As a serious Tolstoy fan, stumbling upon this book was a little miracle. It’s a critical first-person account of hanging out with Count Leo. Ever flipAs a serious Tolstoy fan, stumbling upon this book was a little miracle. It’s a critical first-person account of hanging out with Count Leo. Ever flipped through a music magazine and found an ‘on the road’, ‘backstage pass’, behind-the-scenes article on your favorite band? When the writer was actually on the tour bus with the band members? That’s what this book is, but it’s even better—the guy invited onto the tour bus is also famous, talented, and in the same line of work.
There’s a palpable sense of honesty in this book that I’ve never encountered in a biography or a memoir. It’s actually amazing that this collection was published: Gorky simply typed up the scratch paper and napkin scribbling he made while spending time with Tolstoy during the Count’s recovery from a serious illness. Also included is a letter Gorky wrote (intended recipient unknown) as soon as he found out Tolstoy had died, famously, after abandoning his estate, wealth, and family. And there’s no editing at all. Gorky felt like he couldn’t even touch it for fear he’d censor some of his sharper criticisms and brutally honest reflections.
The difference between a recounting of something that happened a while ago—days, weeks, months, or years—versus the immediate capture of an event, conversation, etc. has never been something to which I’ve devoted much thought until now. But there is a huge truthiness gap between these types of reminiscences, delayed versus immediate. There’s no doubt in my mind that these thoughts, these scraps of experience, are as truthful of a retelling as is possible in print. All the processes of memory (that faithless strumpet), of vanity, of structure, and of organization which begin to corrupt the documenting of reality: they’re all absent here. And so we’re left with this unfiltered collection of unconnected paragraphs that feel like the literary equivalent of a series of two-minute, vibrant VistaVision home videos of Count Tolstoy at home and walking around with Gorky and Chekhov; speaking pedantically, spilling biases and hypocrisies, cracking jokes, and making digs at the heirs of Russian literature.
What surprised me most about this book is that its criticism of Tolstoy and his philosophy (Gorky appears to think most of his literature is above reproach) served to further endear him to me. His hypocrisies and inconsistencies (he curses aside to Gorky when he sees some soldiers down the street, but then admires their sharp dress and proud carriage as they go by) serve to increase his humanity. Gorky deftly touches on Tolstoy’s conflicting sense of innate aristocratic superiority versus his extravagant genuflections to the peasant class, a perspective he worked hard to cultivate and promote. But even Gorky is bowled over by the Greatness that seems to radiate from him at all times: With God he has very suspicious relations; they sometimes remind me of the relation of "two bears in one den.”
Even in his gentlest moments the paternal authority is conspicuous, and this provides a source of discomfort for Gorky, who rarely challenges Tolstoy directly. The father-son angle is fascinating here—Gorky’s mix of criticism and worship reads like the conflicted yearnings of the second-favorite son. He wishes for Tolstoy’s approval; Leo is painfully honest about his feelings toward art and for every bit of praise he throws Gorky’s way, there are two or three sharp criticisms. Meanwhile, Gorky makes it clear that Tolstoy has a great love for Chekhov, who seems somewhat embarrassed by the favor bestowed upon him by one so Great; his only speaking parts are unintelligible and awkward mumblings in response to semi-public compliments or pointed questions about his past sex life. After reflecting on the favoritism issue, which Gorky attempts neither to hide nor elaborate upon, the alternation of critical/complaining vignettes and worshipful ones is especially perspicuous and poignant.
Merezhkovsky described Tolstoy as the ‘seer of the flesh’ in comparison to Dostoevsky, that ‘seer of the soul’; this description feels particularly apt after reading Gorky’s accounts. Remembering suddenly, from many years past, a drunken woman who’s fallen in the mud and is unable to respond to her son’s panicked cries, Tolstoy is moved to tears before chastising himself as a sentimental old man. But it’s the degree to which he’s able to recall and recount the details of the mud and filth and the child’s sorrow that is startling, as if every human contact and interaction were perfectly preserved in his mind. And when he laughs until he can hardly breathe after Gorky tells him a story from his childhood, I felt like I could see the gleeful tears run down the deep skin cracks into that bushy beard. Of course, Gorky’s skill as an imparter of anecdotes accounts for part of this effect. But he mostly stays out of the way, and nearly all of the thoughts and stories recounted are far shorter than this paragraph. Even so, what we’re left with are glimpses of a mythical being brought down to human life, and becoming all the more majestic for this demotion. ...more
For some reason, I'm reluctant to bestow 5 stars on short story collections that have been cobbled together by persons other than the author. That saiFor some reason, I'm reluctant to bestow 5 stars on short story collections that have been cobbled together by persons other than the author. That said, this and Chekhov's set probably deserve it. ...more
THE KING OF RUSSIAN LITERATURE vs. THE KING OF POP: winner to be crowned this week’s KING OF POP LITERATURE
But firThis Week in Entertainment Presents…
THE KING OF RUSSIAN LITERATURE vs. THE KING OF POP: winner to be crowned this week’s KING OF POP LITERATURE
But first: Warm-up semifinal showdown between Aleksandr Pushkin and Vladimir Nabokov:
Round 1: One man wrote a timeless human drama jam-packed with humor, action, love, cruelty, honor, pride and every other conceivably interesting human emotion—and all in just over 100 pages. The other translated said human drama with many incomprehensively bizarre and antiquated words and provided over 1000 pages of additional commentary*, ensuring that no discerning English speaker would ever consider picking up this translation.
Round 2: One man developed his own iambic tetrameter and a (supposedly) delectable rhyme scheme of ababeecciddiff, while still managing to spin an exceptionally moving, intelligent, and entertaining tale. In the process of translation, the other occasionally flouted the syllable count and utilized a rhyme scheme of abcdefghibjkcl, leaving the non-Russian reader capable only of imagining what a full experience of Eugene Onegin might feel like.
Point: Alex. 2nd round knock down. The referee, recognizing that the carnage will only increase, calls for a mercy rule and declares Pushkin the winner. A bloody Vladimir objects, screaming something about the “mathematical impossibility” of translating the rhyme and pattern accurately, while simultaneously fighting off the restraint attempts of medical personnel and angry mid-century censors.
*I read almost none of this, and so cannot comment on its worth. I suspect that reading this interminable commentary does a poor job of simulating the experience of reading this in Russian in the mid 19th century (or today for that matter).
On to the Main Event…
In the American corner we have Michael Jackson, 138-time Grammy winner and Guinness World Record holder for most self-declared comebacks in a 20-year period. In the Russian corner we have Aleksandr Pushkin, the man who started it all…the Father of Russian literature, lover of beautiful women and annoyer of powerful men.
Round 1: One man influenced the next generation of writers, with notables including Gogol, Turgenev, and Tolstoy. Any breakdowns these men experienced ultimately produced great literature. The other man influenced the subsequent generation of entertainers, with notables including Mariah Carey, Usher, R. Kelly, Britney Spears, and Justin Timberlake. Any breakdowns have left us with unending television, internet, and tabloid bombardment.
Point: Pushkin. First knockdown came 45 seconds into this round. Rather than bloodying, MJ’s nose-remnant simply inverted into his face.
Round 2: One man has a minor planet named after him; one has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Round 3: One man was black and white by birth; one was black and then white from vitiligo, pancake makeup, and other assorted techniques.
Point: Aleksandr. There may have been a low blow in this round, but the ref didn’t see it.
Round 4: One man’s wife was an inspiration for Anna Kerinina; the other was briefly married to Elvis’ daughter.
Round 5: One man “substantially augmented the Russian lexicon” by adding to and bolstering the legitimacy of Russian vernacular. The other man minimally augmented the English language with “Shamon!”, germane to...well only he really knows.
Point: Pushkin. Michael was knocked around pretty good this round. His left cheekbone did, however, deliver a serious laceration to the third joint of Alex’s index finger.
Round 6: One man performed a lot of music; the other inspired a lot of music.
Point: Even. Comparing Billy Jean to Wagner is apples to oranges, right? Although this round was a split decision, I can only imagine it’s because the judges weren’t familiar with "Liberian Giiirrrllll…just like in the movies, with two lovers in a scene, and she says, "Do you love me", and he says so endlessly… Naku Penda Piya-Naku Taka Piya-Mpenziwe.” That should have clinched it, but everyone’s got something against Michael these days.
Round 7: One man was exiled to southern Russia by Tsar’s order; one man was exiled to Neverland by Peter Pan syndrome, failed comebacks, and an increasingly alarmed public.
Point: Alex. Second knockdown. Michael looks haggard.
Round 8: One man watched his life implode as he fell further into debt and finally challenged his wife’s alleged lover to a duel in which he was mortally wounded. The other watched his life implode as he fell further into debt and failed to control his desire for sleepovers.
Point: Puskin. Pushkin is declared the winner by TKO and promptly refuses to be crowned King of Pop Literature, leaving Dan Brown and Stephenie Meyer to duke it out next week. Stay tuned…
Oh, and if you’re wondering what Eugene Onegin (the character) is like—think of the biggest d-bag you know and then add a little extra d-baggery. That said, the story is very classic in a Romeo and Juliet sort of way, but funnier and quirkier. Definitely worth checking out, even in an inherently problematic English translation. ...more
While reading Hadji Murad, as with each previous Tolstoy experience, I spent a good deal of time shaking my head and smiling incredulously at the mastWhile reading Hadji Murad, as with each previous Tolstoy experience, I spent a good deal of time shaking my head and smiling incredulously at the masterfulness on display. His narration alights and ascends, wraith-like, from one character to the next in an effortless plot-weaving. The narrator-spirit, momentarily descending upon Czar Nicholas, betrays a muffled wrath and black humor before floating on to chide and delight in the young and carefree Cossack, Butler (Butler? Really?). But it is when the spirit returns to the Chechen villagers, briefly and wistfully, that Tolstoy's pathos is unleashed with a quiet and brutal intensity.
Even with the Maudes' old translation, some of the themes here are surprisingly modern. With a few swift strokes, Tolstoy dispatches with the notion that cultural and ethnic disparities denote any real or essential human difference. People are people; they can and will connect on a basic level, even if one is a Chechen Muslim mountaineer and the other is a fancy-pants Russian Orthodox aristocrat. Also, a 21st-century reader can't help but notice the prescient observations of emergent Muslim extremism and anger toward the infidels, which appear thoroughly justified in Tolstoy's subversive handling of the material.
And who knew that Tolstoy could be so boldly risqué and frank in discussing sex? Since he must have known he'd never be able to publish this story during his lifetime for the obvious political reasons, perhaps it's not so surprising. But still, he was in his mid-70s when he finished up this mini-masterpiece. Mmm-hmm. ...more
Thematically compelling with decent characterization, but Turgenev doesn't reach the heights of his more Slavophilic peers, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. NoThematically compelling with decent characterization, but Turgenev doesn't reach the heights of his more Slavophilic peers, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Not all of the emotional moments are earned, and he prefers neat, 5-page character background summaries to the hard work of building a character up from nothing (a la Tolstoy). ...more
While some stories left only a mild impression, others easily justified his reputation as the best of short story writers. "A Boring Story" is an exceWhile some stories left only a mild impression, others easily justified his reputation as the best of short story writers. "A Boring Story" is an exceptional mix of humor and melancholy--flawless writing. ...more