By M. Woland
A similar gaffe (“Prostakovich”) was made by a friend when showing off in a high-school student paper. But it showed that the two composers he had wrongly conflated into one were important. Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky are arguably the two greatest Russian authors who have both influenced, and become part of, world literature.
Both were highly ethical, devoutly Christian moralists. Their writing was meant to be transformative, and the number of ‘Alexeis’ & ‘Natashas’ among literate Westerners is testament to that. Their quest earned Tolstoy excommunication from the Church and Dostoyevsky four years of hard labor.
The 19th Century saw the rise of particularly masterful, moralizing authors. In France there was Victor Hugo, in England Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy. They too felt a call to transform the societies they lived in. Both rejected the European ‘Enlightenment’ and its consequences. Tolstoy, keenly interested in education, went to Europe: “Horrible! Prayers for the King, beatings, everything by rote, frightened, demoralized children.” Of a school for adults: “The same methods: mechanical reading, numbers with no knowledge of mathematics, catechism, etc.” All reminiscent of the Three ‘R’s championed by today’s Right.
Tolstoy believed that the desire to learn is natural, “a need, like the need for daily bread… no one should be forced to learn.” Dostoyevsky often used the term “going to America” which in 19th Century Russia meant suicide. In Devils he foresees and tries to warn of the effects of the coming “color” revolution from the West – The “Red” coup d’etat of 1917.
Tolstoy was born into the thriving Russian nobility. War and Peace incorporates not only his knowledge of French, used by the Russian Aristocracy, (the novel begins with a long paragraph describing life in the court at Saint Petersburg – in French), but also of his aristocratic relatives and the common soldiery. Tolstoy fought against the British and French when they invaded Crimea. War and Peace is informed by all this personal experience. The “key” to War and Peace —one of the greatest 19th Century novels—and to Tolstoy’s life, are these words: “All great ideas are simple: If evil men can work together to get what they want, then so can good men, to get what they want.”
How different to come upon this: “Above all, don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and believes his own lie comes to a point when he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love.” — Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov.
Dostoyevsky was impoverished, old nobility and a professional writer who had to write to earn a living. Condemned to death for revolutionary activity at twenty-eight but reprieved, he instead served four years in exile, at hard labor. “In summer, intolerable heat; in winter, unendurable cold. The floors were rotten. Filth on them an inch thick; we were packed like herrings in a barrel … There was no room to turn around. From dusk to dawn it was impossible not to behave like pigs … Fleas, lice, and black beetles by the bushel …” The only book available to him in prison was The New Testament. Though, occasionally, he read Dickens in the prison hospital.
Since boyhood, Dostoyevsky had championed the poor and the weak. In his aristocratic school, which his father had begged and borrowed to afford, he was nick-named “the monk” for his introspection. He wrote of what he knew in his five mature novels: Crime and Punishment (the poor of Saint Petersburg), Brothers Karamazov (provincial gentry), Devils (Western revolutionaries), The Idiot (society), The Adolescent (growing up poor).
Open any page and you will find a peculiar absence. There is almost no description of meals, scenery, landscape, even furnishings. Anticipating Kafka or the playwright Samuel Beckett, Dostoyevsky dispensed with these things as extraneous to the conflicts of the human soul. When the great Soviet-Russian director Yuri Lyubimov staged Crime and Punishment in Washington D.C., I made the pilgrimage. There were no costumes to speak of and the “set” consisted of a movable door, which swung both ways. But if you hate “Tolstoyevsky,” you are not alone. I witnessed an American, during intermission, yelling to no one in particular: “How dare they!? What makes Russians think they can get away with this?”—just like a scene from Dostoyevsky.
There is a timeless, mesmerizing breathlessness to his writing which makes him a twenty-first century writer. “It was his explosive power which shattered the Victorian novel with its simpering maidens and ordered commonplaces; books which were without imagination or violence.”— James Joyce
So forget about time and the intimidating length of “Tolstoyevsky” novels. Experience some of the finest writing ever to grace a page.
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