Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Tolstoy Versus Tolstoy Versus Chekhov

This weekend I read a book of Tolstoy short stories. The two longest (and best known) stories in the book were "The Death of Ivan Ilytch" and "The Kreutzer Sonata." I'd never read either of these stories before, despite them both being pretty much staples of 19th-century Russian literature. Why did I read them? Because my pal Davin Malasarn hinted very strongly that now was a good time to read some Tolstoy stories so we could talk about them. So if Malasarn doesn't engage me in a conversation about Tolstoy, I will be forced to fly to California and demand an explanation.

"Ivan Ilytch" is a superior story to "Kreutzer." The latter's midsection is a very long and repetitive first-person rant about the rights of women and the sexual urges of men being the thing that restricts those rights. Whether these claims are true or not is beside the point; Tolstoy was not, in those 20 or so pages of ranting, telling a story. He was lecturing the audience, and one thing I hate is moralistic fiction. It's fine for fiction to be moral, and even to present a moral judgment, but that must be done by dramatizing a premise and showing an outcome. What Tolstoy does is make a long series of claims. It's lazy and annoying and boring. When he finally gets into gear and presents characters in action, "Kreutzer" gets better but it's still pretty weak overall. There are some fine moments but I can't say this story lives up to its reputation.

"The Death of Ivan Ilytch," on the other hand, is a masterpiece. Ivan Ilytch, a magistrate, has just died. His colleagues are all scrupulously observing the social forms even though they feel nothing for Ivan except relief that it was him who died and not them. With his death comes a job opening and everyone wonders how they'll be advanced when the inevitable promotions begin. That's the first ten pages or so. The remaining seventy-odd pages tell the life story of Ivan Ilytch, and it's a beautifully-told and well-observed story. I wish I'd read it a decade ago, and I'm also now moved to see about some more Tolstoy stories.

I can't help but compare Tolstoy to Chekhov. Chekhov remains my favorite, but Tolstoy may--and it hurts to say this--have been a better writer. Tolstoy had patience that Chekhov lacked. Leo was in no hurry to get to the end of his stories, and takes the time to consider from a variety of angles all the possible motivations behind his characters' actions. Chekhov is insightful and funny and wins the day on compassion for humanity, but he's a twitchy and impulsive writer and you can see where he didn't linger over either his stories or his prose the way Tolstoy did.

All of this--what little this is--is just a sort of beginning of an idea about what I think about Tolstoy. I read War and Peace a million years ago so perhaps I should read something else soon; there's that new translation of Anna Karenina on the shelf. We'll see. I have an immense "to be read" stack and Karenina is a thick book. I'm not sure how much time I want to devote to Tolstoy just now.


  1. Karenina is on my TBR list and it's coming up soon. I doubt it will happen this summer, though. When it does, I sure hope to engage both you and Davin in a discussion!

  2. Well, seeing as how I check this blog abut twelve times a day now, I suppose I can engage in the conversation. I'm glad you read some Tolstoy stories! I remember recommending Kreutzer Sonata to Nevets a while back, but it makes sense that you wouldn't like it. To me, it was an interesting format because it was all one long rant. I found it interesting in its strangeness. The only flaw of Tolstoy in a lot of his fiction seems to be his need to be moralistic.

    As for Death of Ivan Ilyich, I remember reading it while sitting among tombstones in the Pere Lachaise to Proust's grave. There is something very elegant about it. Reading that has made me include at least one detailed death scene in all of my stories since. And in the case of Cyberlama, about fourteen death scenes.

    I think Tolstoy's two strongest novellas are Death of Ivan and Hadji Murad. I'd guess H.M. would be your favorite, Scott. Maybe give it a look, although at some point I start to feel guilty for pushing so many stories on you.

  3. And, yes, both of you should read Anna. Maybe I'll read it again. I often pick it up and go to specific scenes, but I haven't gone through it cover to cover for at least a couple of years. I think the last portion of the book may have the same annoying moralizing that Kreutzer has, if I remember correctly.

  4. Michelle, my big book for this summer is Brothers Karamazov, which I swear I'll actually finish this time. Anna will have to wait for the winter, or next year.

    Davin, in some ways the long rant in Kreutzer reminded me of things by Beckett or even Dostoevsky's "Notes from Underground" but it really seriously lacked any humor (from the author, that is; I can accept a humorless narrator) and I kept thinking that the guy was repeating himself over and over. Maybe that's true to life of a man who's murdered his wife and wants to explain/excuse it, but that doesn't make compelling fiction. I liked the last third or so of it. The way the narrator described his feelings during and immediately after the murder was brilliantly done. I just can't forgive LT for that long long middle.

    "Ivan Ilych" is a great story. Elegant is a good way to put it. It's so smooth and lovely and mature and whole; I really love it. Perhaps it's so good that I was bound to be disappointed by whatever came after and that's why "Kreutzer" struck me as not so good. Maybe tonight I'll look for what strike me as particularly good passages from "Ivan" and I'll post them here. I doubt it, though. I'm pretty busy until the weekend, but we'll see.

    I think I have "Hadji Murad" in a collection at home somewhere. I know you like that story, so I'll look around. Right now I'm reading a novella by the guy who wrote Tristram Shandy. It's quite amusing, though not fun in the same way TS was fun.

    Laurence Sterne had tuberculosis. Some day I'll do a survey of writers who had consumption, and see if there are any commonalities in their styles or themes. I have my doubts, but it could be a fun project. Likely some dissertations have already been written on the subject.

  5. Yes, "Hadji Murad"! Yes, yes!

    Otherwise agree, agree, nice contrasts, etc.

    This still counts as a comment, I guess.

  6. Tom, while your comment lacks the grace of a blank comment, the endorsement of Hadji Murad adds pique to my curiosity, if I can get away with that construction.

    When I was reading Ivan Ilych I wondered why I would read anything other than Tolstoy. When I was reading Kreutzer I wondered why anyone would sit through Tolstoy. So now I'm not sure how to go forward with Leo's stories. Alas, the only way to know which of them I'll like is to actually read all of them. I'm sure there are worse fates.

    I'm about a month behind you on reading Washington Square. I have a LoA edition I bought just for the readalong and then I got way off task and off schedule. But the discussion of money will no doubt help me when I get around to Mr James again. I should move this paragraph to your blog. Hell, I think I will.

  7. Given what you've gleamed about your thoughts on Tolstoy, I'd recommend reading Karenina as soon as you can. Really.

  8. Well, as I say, Anna K will have to wait her turn after the Brothers K and possibly a re-read of the great white whale. I've also got all those Chekhov stories and a stack of Nabokov. And all the other books that force their way onto my "tbr" list. But I'll get to more Tolstoy sooner rather than later.

    1. Hi.
      I'm new here and you probably wouldn't pay attention to what I'm going to say now, but you should read "Anna Karenina". It's a thick book indeed, but you won't think much of that once you have started. I was obsessed with the story for years and watched 5 film adaptations but didn't read the book until June 2013 and it completely changed my views on life and literature and the way I looked at myself. And I always regret not having read it earlier.
      Anyway, sorry, guess I'm a bit excited.