This week, I decided to dabble with a bit of Leo Tolstoy. I’ve never read anything by the big-hitting Russian before, put off by the size of Anna Karenina and War and Peace, though I must admit a little intrigued by the size of the latter. Before attempting one of those two canonical tomes, I thought I’d dip my balls into some of his short stories, particularly his famous piece, ‘The Death of Ivan Ilyich’. I was not disappointed.
The four stories in this collection – ‘Family Happiness’, ‘The Kreutzer Sonata’, ‘The Devil’ and the one in the title – all share common themes and concerns (the universalising sex and death), and also demonstrate the growth of a hatred of physicality that rose as Tolstoy aged.
Where these stories succeed is in their evocation of a society very different from my own – one with rigid social mores and laws that apply differently dependent on ones social position and – crucially – gender. Tolstoy seems to move from a firm disapproval of the hypocrisy of a patriarchal society that allows ribald promiscuity in young men but considers purity in women essential, to an opinion that condemns all eroticism (be it pleasure for pleasure’s sake or some kind of deeply rooted emotional and sexual connection*) as sinful, devilish and vile. There is also an “alternate ending” to the final story in the collection, ‘The Devil’, which unfairly lays the blame of the protagonist’s problematic sexual drive upon the woman who inflames it rather than the man who feels it. This is a long way from the sympathetic female perspectives Tolstoy is famous for writing well, including in the (early) story ‘Family Happiness’. A bitter old man, a fading libertine no longer able to get an erection, a man who’d suffered an unhappy marriage, whatever the reasons for Tolstoy’s opinions late in life, he is still able to write about his ideas without destroying his literary skill.
These stories are about physicality and desire and the importance of the flesh to the soul, and there are lots of issues and ideas I found very engaging. The titular story, especially, is a discussion of mortality and physical decline and a marvelous piece of short fiction.
The writing was involving, descriptive and wise in many places, the politics were a tad conservative (and increasingly so, in this chronologically-arranged collection), but as a window into nineteenth-century Russian aristocratic thought and feeling, it was great. I’ll look further into Tolstoy’s work, probably with Anna Karenina, and I look forward to doing so.
Tolstoy was able to come to firm decisions about topics I’m interested in that are far from my own, but because of the way he describes his arguments and expresses himself, I enjoyed the level of internal debate I had as I read him. I railed at the page, I sneered at his protagonists destroyed by carnality, I was shocked when I was meant to be, though not always in agreement about why I should be. An interesting collection, and an excellent entryway into an important writer who I have, to date, neglected. And, as I always say when reading a Wordsworth Classic – a fucking steal at £2. YES!
* What this book made me want to look at again is Lady Chatterley’s Lover, one of my favourite novels. The difference between Lawrence and Tolstoy is this: they both look at the problems and inequalities that pollute sex and romance, but one cries to the heavens to rise above hatred and embrace love and joy and the erotic as the truest means to happiness in the brief window of light that is life, whilst the other responds to them, instead, with the notion that everyone should deny they have a body and withdraw from the flesh and become some kind of confused religio-intellectual. I’m not going to patronise you by saying which one is which, or by pointing out that this interests me a shitload. In fact, this very debate is the central discussion of the Biblical novel I recently completed, so if anyone would like a more nuanced, involved, rehearsed and engaging debate about the falsity of denying the physical, then please get in touch on the Twitter @Scott_Hadley. I often have something to say.