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.
Thanks for the thoughtful recommendation.....
Nice post. I was very fortunate my senior year in high school because I was in an advanced honors reading class and the teacher made us research a long list (probably 50 or so on the list) of "classics" and choose two that we were interested in and that we had never read up to that point. Then she told us to bring two books that were not on her list, and that were not classics that we wanted to read and write essays about, upon her approval. This was smart on her part because 1) we actually chose what two classics we wanted to read, so if we ended up not liking them, that was on us. And, 2) the idea of letting us bring two books we wanted to read (and that would probably never be assigned) was her way of telling us reading is always our choice. These were my choices: From the "classics" list I chose Moby Dick (did not like it then and it's still "meh" to me now) and Lord of the Flies (love it then and still do now). My own picks were Dhalgren (by S.R. Delany) & A Walk Across America (Peter Jenkins)
I read The Death of Ivan Ilyich a long time ago and don't remember much if anything about it. Started War and Peace but didn't get far before giving it up. I liked Nicolai Gogol and Dostoevsky better.
I'll admit I've never read any Tolstoy. I've read a few of Chekov's shorts -- don't remember titles, but I remember liking them.
I took a Humanities class in high school (it was actually a lit class) with mixed results. I enjoyed Dante's Inferno enough that I've read it three or four times; it's great fun. I read Purgatorio twice; it wasn't bad, but starting to get preachier, not as much fun as Inferno. I read Paradiso only once. Bleah, boring, nothing but self-righteous preaching. I finished it just to say I'd read the whole trilogy.
Paradise Lost was good; I've read that one... twice, maybe three times, I forgot. Satan's a great character. I tried Paradise Regained, but it was like someone else wrote it. It was preachier, yes, as one might expect, but it's also thinner, like some of the life had gone out of Milton before he wrote it.
I got about four chapters into Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, then bailed. Paid enough attention in class discussions to get a good grade on the test. Same with Fathers and Sons by Turgenev; I got about four chapters in, then just couldn't make myself read any more. Again, listened to enough class discussion to get a good grade on the exam. I might feel differently about either or both books if I read them now; I have a feeling teenagers aren't really the target audience here. :/
It's kind of frustrating to see the American school system push "classics" that are stiff and dry and boring at kids and teens, generation after generation. IMO it does nothing but convince millions of kids that reading is a horrible bore, something they should avoid at all costs. Much better to give kids fun things to read, books that are actually of interest to kids of whatever age, get them into the habit of reading for fun, then introduce the subtler (I'm being kind here in some cases) classics in college.
It'd also help if more English teachers weren't lit snobs, and were willing to actually use genre fiction in the classroom, but that's another rant. [wry smile]
Cloudia, I always enjoy writing about books and stories.
Todd, That would have been an excellent way to do it. I read Lord of the Flies in college and loved it. I read Moby Dick as an adult and it took me forever. Meh, as you say. I read Dhalgren too, and while I consider it an amazing accomplishment, I didn't find it a compelling story. I might have picked something like Dune if I'd had such a choice.
Oscar, I still haven't read Dostoevsky. I'm headed in that direction though.
Angie, you and I are sympatico on high school English and Lit classes. I agree 100 percent. I've read a couple of Joyce's short stories and thought they were OK. I cannot get into his longer stuff. I have read Dante's trilogy. Lied it well enough, but as you say, the first one is the best by far. Still haven't read Paradise lost. I have a copy. I'll have to move it up on my reading list
Don't believe I've read any Tolstoy. Like you, I was a bit burned of the classics when forced to read some of those you named when I was in high school. (I did rediscover Dickens and Doyle and enjoy both authors now.)
With all that telling, I wonder if Tolstoy's works would even be published today?
I read two of these but at an age too young to appreciate them. Should reread now. Thanks.
I’ve read War and Peace twice! Great story and characters (once you get a feel for those Russian names). Great battle scenes. But yes, it’s a very long book. As for classics, I was an English major, so I had to read a lot of English and American classic literature...loved a few, liked some, and hated a few: House of the Seven Gables, ugh, same for The Scarlet Letter. (Obviously, I don’t like Hawthorne.) Let’s not mention Thomas Hardy (Return of the Native, Tess of the Durbervilles). Silas Marner, meh. I’m pretty sure I read Moby Dick, but don’t remember it much. (What I recall of the story is from the movie with Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab.) I’ve read several of Dickens’ novels, and liked them at the time — in college 40+ years ago. Since college, I’ve read only things I wanted to read — mainly genre fiction. Generally I never read “literary” fiction. … It has occurred to me that now I’m in my Golden Years, maybe I’d get more out of some of those classics than I did as a callow 19-to-21-year-old collegian. Yet another retirement project: revisit some classic books. I can add that to the several other retirement projects I am procrastinating on. Because, heck, I’m retired! I don’t have to do anything until I feel like it!
Thanks, Charles ~ keeping it real!
I also wonder about the required high school assignments. Probably better for all if students could choose among an array of books, with a "trailer" and/or mentor to help guide along. (It would also be nice if there was no such thing as a "Young Adult" category, which seems too shaped by corporate interests. As librarian, I've seen things 'dumb down' -- in marketing -- over the years.)
Funny how, when younger, also did not appreciate the 'emotions' of writing, now I'm hooked *grin*
Tried, like so many others, War and Peace, didn't get far. I do like Alexander Solzhenitsyn
Hi Charles, In high school I read Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Checkhov, and some I cant remember. The stories were simple but tragic and interesting. I too, should probably reread some of them!
Dostoevsky--start with The Idiot and when he comes to view the painting look it up on the internet (the actual painting). I found Dostoevsky to be more insightful into the 19th century style of the Russian authors and the way they wrote for their audience. The thing with Tolstoy that always creeps into my mind is his reality of being gentry but allowing for the suffering of the serfs and their freedom.
Alex, I've only read some of Dickens' short stuff. I should try one of his bigger books. Tolstoy is certainly slow for modern audiences.
Patti, the short stories are not too time consuming.
Sphinx!, Hey, good to see you. Good to do what you feel like. I'm still woefully behind in 'literate' reading, though I've read plenty of genre fiction.
Erik, I think they do a better job nowadays. My son had some good stuff to read that wasn't so "literate."
Shadow: I guess when we're young, our own emotions overwhelm us so much.
Neil, I do want to read War and Peace but I knew I wouldn't be able to start with that one. Decided on the short stories first.
Jodi, we never read these in high school, although we read 'literary" stuff.
Mark, I'm finishing some more Tolstoy at the moment and then may move to Dostoevsky.
Thank you for really engaging us with this literature, Charles
Funny how, when younger, also did not appreciate the 'emotions' of writing, now I'm hooked *grin*
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