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Tolstoy Journal, August 5, 2017: Is Russian about to explode?

The featured image is of a review copy of Tolstoy and Tolstaya: A Portrait of a Life in Letters edited by Andrew Donskov. I read a review of it in the The Literary Review of Canada (via Prufrock News, I believe) and was able to have a publication sponsor me to get a copy of it. So I get to review this sumptuously done book and deepen my journey into Tolstoy.

I am up to page 109 of Volume XV of The Novels and Other Works of Lyof N. Tolstoi. I am in the midst of reading stories for children and wonder if these are the ones he wrote with the children he taught. In this volume I have read “The Long Exile,” “What Men Live By,” Yermak, the Conqueror of Siberia,” “Desire Stronger Than Necessity,” “Stories of My Dogs,” “Early Days,” “Scenes From Common Life,” and am now in “Stories From Physics.” They are simple and well-told, these latter stories for children.

The scene that sticks in my mind is from a piece entitled, “Humidity.”

“Why does the spider sometimes make a closely spun web and sit in the very center of its nest, and why does it sometimes come out of its nest and spin a new web?

“The spider makes its web according as the weather is at the time, and as it is going to be. By examining its web one can predict what the weather will be; if the spider hides itself away deep down in its nest and does not come out, it means rain. If it emerges from its nest and spins new threads, it means that it will be fine.

“How can the spider tell in advance what the weather will be?

“Its sensibilities are so delicate that as soon as the atmosphere begins to have greater humidity, even though this humidity is not perceptible to us, and to us the weather is still clear, the spider perceives that rain is coming.”

I finished reading Andrew Kaufman’s Understanding Tolstoy and as soon as I am done transcribing passages from Wilson’s Tolstoy I plan on doing the same for passages from Kaufman. Meanwhile I want to finish up C. S. Lewis’s comments on Tolstoy.

Here is Lewis on AK:

“By the way, how I hate all the great mistresses except Helen–Isoud, Guinevere, Anna Karenina: and how much nicer to be the cuckold than the lover if one had to be either! Poor old Vronski!”

Well, all I can say here is I disagree about Anna. I don’t particularly like her but I don’t hate her either. I like her a lot more than Madame Bovary, that’s for sure. As Kaufman says in his book, there are a lot of similarities between Levin and Anna, both, in their own ways, are free spirits.

Here is a passage Lewis wrote about Resurrection:

“I has started a Tolstoi novel wh. one never hears of called Resurrection wh. I think is going to be at least as good (tho’ not so long) as War and Peace. Don’t you think the following really excellent. The hero is surprised to find that an old flame of his who has since become a prostitute is not in the least ashamed of her profession. The author continues ‘People who are put in a condition, form such a view of life in general that their position appears to them good and respectable. In order to support such a view, they instinctively cling to that circle in which it is accepted. Maslova had formed such a conception. It consisted in the view that the chief good of all men without exception lay in sexual intercourse. For ten years she had seen that all men needed her: she neither saw nor noticed those men who did not. She valued this conception of life more than anything in the world, because if she changed it she wd. lose the importance it gave her.’

“Needless to say, Tolstoi goes on to point out that the trait is not peculiar to prostitutes. But doesn’t it throw a flood of light on the conversation of nearly everyone? I never understood before the passion with wh. a man like Weldon maintains universal selfishness or a fox hunter defends hunting. . . . I seem to get more passages of this sort of penetration in Tolstoi than in any other author–certainly any other novelist.”

That last line was the one I remembered Lewis having written. A high compliment. I wonder if he read Tolstoy’s religious works? At some point I will have to re-read Lewis’s essay arguing against pacifism in the light of Tolstoy’s argument for it.

Here is Lewis’s last line on Resurrection: “I have finished Resurrection which rather tails off at the end but is well worth reading.” This is interesting because Tolstoy did stop working hard on it towards the end; he wanted to publish it and use the money for charity.

Here is another passage about War and Peace, again to Arthur Greeves to whom he had first written about the book. By my count, this is the fourth time Lewis has read it: “I’ve just finished re-reading War & Peace. The great beauty of long books is that however often you read them there are still large tracts you have forgotten.”

I wonder if Lewis saw how deep a writer Tolstoy was but rejected the didactic essays because they were too radical. Lewis was not a radical man, although in Mere Christianity he did question the role of usury in our society and said a Christian society would probably have a lot more social programs than conservatives would like; he also said it would have a lot more hierarchy and traditions than liberals would like.

Here is another Wilson quote:

p. 458: “But he recognised that in Resurrection Tolstoy had composed the most unforgettable assault on the Russian Imperial regime. Both abroad and in Russia, Resurrection was more widely disseminated than anything Tolstoy had previously written. For every person who had read War and Peace there were twenty who had read Resurrection; and the book makes it abundantly clear that Russia is about to explode. The medicines prescribed by it may be foolish; the diagnosis of the illness was accurate.”

One wonders if Russia is about to explode again.


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