Sunday, September 9, 2012


Today is Tolstoy’s birthday. I like this description of him given by Professor Nabokov in Lectures on Russian Literature:

Count Leo (in Russian Lev or Lyov) Tolstoy (1828-1910) was a robust man with a restless soul, who all his life was torn between his sensual temperament and his supersensitive conscience. His appetites constantly led him astray from the quiet country road that the ascetic in him craved to follow as passionately as the rake in him craved for the city pleasures of the flesh.

In his youth, the rake had a better chance and took it. Later, after his marriage in 1862, Tolstoy found temporary peace in family life, divided between the wise management of his fortune—he had rich lands in the Volga region—and the writing of his best prose.

Tolstoy’s miracle, as has often been observed, is the sense of life, of lived reality, that permeates his best work, especially Anna Karenina. Open that enormous novel to any page and start reading and you will instantly feel you are in the midst of the characters’ lives, as life is lived daily, in motion—both outward and inward motion. This lifelikeness or “actuality” (as Lionel Trilling called it) has been attributed to various causes: Trilling credited Tolstoy’s moral vision and affection for his characters, Nabokov pointed to Tolstoy’s handling of time.

James Wood has focused on “the physicality of Tolstoy’s details”—brought to the fore in Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s translation of Anna Karenina, which Wood praised in the New Yorker in 2001. As he points out, Tolstoy “is not interested in telling us what things look like to him [emphasis added], and he is not interested in telling us what else they resemble. This is why he eschews simile and metaphor at these moments of physical description.”

I particularly like Wood’s observation that Tolstoy’s descriptive details portray signs of wear on everyday objects, reflecting their ongoing use and, by extension, the lived day-to-day reality of which they are a part. Furniture, clothing, other household possessions, as well as the objects in the world beyond the home, are all seen in an ongoing state of existence, whether new or used or aged—and here we cross paths again with Nabokov’s consideration of time as a key element; and, as time means for humans a progression toward death, we recall Trilling’s view that it is Tolstoy’s humane feeling for his characters, his moral vision, that is the crux of the matter. The three factors intertwine; the rooms have been lived in and are being lived in; the book is being lived in; and as we read it we enter and live in it too, to a greater extent than with any other author.

Photos: Tolstoy in 1848 (upper) and 1854 (lower), at the ages of approximately twenty and twenty-six—when, as Nabokov put it, “the rake had a better chance and took it.”

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