the river to retrieve the body]; his neck was redder and his eyes gleamed brighter than usual; his wide, broad cheeks trembled; from his fair healthy body arose a scarcely perceptible vapor into the cool morning air.
“‘He also was a man,’ he observed, evidently admiring the abrek.
“‘Yes, if you had fallen into his hands, he would n’t have shown you any mercy,’ replied one of the Cossacks.
“The angel of silence had taken her flight. The Cossacks started on their way, talking as they went. . . .”
Here are some passages from Talks With Tolstoy:
p. 145: “‘ . . . Every man is a perfectly individual being, who has never existed before and will never happen again. It is just the individuality, the singularity of him, which is valuable; but school tries to efface all this and to make man after its own pattern.'”
p. 148: “‘Usually when I begin a new book I am very pleased with it myself and work with great interest. But as the book work goes on, I become more and more bored, and often in rewriting it I omit things, substitute others, not because the new idea is better, but because I get tired of the old. Often I strike out what is vivid and replace it by something dull.'”
I skimmed the Ozick introduction and will go into more detail about it later: short version is that Tolstoy ignored the well-known hatred of Cossacks for Jews, whom they slaughtered when they could, and he also ignored Dreyfus when he could have helped him. But The Cossacks is a beautiful novel we should read nevertheless.