So, I’ve now read my first Tolstoy. Not War and Peace. I haven’t the strength yet. I read a collection called The Kreutzer Sonata, which contains three longish short stories: "How Much Land Does a Man Need," "The Death of Ivan Ilych," and "The Kreutzer Sonata.”
Before I talk about the stories, some folks might ask me why I waited so long to read Tolstoy. I’m nearing my sixth decade. I blame high school English and literature classes. I already loved reading before I started Junior high. I read a bit of everything but particularly enjoyed animal stories, football tales, westerns, and SF/Fantasy. I hadn’t really been introduced to the “classics,” but in school we read such offerings as “The Grapes of Wrath,” “Silas Marner,” “The Great Gatsby,” and “The Scarlet Letter.” Grapes was about farmers, which my family was. It was long, with no action, and the settings were very familiar. When I reread it as an adult I appreciated it. But not as a teenager. As for “Silas Marner,” I still think it’s one of the worst books I’ve ever read. Gatsby was actually rather enjoyable because it introduced me to a world I didn’t know, but it still didn’t have the excitement I craved. And Scarlet Letter was much the same, interesting, but not a page turner. I decided after these experiences that the “classics” were generally unimaginative, long, dealt strictly with internal rather than external experiences, and, worst of all, were boring.
In my mid-twenties I came back to the “classics” when I started reading Hemingway and realized that things ‘can’ happen in classic tales. “The Old Man and the Sea” is a great example. I also came to appreciate internal experiences more, and since that time I’ve read a lot of the classics but have certainly not caught up with everything I should read.
And now for Tolstoy and this collection. Seeing as how this is a translation, I can’t make much judgement about Tolstoy’s prose directly. These tales are well and simply told. There’s not much beauty in the prose—in the translation, but there is excellent scene setting and Tolstoy seems able to involve you in the tale quickly. The stories are long and a bit slow for modern readers, but it’s not unbearable and the interesting things that happen keep you reading. I gave the collection four stars, which is pretty darn good. With the exception of “How Much Land,” and the ending of “The Kreutzer Sonata,” these stories are almost exclusively “internal experiences.” Almost no action, mostly telling, with very little showing. Despite these negatives, the tales are compelling, especially “Ivan Ilych” and “Kreutzer.” They are compelling because they lay out moment by moment high level emotional destruction of a human being, and they are paced nearly perfectly to wring the most out of the reader.
“The Death of Ivan Ilych” is just that, a story about one man coming to grips with his impending death. The fears, the hopes, the pleading. They are all there in superb detail. I found the ending excruciating and was glad of it. “The Kreutzer Sonata” is about the destruction of a marriage through jealousy. The last sections of that are also excruciating but pretty close to ‘page turning’ intensity. The internalized experiences of the characters in these stories rang absolutely “true” to me, and that is the mark of a very good observer of human behavior. Tolstoy certainly hit the mark square center. I highly recommend this collection.
I’ve already picked up another collection of Tolstoy’s short stories and will start reading that soon. And then? Maybe War and Peace.