Monday, 27 June 2011

Book Review – Leo Tolstoy Short Stories

I've read quite a few short stories recently by Leo Tolstoy along with those of quite a few other Russian authors of the same period. Partly this has been in preparation for the anticipated slog of reading Tolstoy's War and Peace. I must say Tolstoy is emerging as my favourite all time author and the one I have the most to learn from.

The first collection I read was The Kreutzer Sonata and Other Stories.

In the title story – The Kreutzer Sonata (1889) – the narrator takes a railway journey and overhears passengers discussing issues of love and marriage. A range of opinions are voiced and these range from arguments for forced marriage to an upper class woman saying couples should marry for love. Most of the views are sexist in some form and none really challenge sexist stereotypes. Even the marrying for love viewpoint still accepts the subservient role of women after marriage.

The first section is quite long and it is only when all but one of the passengers have departed that the main part of the story begins. Here Posdnicheff relates the story of how he came to kill his wife. It is meant to illustrate the pressures husbands come under and, bizarrely, advocates a sort of celibacy within marriage.

I wonder what Countess Sophia Andreyevna Tolstaya (Tolstoy's wife) thought of this story? It seems to draw on many aspects of the Tolstoy's relationship. For example when Posdnicheff shows his soon to be wife a diary which details his past affairs and visits to prostitutes. Tolstoy himself did a similar thing. Sophia, surely, cannot have been pleased with either that event or the fictional version.

Apparently Theodore Roosevelt called Tolstoy a "sexual moral pervert" in the same year, 1890, this story was published. That only makes Roosevelt look stupid, a bigot, and totally missing the point of a story like this.

Overall it is a good story even if I do not have much sympathy with Tolstoy's view of women.

In Ivan the Fool (1885) Tolstoy sets out a sort of fairly tail vision of how society should be organised. A rich peasant has three sons: Simeon who is a soldier and represents gaining wealth through conquest; the next son is Tarras-Briukhan who represents acquiring wealth through business and trade; and finally there's Ivan, the fool, who represents the ideal society. Ivan becomes a ruler who allows complete freedom for his subjects. Hence a society emerges where money/gold becomes just a trinket with little more than ornamental value. Here Tolstoy also illustrates his pacifist views – possibly the most unbelievable part of the story. A great story; it's both interesting and naïve.

A Lost Opportunity is the story of two peasant families who farm plots of land next to each other. At first they live in harmony only falling out over a trivial incident involving the ownership of an egg. This causes a feud that spirals out of control, with both sides revelling in vindictiveness, retribution and also a few comic incidents along the way. Tolstoy's description of the burning down of a barn is a must read. Tolstoy, as with many Russian authors, has a moral to the story. Here it is of turning the other cheek and the virtues of a Christian way of life. Even for an atheist like myself they are reasonable values, it's just that they cannot be implemented in a class society.

Polikúshka (1863) is a tragic tail of a peasant who was a thief and becomes reformed. He is then trusted with an important task which inevitably goes wrong and has disastrous consequences. Russian authors are so good a describing poverty, maybe because the saw so much of it.

The final story in this collection is The Candle, another story of Russian poverty and exploitation, and this time set before the abolition of serfdom. It asks the question of how far you should go in overthrowing tyranny. After asking such an interesting question Tolstoy seems to duck his answer by giving the story a somewhat mystical ending.

The second collection I read was The Forged Coupon and Other Stories this consists mostly of stories Tolstoy wrote later in life and show that he lost none of his political sparkle and love of controversy. Far from it, many of these stories are more directly a political critique of Russian Czarism.

The title story – The Forged Coupon (1911) – is a sprawling yarn following the consequences of a couple of upper class yobs committing a forgery. It covers the whole of Russian society from a horse thief to the Czar. It's divided up into lots of short sections and is interesting as a snapshot of so many Russian lives. It's wonderful at lampooning many of those in authority as well as organised religion. The latter as part of Tolstoy's message of returning to true Christianity. Fortunately you do not have to believe in this to appreciate the story.

The few disappointing aspects to the story are that Tolstoy does not complete all of the strands. The reader is left wondering what happened to some of the characters. Also when it comes to the Czar some passages get a bit mystical, it's almost as if Tolstoy believed that the Czar would put things right if only he knew what was going on. This has been a common view amoung the subjects of totalitarian states and applied to kings, despots and, later, to Stalin. It has never proved true.

I have noted before of how Russian authors describe poverty so well. Again the descriptions here are brilliant. Of special interest are those scenes of life in prison. Maybe life under the Czar was not that much different to what it became under Stalin.

After the Dance (After the Ball – 1903) starts with the description of a grand society ball. The ball's climax comes when a dignified old colonel dances with his beautiful daughter, much to the delight of onlookers. It all gets a bit Mills & Boon and you wonder why someone with Tolstoy's skill is writing such drivel. But then... then comes the second part and you get it. The story would not have been so brilliant with only the second section.

Tolstoy is lampooning the kind of military type that is still with us. Friendly when you see them on the telly talking of humanitarian concerns. Then ordering the bombing of civilians in some war office back room because of some trivial and ill-conceived strategic gain. Tolstoy has these upper class military scum exactly right.

The last group of stories are all quite short, so will just quickly run through them.

Alyosha the Pot (1905) is a very short story about the exploitation of children. You could almost believe Alyosha was manufacturing trainers for the likes of Adidas or Nike.

My Dream (1906) is a the story of Lisa who becomes bored of upper class life and runs away for love. The inevitable result is abandonment and poverty. It all finishes in an overly schmaltzy ending.

There are no Guilty People (1909) is the story of a landowner who tries to reform the lives of his peasants. It turns out to be more challenging than expected and he falls back on the old ways. This story must have drawn, to some extent, on Tolstoy's own experience as a landowner.

The Young Tsar (1894) sets out the moral choices a young Czar might make. It assumes a single man, even a Czar or King, could dramatically change an entire economic system. Alas this is not true, is Tolstoy becoming a bit naïve again?

Whole books have been written about Tolstoy and these often skip over his reforming side and his association with anarchism. All I can say is that these biographers can never have read much of his writing – or they poked their eyes out well before reading. We have numerous times pointed to Tolstoy's brilliant descriptions of poverty and his lampooning of the upper class. One look at the dates of these stories show that he maintained these views right up until the end of his life. So these biographers cannot really dismiss his politics as some sort of youthful aberration. Really this tells us more about the literati establishment who want to turn any great radical author into a safe reflection of their own narrow minds. It's what makes the likes of Tolstoy so interesting and their own writing so weedy.

Tolstoy loved to bring down the pretensions of those in authority. He's not afraid to say what he thinks even if, at times, that looks a bit naive. I think it is the boldness and humanity that appeals in Tolstoy's stories. The boldness certainly came across in Tolstoy's personal life – even if he did not always, alas, exhibit the same degree of humanity to those around him.

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