Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Book Review: Short Novels (L. Tolstoy)

Title: Short Novels

Author: Leo Tolstoy

Editor: Ernest J. Simmons

Publisher: Random House

Date: 1965

ISBN: none

Length: 455 pages

Quote: “Early in the nineteenth century, when there were as yet no railways or macadamized roads, no gaslight, no stearine candles, no low couches with sprung cushions...”

Late in the nineteenth century, the Count Leo Tolstoy wrote a short novel contrasting two military officers, father and son. Although the father behaved badly, he was bold and generous, and people in the small town he disrupted liked him. The son was petty and greedy, and so, although in some ways he might have been said to do less harm...Simmons tells us that Tolstoy “noted a friend's remark that the son is described without love” and commented in his notebook, “The first condition of an author's popularity...is the love with which he treats all his characters.”

He probably found it easier to love the main character in his next short novel about "modern" nineteenth century Russia, Landlord's Morning, in which the young heir to an estate tries to improve the lot of the people who work on his land. Tolstoy had tried doing that himself.

A later story, Polikushka, discusses the trouble that starts when a rather shabby character really tries to do a job right, and fails.

This was followed by Family Happiness, a male-fantasy romance in which a seventeen-year-old girl falls in love with an older man. After a happy honeymoon, they realize that they are not actually compatible. The husband, however, is mature and philosophical, at about forty years old, and counsels his bride that if they've lost passionate love they can at least devote themselves to the baby and enjoy peaceful family-type love. Simmons does not consider this solution “false...to the reality of things.” It may not be altogether false, but readers who have observed the behavior of forty-year-old men will agree that it's certainly unusual, and readers who've studied the collected diaries of Sophie Tolstoy may judge how true or false Leo Tolstoy's hopeful fiction was to his real experience.

The longest of the Short Novels is called The Cossacks. Tolstoy had lived among “Cossacks” while serving in the Russian army, and his Short Novel about this ethnic group seems to me to be a long rambling reminiscence about, among other things, a beautiful girl with an unaccountable taste for stupid men and a likable old heretic who tries to lead a pious young Russian soldier into sin (“Where's the sin? A sin to look at a nice girl? A sin to have some fun with her?”). Simmons explains it as a draft of a never-finished longer novel. Despite its rambling quality, Simmons also claims that Turgenev hailed The Cossacks as “the best story that has been written in our language.”

Again I say: although a great quantity of fiction was thrust upon me recently, and this collection of Short Novels is high-quality fiction I'm not ashamed to resell, I myself seldom actually like fiction. The Short Novels didn't exactly thrill or delight or inspire me. Few novels written for adults do, and it's possible that one or more of Tolstoy's Short Novels will become a favorite of yours. 

As regular readers undoubtedly know, during and after his lifetime Leo Tolstoy was hailed as one of the world's great writers. Some believe the art of fiction has made progress since then. Others think his fiction may have been overrated because he (and his wife) were interesting people, and the progressive, innovative quality of their life made their work seem more interesting than it would otherwise have been. All I'll say is that Tolstoy's fiction undoubtedly suffers from translation and from being so exotic, to me, that whatever realistic merit it once had is lost. 

On checking Amazon, I find that this edition of these five novelettes has gained collector value. To buy it here will cost $10 + $5 shipping...and, since neither of the Tolstoys has any use for $1.50, it won't even be used to encourage another living author. Only me. However, shipping prices can be consolidated on multiple purchases so you could add this book to a package including a Fair Trade Book and consider the shipping free. Current addresses for Paypal or postal money orders appear at the very bottom of the screen.