Thursday, September 09, 2010

In Memoriam: Count Leo Tolstoy

As these things go, I'm just not smart enough to read the novels of Leo Tolstoy (who was born on this day in 1828). I can foresee a day, though - having already read everything else ever printed - when I may finally crack and sit down to a few kilos of the stuff, just to see what all the fuss is about. I'm under no delusion beforehand that I'll understand it; then again, I might surprise myself and wonder why I waited so long...

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketI have seen movies based on his novels, however, so I'm not totally ignorant. One of them - Anna Karenina (1935), with Greta Garbo - is among my all-time favourites. If you're in the mood for a lushly photographed love story with the grandmammy of all bummer endings (and a very lean Frederic March in a series of scrummy uniforms), I demand you rent it.

Both an anarchist and a pacifist (which, it turns out, makes an excellent combination), Tolstoy's dissatisfaction with the general phoniness of life - as well as the specific artifice of the aristocracy - sparked in him a passion for both humanism and realism. He tended to avoid the intelligentsia, which is another point in his favour, even though he was obviously very intelligent himself*. Tolstoy was among the first novelists to bring a psychological element to fiction, and in an age when fiction tended to be mawkishly sentimental, his was a bastion of rationalism.

Educated at Kazan, well-traveled both as an Army officer and as a civilian, Tolstoy could be urbane on one hand yet earthy on the other - another winning combo. His impatience with phoniness and pretension led to a very public squabble with a contemporary, Ivan Turgenev, which very nearly caused a duel. While he enjoyed the creature comforts of his status, he also pondered the lives of his serfs and how he could improve their lot, which is really he noblest form of noblesse oblige.

As a shallow dilettante with the attention span of a hummingbird, I feel life is just too short to sit and read a forty page description of a potato (which, in my twisted mind, is why those Russian novels are all so damn long - I mean, how else?) so I've always just avoided them. Also, I'm very wary of translations, which have frequently been responsible for the ruin of many good books, from Don Quixote to Madame Bovary.

Researching this piece, however, seems to have evaporated much of my former reticence. Chiefly responsible, I think, is an anecdote regarding his wife, Sophie, who copied out War and Peace a total of seven times while he was enagaged in writing it. I figure if she could write it out longhand seven times I can read it once.

In addition to novels, Tolstoy also wrote philosophy and travelogues before his death in November 1910.

*In fact, the fact that he was smart probably explains why he avoided them.

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