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Tolstoy Journal, June 16, 2017: Joyce and Tolstoy

In honor of Bloomsday I am featuring James Joyce in the image today. I already have a blog about how highly he thought of Tolstoy here. Which always kind of surprised me because sometimes I think of Joyce as a sort of amoral writer, but, really, he wasn’t. He didn’t believe in dogma but he did believe in goodness and being kind. Leopold Bloom is a kind man concerned about individuals, willing to stand up to ignorant prejudice.

I have read up to page 300 of Volume XI of The Novels and Other Works of Lyof N. Tolstoi. Or Chapter XII of “Sevastopol in August.” Grim stuff, indeed. All about the difference between the romance and glory of war contrasted with the reality.

“Volodya was not precisely out of sorts when, nearly at nightfall, they reached the great bridge over the bay, but he felt a certain heaviness at his heart. All that he had heard and seen was so little in consonance with the impressions which had recently passed away: the huge, light examination hall, with its polished floor, the kind and merry voices and laughter of his comrades, the new uniform, his beloved Tzar, whom he had been accustomed to see for the last seven years, and who, when he took leave of them had called them his children, with tears in his eyes,–and everything that he had seen so little resembled his very beautiful, rainbow-hued, magnificent dreams. . . . ”

After crossing a bridge and visiting a hospital filled with the groaning of wounded soldiers and the smells that go along with them, Volodya, a new recruit, goes toward the front with his servant, Nikolaeff.

“‘They will kill me, I shall be tortured, I shall suffer, and no one will weep.’ And all this, instead of the hero’s life, filled with energy and sympathy, of which he had cherished such glorious dreams. The bombs burst and shrieked nearer and even nearer. Nikolaeff sighed more frequently, without breaking the silence. As he crossed the bridge leading to the Korabelnaya, he saw something fly screaming into the bay, not far from him, which lighted up the lilac waves for an instance with a crimson glow, then disappeared, and then rose thence in a cloud of foam.”

There was another horrible fascinating moment in another section of “Sevastopol in May,” that I just remembered, which describes the moment before death of an officer. It reminded me of a similar scene in War and Peace when Prince Andrei sees the bomb land near him and spin around and an eternity of thoughts sweeps through his mind. There were a couple of passages I wanted to pick out.

“Mikhailoff and Praskukhin threw themselves on the ground. Praskukhin shut his eyes, and only heard the bomb crash against the hard earth somewhere in the vicinity. A second passed, which seemed an hour–and the bomb had not burst. Praskukhin was alarmed; had he felt cowardly for nothing? Perhaps the bomb had fallen at a distance, and it merely seemed to him that the fuse was hissing near him. He opened his eyes, and saw with satisfaction that Mikhailoff was lying motionless on the earth, at his very feet. But then his eyes encountered for a moment the glowing fuse of the bomb, which was twisting about at a distance of an arshin [twenty-eight inches] from him.

“A cold horror, which excluded every other thought and feeling, took possession of his whole being. He covered his face with his hands.

“Another second passed–a second in which a whole world of thoughts, feelings, hopes, and memories flashed through his mind.”

Tolstoy takes a page and a half after this to describe the thoughts of Praskukhin and his fairly immediate death.

And then there is this paragraph, in which we here the prophet speaking:

“I like it when any warrior who destroys millions to gratify his ambition is called a monster. Only question any Ensign Petrushkoff, and Sub-Lieutenant Antonoff, and so on, on their word of honor, and every one of them is a petty Napoleon, a petty monster, and ready to bring on a battle on the instant, to murder a hundred men, merely for the sake of receiving an extra star of an order or an increase of a third in his pay.”

I’m sure this is exaggeration but still true enough to tell.

Here are some more passages from Wilson’s Tolstoy.

p. 278: “It was in the summer of 1874, that is, about a year after the novel’s original inception, that Tolstoy introduced the character of Levin, and the vast subplot which was to balance, or overwhelm, the story of Anna herself. Thereafter, the simplicity of the book, its self-contained shape, was to be exploded into something altogether grander and more diffuse. ‘It is Levin,’ John Bayley remarks in his telling phrase, ‘who liberates the novel from itself.'”

p. 280: “And yet Professor Bayley is right. . . . One can make too much of this, and take too seriously Henry James’s fastidious dismissal of Tolstoy’s ‘loose, baggy monsters’. There is more ‘structure’ in Anna Karenina than in the novels of Dickens and Trollope. The Jamesian perception of the unities in fiction formed no part of the syllabus in the chaos where Tolstoy went to school And one has to recognise, moreover, that in many of the diary passages in Anna Karenina–extensions of his diary mode is all they are really–there are scenes of unrivalled vividness and realism.”

p. 281: “Self-preoccupation was the beginning and the end of Tolstoy’s character, and it is out of the self, purely and not tirelessly, that the novel was born. ‘The longer Levin went on mowing, the oftener he felt moments of oblivion, in which his arms did not seem to move the scythe, but the scythe itself, his whole body, so conscious of itself, so full of life, and as if by magic, regularly and definitely without a thought being given to it, the work did itself of its own accord. These were the most blessed moments.'”

 

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