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Tolstoy Journal, July 31, 2017: Back to Basics

The featured image is of The Portable Tolstoy edited by John Bayley, which I bought for a dollar at our local library’s annual book sale. Today I am at page 240 of Volume XIV of The Novels and Other Works of Lyof N. Tolstoi and plan on finishing it today and starting Volume XV tomorrow. I am in the midst of the story “Skazka,” which I have already read as “Ivan the Fool” in The Gospel in Tolstoy. It is a very funny story. The last story is “The Story of Yemilyan and the Empty Drum,” which I also read in the same volume. And I should finish Andrew D. Kaufman’s Understanding Tolstoy soon.

What struck me in recent reading was how the story “The Godson” was a pure fairy tale, strictly told for a moral, which was spelled out for you, and yet the story was still haunting and beautiful. I have no problem with Tolstoy’s didactic work. It’s a different genre than realistic fiction, that’s all. In my opinion he does well and truly whatever he does.

I’ve also been thinking, and wrote in my journal about it, and perhaps in here, but will say it again, that reading Tolstoy always refreshes my soul. And then we went camping for a night this weekend in Vermont, and while sitting there staring at the fire I thought what is good about camping is how it gets you back to basics. You go on hikes and climb fire towers, you go up the mountain and down, resting on logs and boulders, drinking water as you go, then you come down the mountain. Then you build a fire and cook your meal. You get ready for bed, you stare at the fire, you talk and joke and tell stories. “Remember when?” You go to sleep and wish you had bought a camp cushion. You rise with the birds and the sun, you build another fire and cook your meal.

And then this morning while writing in my journal it occurred to me that the same is true for reading Tolstoy. He gets you back to basics. He has been called the seer of the flesh because of how well he portrays the physical side of life, work, meals, weather, landscapes, love, war, animals, houses, hunts, etc. et. al. but he also gets back to basics in philosophy and religion and art: how should we live, worship, create.

So I thought there was a parallel there, a similarity. Back to basics, refreshment of the soul. It has to do with simplicity too. Kids and animals refresh too, nature does. I remember in a Ray Bradbury book, Dandelion Wine, when the boy feels depressed his grandfather tells him to run around the house a few times and he’ll feel better.

I cannot find a good passage to quote from “The Godson,” it is too much of piece but here are the passages I underlined in Tolstoy’s July 31st entry in his A Calendar of Wisdom.

If Christians would follow the law, there would be no rich and no poor.

“Wealth reminds me of manure in the field. When it is in a big pile it makes a bad smell. But when it is distributed everywhere across the field, it makes the soil fertile.”

“A person must completely close his eyes on his morals, that in a Christian society so filled with people in need, there are other people who are so proud to have great wealth.”

Here are some more passages from A. N. Wilson’s Tolstoy:

“Vasily Andreyich Brekhunov (brekhun means a liar) dies having discovered that his life has been based on a misconception of the truth [Wilson is talking about the story “Master and Man”]. Nikita survives to see his children and his children’s children. And in the final sentences which follow Nikita’s death, Tolstoy looks towards the unknown future life, of whose existence, in his non-fictional works, he had begun to concede the possibility. ‘Is it better or worse for him there, where he has woken up–this time after his actual death? Is he disappointed, or has he found the very thing he has been waiting for? We shall all find out soon enough.’ Again, one gets the feeling that this conclusion owes a large amount to Dickens–whose novels all presuppose a state of future blessedness in which innocent sufferers are consoled–than to any elaborately worked out metaphysic. For sophisticates, the ‘points’ of the tale will seem too heavily laboured. I am not of their number. Tolstoy must have known, when he finished it, that he had achieved something which, in this particular mode, could not be bettered. Even those who deprecate the moralising conclusion would concede that there could be few more vivid accounts of weather in the whole of literature.”

I have written about “Master and Man” in this blog already, even though I have not read it in my present Tolstoy journey yet. Long ago, when I first read it I loved it except for the ending which I thought was contrived. Loved the story but the end soured it just a bit. Wilson is right about the weather and I would add the same about drinking tea. There can be “few more vivid accounts” of drinking tea in all of literature. But recently when I read just the ending it struck me as genuine and true. So I am very interested to see how it strikes me this time I read it.

I just learned that Sam Shepard had died. I didn’t really know his work as a writer, just a few stories that were very good, especially one I read in The New Yorker about a guy walking away from a family party where everyone is driving him crazy and he goes to a grocery store to get something for the party and goes to the produce section and stands in the mist-spray and finds something real there that he can’t find at the party. I think he goes back and shoots someone at the party. And I had seen him as Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff and as a farmer in a movie the name of which I’ve forgotten but he was great in both roles. May he rest in peace.



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