Tolstoy, I believe, came to me at just the right point of my life - a year which has been, by far, the most turbulent one in my entire life. After reaTolstoy, I believe, came to me at just the right point of my life - a year which has been, by far, the most turbulent one in my entire life. After reading War & Peace earlier this year, I was convinced that there is no better guidebook to 'better living' than Tolstoy's words. He, seemingly, has advise for everything under the sun.
Family Happiness begins at a lonely country house somewhere in Russia. We meet our protagonist, the seventeen year old Masha, just after her mother's death living a secluded life with her younger sister and governess. We follow Masha's story through 2 crucial periods of her life,both of which lead to an awakening of sorts or a sort of maturity. She is what you can imagine any teenager to be - longing for stimulation and city life, repressed by the isolation of the country. Yet this changes as she meets her late father's friend, the middle aged Sergey Mikhaylych, which is the first crucial period. Sergey's presence and company changes her teenage daydreams dramatically - her dreams change from one of want of stimulation to those of a desire for quiet domesticity and a life that's more giving. As they get married, the initial months are blissful ones. That changes as she slowly tires of the quiet country living that she she had so desired. That's when we see her enter the second crucial stage of her life - the one where her marriage begins to fail, and the love which had seemed so strong and ideal seems to fade.
From what I have read of Tolstoy, there seems to be some common themes running through his novels. One of those themes seem to be a search for happiness. What is happiness to Masha? At first, happiness for her is Sergey alone. Then, as she encounters the society at St. Petersburg and experiences the flattery, fame and the stimulation that it offers, that becomes happiness to her. Finally, when she leaves society behind, disillusioned and with a failed marriage, she finds herself miserable as she tries to regain back the former marital happiness to no avail.
Tolstoy suggests that there's no point in pining away for or attempting to resurrect what can't be brought back, but to instead find newer avenues of happiness. Things change and so do people. Once gone, these cannot revert back to the former state. So, there's no point in mourning for a past that won't come back.
At the same time, he seems to stress on how momentary joys are not real and are mere illusions.
It's interesting - this whole notion of evolving happiness, for it's human tendency to mourn for what will not come back, reminisce about what seems like the spotlessly beautiful past in hindsight. Either one can spend one's life being miserable about what is lost or one can make an effort to move forward into the future. The choice, in the end, is what decides happiness....more
“Life: a constellation of vital phenomena—organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation.”
That's how life is defined in the m“Life: a constellation of vital phenomena—organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation.”
That's how life is defined in the medical dictionary owned by Sonja, one of the protagonists. Not only is this an apt description of life broken down to its elements, it's an apt description for the book itself.
This has been one of the most moving books I have read in recent times, its significance increased by the times we are living in and also a necessary reminder to those of us comfortable in our relatively stable countries and in the safety of our homes. It takes a book like this to disconcert us and stop us from a putting a blinder to what's happening in the 'real world'. After all, the conflict in Chechnya, which this book talks about, didn't happen that long ago.
This is the story of ordinary people through the first and the second Chechen wars. Instead of focusing on the war at a macro level, its focal point is instead the people - Havaa, the eight year old, whose father disappears one night, taken by the Russian Feds; Akhmed and his attempt to protect Havaa at all costs; Sonja, the genius surgeon, the last one left in what seems like the 'the end of the world' hospital who is in search for her lost sister, Natasha; Khassan, the seventy-nine year old former Professor and his inner conflict about his son, Ramzan, who is an informant for the Russians.
It's human tendency, perhaps, to rationalize the suffering of those in other parts of the world, which seem so remote and removed from our everyday lives - it's an escape mechanism. Yet, by depicting the humanity beneath the 'headlines' Anthony Marra makes us realize that, after all, these are people with the same desires, aspirations, the need to belong and to be safe, yet are denied these things.
Though we are taken through the lives of each of the 5 characters, each one is so fleshed out, it's almost as if you know them. Each one of them try to make a semblance of a life in the midst of something that seems so unimaginable. By taking us through multiple timelines, the author makes us understand the characters' motivations, so we can see the complexities that make them gray rather than purely good or evil. After all, when all structures and routines have broken down, all normalcy gone, human beings cannot be expected to behave according to the black and white rules of morality.
On the one hand, the author covers the violence and torments of the civilians in the midst of war - sometimes these are graphic in their details, making you wince - and on the other hand, he covers the ordinary, everyday details . For instance - everyday humour, friendships, passions.
“Perhaps our deepest love is already inscribed within us, so its object doesn't create a new word but instead allows us to read the one written.”
Through the characters, we see what war does to relationships and to the feeling of community - the distrust, the paranoia, and the struggle to survive evoking the worst in human beings. At the same time, we see how chaotic times also evoke the best in human beings. Love and loyalty to one's family despite the worst, as well as humaneness as being the only constant in the middle of chaos. It's about inter-connectedness between people, formerly strangers, that makes life worth living.
It also talks about memory and nostalgia. Memory, like love, being the other constant and the one possession that's left in such circumstances.
Perhaps my only complaint is that, at times, the prose felt forced - as if the author was trying so hard to make it sound beautiful that it seemed convoluted. However, overall, this was a deeply satisfying reading experience, in that it does what books are meant to - expand your worldview and perspective to include the experience of others. ...more
I found myself saying to a colleague the other day - 'If there really was a God, he would probably resemble Leo Tolstoy.' Blasphemous, I know.
After reI found myself saying to a colleague the other day - 'If there really was a God, he would probably resemble Leo Tolstoy.' Blasphemous, I know.
After reading War & Peace and some of his short works, the only way to explain the insight with which Tolstoy talks about humanity and its flaws, failures and growth, and the way in which his words seem to cut across centuries and be relevant to human condition right now, was to assign him with superhuman or even godlike qualities.
Yet, as I read Bartlett's biography of Tolstoy, I realized how flawed this man really was. Now that Tolstoy is more 'real' and less 'godlike' to me, his importance to me has increased. Tolstoy was a giant in more ways than one. And his life was an epic no less than his Anna Karenina or War and Peace.
Bartlett covers a three dimensional view of Tolstoy starting from his ancestors' histories. It was overwhelming to find out that all my beloved characters from War and Peace were to a large extent inspired by real people important to Tolstoy - the Rostovs and the Bolkonskys are all based on his family, and their rise and fall.
After reading the biography, I realized that Pierre Bezukhov, one of my favourite characters from War and Peace, though not explicitly stated, is Leo Tolstoy himself. It turns out he was not always as insightful as he eventually became. Like Pierre, he was immature and awkward. Bartlett's description of Tolstoy's eventual 'growing up' is so similar to Pierre Bezukhov's journey in the book.
My favourite parts of the biography are the tranquil descriptions of Tolstoy's childhood at Yasnaya Polyana, the last truly happy years of his life. Bartlett takes us on a journey where we see Tolstoy grow from an entitled adolescent and young adult to a 'god' to his people - inspiring decades of revolutionaries and writers, a perpetual trouble maker for the monarchy. And so much more than a writer. Bartlett immerses us into his dissatisfaction with merely being a writer of fiction which he felt didn't serve any purpose to society (how wrong he was). We see his struggles with religion, the church and the education system; his constant search for meaning that seemed to evade him; and his guilt at his status compared to the injustice surrounding him. Yet there are many things that make him less than perfect - his insensitivity to his wife, misogyny and tempestuous relationships with other writers or friends.
In the end, what I take away is an understanding and admiration that is now even more enhanced. Not just a remarkable writer, but also a remarkable, albeit a deeply flawed, man....more