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Tolstoy Journal, June 9, 2017: “The best writers are always strict with themselves.”

I checked out Love and Hatred: The Stormy Marriage of Leo and Sonya Tolstoy from the local library yesterday. Looks to be a good one.

I am still a bit behind on my reading, hope to catch up this weekend. I am up to page 141 of Volume XI of The Novels and Other Works of Lyof N. Tolstoi, or Chapter XXVIII of The Cossacks.

What strikes me from my most recent reading is a theme I enjoy in Tolstoy and others, of how good you feel when you’ve physically exerted yourself. Here is Tolstoy writing about Olyenin’s days.

“It came natural to him to wake with the sun. After drinking his tea and coming out on his porch to admire the mountains, the beauty of the morning, and Maryanka, he would put on his ragged, ox-hide zipun, the well-soaked footgear called porshni, belt on his dagger, take his gun and a pouch of luncheon and tobacco, call his dog, and, at six o’clock in the morning, be off into the forest back of the village.

“Toward seven o’clock in the evening he would return weary and hungry, with five or six pheasants at his belt, sometimes with larger game, and often with the lunch and cigarettes in his pouch untouched. If the thoughts in his brain had been disposed like the cigarettes in his pouch, it could have been readily seen that during all these fourteen hours of wandering not one thought had been disturbed. He would come back morally fresh, vigorous, and perfectly happy. He could not have told what he had been thinking about all that time. Not thoughts, not recollections, not fancies alone, were fermenting in his brain–but snatches of each and all. He would try to recall, he would ask himself, what he had been thinking about. Now he would imagine himself a Cossack working in the gardens with his Cossack spouse, or an abrek in the mountains, or the wild boar even now running before him. And all the time he would be listening, waiting, watching for a pheasant, a boar, or a stag.”

This reminds me of the haying scene in Anna Karenina and also of a passage from Virginia Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary, a passage I have always loved and that has stuck in my memory. Let’s see if I can find it.

Can’t find it. What I remember is that she had been on a long tramp in the woods and was very tired but exhilarated. We could all use more of those tramps I think.

Here are more passages from Talks With Tolstoy:

p. 168: “Of creative activity Tolstoi said:

“‘The worst thing of all is to begin a work with the details; then one gets muddled and loses the power of seeing the whole. One has to behave like Pokhitonov who has spectacles with double glasses divided in two (looking at the distance and at his work), to look now through these and now through those and to put on now the bright and now the dark glasses.'”

Which reminds me of something I have learned about reviewing books. For me, studying the book and underlining passages and taking notes is not the way to go. When I do that with a review book, I get lost amid the trees and have a hell of a time writing the review. Much better to read as fast as I can, trusting I will remember what I need to, and look only for the forest and mostly the forest as I write the review, quoting only the highlights I remember immediately. It’s much better to go digging for a passage than to be lost amid all these passages you have underlined and trying to figure out which one to use.

p. 170: “Tolstoi said:

“‘It is impossible to know anything about God; He is a necessary hypothesis or, more truly speaking, the only possible condition of a right moral life. As an astronomer must base his observations upon the earth as a motionless centre, so also man cannot live rightly and morally without the idea of God. Christ always speaks of God as of a father, that is, as if He were the condition of our existence.'”

p. 175: “Some one mentioned Kant, and Tolstoi said:

“‘What is particularly valuable in Kant is that he always thought for himself. In reading him you deal all the time with his thoughts, and this is extraordinarily valuable.'”

I’ve been thinking I should obtain an anthology of Kant for a travel book.

pp. 175-176: “Tolstoi said:

“‘I am always interested to see what can become obsolete in literature. I am curious to know what in modern literature will see old-fashioned, as, for instance, Karamzin’s “Oh soever!” etc., seems to us now. Within my memory it has become impossible to write a long poem in verse. It seems to me that in time works of art will cease to be invented. It will be a shame to invent a story about a fictitious Ivan Ivanovich or Marie Petrovna. Writers, if such there be, will not invent, but will only describe the significant or interesting things which they have happened to observe in life.'”

This makes think of the contemporary trend of memoir and the upsurge of non-fiction. It is how I personally feel nowadays, more interested in non-fiction than in fiction. This passage also reminded of that odd feeling you get when you look at an old New York Times Bestseller list and none or only one or two of the names is familiar to you. Not much gets through the sieve of time.

p. 182: “Tolstoi asked me about my work, whether I was composing music, and said how bad it was when people force work out of themselves, and how great artists lose by immediately starting a new work when they have finished the old one.

“Tolstoi mentioned Pushkin and said:

“‘The best writers are always strict with themselves. I re-write until I feel that I am beginning to spoil. And then, of course, I leave it alone. And one begins to spoil because at first, when you enjoy your work, whilst it is yours, you apply all your spiritual force to it. Later when the fundamental original idea ceases more and more to be new, and becomes, as it were, someone else’s, it bores you. You begin to try to say something new and your spoil and distort the first idea.'”




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