Monday, September 7, 2009

Best Russian Author

No Aapreciation for Russia blog could be complete without the classic Tolstoy versus Dostoevsky debate. Sadly, I have not read all of the major works of either author, nor even finished any of their novels in recent years. So hopefully I’ll return to this question in the future, once I have done some research. However, there may be some merit in asking this question when one hasn’t been reading either author much in recent years. For it’s interesting to see what remains has the memory of details fades. Which author makes a more lasting impression? Which author is more influential on one’s outlook on life?

As a young man, I couldn’t have asked for anything better than Dostoevsky. I was shocked to see how directly the man dealt with the question of evil. Although few details remain with me, I remember how Crime and Punishment seemed to be the perfect book, the best book. It was of course a real page-turner. You sweated with the hero, worried for him. You knew he had done wrong, but you felt that he had somehow asked the important questions of life, whether society or law or religion or morality offered anything of value to the individual.

I remember being bitterly disappointed with the ending of Crime and Punishment, insofar as the conversion and repentance seemed to overturn everything of value that had happened in the rest of the book. But, at least at the time, I felt that this ending had been somehow tacked on, in deference to the censors, or as a way of earning societal approval for his titillating treatment of murder and amorality in general. I didn’t blame him for the ending—I just didn’t believe him.

Then I tried the Demons (sometimes translated as The Possessed). Now here again was the perfect book, in that it dealt with religion and philosophy and ethics, but all against the backdrop of my favorite subject, politics. I was stunned by its directness, and didn’t think that anything like this would have been permitted in the 19th century, let alone America in the modern era. And if Dostoevsky was actually a conservative and a Christian, I personally couldn’t detect these themes. So I felt a strong kinship with the man who had demonstrated—to my mind at least—a terrific empathy with radical thought, atheism, skepticism, and revolution.

My first encounter with Tolstoy was War and Peace. I remember it took me a couple of months to finish its 1500 or so pages. I think I ripped off pages and left them wherever I went to keep myself motivated: the shrinking carcass of the book, deprived of so many pages, made the carcass seem much more digestible. I remember reading this book at a critical moment in my life. I had just graduated from college and, without a job or any real idea about how to go about getting a job, I moved across the country to be in California with a girlfriend. While looking for a job under very surreal circumstances—I wound up working at a post-production studio in Hollywood if that says anything—I thought that I shoudn’t waste these months of unemployment but should rather embark on a significant intellectual project. So that’s how I began War and Peace.

Probably others have tried the book for the same reason, not as a result of being intrigued by Tolstoy, but because one likes the challenge of the 1500 pages, or wants to brag about having conquered the challenge. Probably I was too young to understand the book.

It was divided into two parts, sort of like The Devil and the White City is divided into two parts (the story of a serial killer, and the story of the World’s Fair). And I essentially fell in love with the war parts alone. I liked the battle scenes, the treatment of diplomatic episodes, etc. The history of Russian society interested me also, but mainly in terms of its relationship to French culture and ideals and language.

After War and Peace, I read Anna Karenina. I did so when the next crisis of my life presented itself. Having left California with little direction, I again began looking for work. And, having found only the most unsatisfactory employment as a waiter, I embarked upon Anna Karenina. Sadly, I remember little, just that the tragedy was very well sketched, the characters exceedingly well developed.

Many years later, I decided so many Russians alluded to Tolstoy so frequently that I needed to reengage. I read Troyat’s biography first, and it made me fall in love with Tolstoy by reminding me that Tolstoy had been a true original in terms of his philanthropy, aristocratic contradictions, profound hypocrisy (which a lesser man could never have maintained), religious attitudes, honesty, and influence on men such as Gandhi, Jane Addams, Chekhov, Gorky, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Reading his book, Childhood, made me appreciate his self-effacing honesty, humor, humility, sympathy for others, and relentless self-criticism. Since then I’ve read the Cossacks, which some say is the best novella ever written in the Russian language. It wasn’t that for me, but again, it showed his writing skills, and his capacity for taking up interesting themes, and for portraying men and women, Russians and non-Russians, with great intuition.

And I’ve read the short, the Death of Ivan [X?] which seems to demonstrate real restraint and recognition of the important of literary subjects. In fact, when you read The Death of Ivan [X], you think to yourself: how is it that nobody else ever created a novel about one’s own death, stripped down to its bare essentials? It’s as if no other author had ever realized that people die or, more likely, it’s as if no other author was brave enough to admit this, either to himself or his readers. I have the feeling that all of Tolstoy’s books work this way: they all seem to related to subjects that don’t feel as if they have ever before been revealed as the proper subject of the literary imagination.

I’m reading Steiner’s Tolstoy the Man right now, and it’s a wonderful survey of Tolstoy’s fame and effect on the best minds of his generation. Another short book about Tolstoy focuses solely on the role Tolstoy played in defending a soldier from execution. Ultimately, Tolstoy was unsuccessful and the soldier was killed for having slapped an officer while on duty; but the fact that Tolstoy appears to have remained racked with guilt for not having defended the soldier—even decades later—says much for the man. In fact, Tolstoy brought up his own guilt publicly when he condemned the death penalty more vigorously at the end of his life.

To sum up, I am inclined at the moment to say that Dostoevsky may be the better author. His books seem slightly tighter, slightly more perfect. But Tolstoy’s genius was probably broader, taking in a more expansive view of the totality of human experience. And I think in the end literature is about honesty, being everyday more honest than the previous day. It’s a pity that Tolstoy left imaginative literature to focus on pseudo-Christian polemics, but this was inevitable: he was searching for truth and not trying to pursue fame or literary greatness for their own sake. Anna Karenina strikes me to be the key to Tolstoy’s greatness: it was apparently meant as a sort of moral lesson about infidelity, lack of faith, shallowness.

Yet Tolstoy understand both sides of human life, that which he advocates, and that which he condemns. And so the villainess is also the heroine, and one comes away with terrific understanding for the very character he is apparently condemning, the adulteress. Maybe it’s time to tackle the Brother Karamazov; however, this may shift my opinion in favor of Dostoevsky. I’ve tried this book, and the Idiot, but made little headway heretofore. And then, come to think of it, I’ve never read a biography of Dostoevsky, so perhaps my greater appreciation for Tolstoy stems from secondary commentary rather than the novels themselves.

1 comment:

  1. The problem, of course, is reading Russian authors in translation. From what I gather, the Russian Dostoevsky sounds much more vernacular than the English translation. Some even describe the style as sloppy; some say purposely so, others not. There was a great David Remnick piece in the New Yorker a while back about their then-newish translations by Pevear and Volokhonsky
    Until I can read them in Russian (probably never), I'm reluctant to take sides on the Tolstoy-Dostoevsky debate.