The other day while reading something around writing I read that Anna Karenina is (also) a masterpiece, and having something of an affection for the story from a transcendental experience in my twenties while watching a movie version of it, decided to seek it out on my university library shelves. It was time for some more Tolstoy, yes.
What I found was a solid collection of his work. I borrowed the book I sought, naturally, but also three story collections.
The writing is heady stuff; description that sets scenes and moods and places you directly in the action. It’s a history lesson at the same time, of the best kind – living history, as a contemporary person saw it. Such detail! Shirts jiggering on the peasants on a cart full of threshed hay, the nightingale building a nest in the bush outside the window – and yet none of it pointless. The construction of the language too – even as a translation, the structure of thought is not English, nor any version of it. We are standing in the mind of a nineteenth century Russian, seeing what he sees; this is language, nationality, history and time itself colliding. The fact that it is still readable one hundred and fifty years later is a testament to his mastery of story telling.
I have been told to read contemporary authors to learn more, and I do, but I feel that it’s necessary to my knowledge of where I shall sit in the scheme of things to know the greatness of what is out there. The quality of learning and thought of times past is deeper and more sustained than ours now, even as parts of it may seem ludicrous to us. A lot of deep thought of the modern variety is obtuse and obscure, difficult for the non-jargoned to comprehend. Nor does it bother itself largely with being entertaining, which shows a fundamental lack of respect for the audience it’s intended for.
I admire Tolstoy for his obvious reach and depth of complexity into the heart of existence; perhaps he did have the luxury of servants to facilitate his thinking, but I feel that argument is neither here nor there; his willingness to tell a grand narrative allows exploration of thought that the mind can play with and relish.
But it is not only grand narratives; he can just as well step into the mind of a young girl getting married and explore the mundane of human existence, the folly and the wonder of love and all its expectations and disappointments, and find its truthful beauty at the end of it.
For the next few weeks I’m reading Tolstoy, having a break from literary theory and the mess that Modernism left us with, that is, Post Modernism; what the first World War did to us really. The shock waves continue on… I wonder if we’ll ever recover from it, and have the courage to think deeply, hope wildly, and tell grand overarching stories ever again.
I’m personally looking forward to the next Movement. I am thoroughly tired of taking the world apart; it’s all a bit Humpty Dumpty for my liking.
In the meantime, I’ll allow myself to be transported into the fascinating world of a time long past, when human beings were all about relating to each other, when nature was still a force that we respected and admired, and philosophy wasn’t about smashing our brains to smithereens. And hopefully I’ll learn something about writing, great writing, as I go, and absorb some of it into my own.