It was Tolstoy, so I knew, sort of, what to expect. What surprised me, though, was a nitty-gritty realism – make that a nuts-and-bolts realism – that I can’t remember having encountered elsewhere, even in Tolstoy’s big novels. Yes, Tolstoy’s realism in the battle scenes in War and Peace is famous for being a bridge between the romantic literary evocation of battle as heroic and tragic and the view of post-American Civil War and post-Paris Commune writers, that it is a brutal experience and not at all glorious. But what about this? Have you ever wondered about the seating arrangements in one of those sleighs careening away over the Russian snow trying to outrun a pack of wolves? Probably not. But that is not to say it is not interesting as all get out. (A drugget is a piece of coarse fabric, often used as a floor covering. Instead of “sleigh” the translators use the more accurate “sledge”.)
When everything was nearly ready and only the reins had to be adjusted, Nikita sent the other man to the shed for some straw and to the barn for a drugget.
'There, that's all right! Now, now, don't bristle up!' said Nikita [who provides a running commentary, addressing even inanimate objects; a character trait which his creator puts to good use], pressing down into the sledge the freshly threshed oat straw the cook's husband had brought. 'And now let's spread the sacking like this, and the drugget over it. There, like that it will be comfortable sitting,' he went on, suiting the action to the words and tucking the drugget all round over the straw to make a seat.
‘Thank you, dear man. Things always go quicker with two working at it!' he added. And gathering up the leather reins fastened together by a brass ring, Nikita took the driver's seat and started the impatient horse over the frozen manure which lay in the yard, towards the gate.
Or might you have wondered what was worn in the sleigh?
'It seems I must humour my old woman [the master, Vasili Andreevich’s, wife who insisted he take Nikita, the man, with him]. But if you're coming you'd better put on a warmer cloak,' said Vasili Andreevich, smiling again as he winked at Nikita's short sheepskin coat, which was torn under the arms and at the back, was greasy and out of shape, frayed to a fringe round the skirt, and had endured many things in its lifetime. . .
'Only a moment, Father, Vasili Andreevich!' replied Nikita, and running quickly with his inturned toes in his felt boots with their soles patched with felt, he hurried across the yard and into the workmen's hut.
'Arinushka! Get my coat down from the stove. I'm going with the master,' he said, as he ran into the hut and took down his girdle from the nail on which it hung.
The workmen's cook, who had had a sleep after dinner and was now getting the samovar ready for her husband, turned cheerfully to Nikita, and infected by his hurry began to move as quickly as he did, got down his miserable worn-out cloth coat from the stove where it was drying, and began hurriedly shaking it out and smoothing it down. . .
Then, drawing his worn narrow girdle round him, [Nikita] drew in his breath, pulling in his lean stomach still more, and girdled himself as tightly as he could over his sheepskin.
'There now,' he said addressing himself no longer to the cook but the girdle, as he tucked the ends in at the waist, 'now you won't come undone!' And working his shoulders up and down to free his arms, he put the coat over his sheepskin, arched his back more strongly to ease his arms, poked himself under the armpits, and took down his leather-covered mittens from the shelf. 'Now we're all right!'
'You ought to wrap your feet up, Nikita. Your boots are very bad.'
Nikita stopped as if he had suddenly realized this.
'Yes, I ought to.... But they'll do like this. It isn't far!' and he ran out into the yard.
Finally, they are on their way. You probably assumed, as I did, that the man would drive and the master would ride.
Vasili Andreevich, who was wearing two fur-lined coats one over the other, was already in the sleigh, his broad back filling nearly its whole rounded width, and taking the reins he immediately touched the horse. Nikita jumped in just as the sledge started, and seated himself in front on the left side, with one leg hanging over the edge.
This is what I mean by nuts-and-bolts realism. Every detail brings you closer to what it was like to be in that time and that place.
the leather reins fastened together by a brass ring
the workmen's cook [so, Vasili Andreevich employs enough workers to need a cook to feed them]
working his shoulders up and down to free his arms, he put the coat over his sheepskin, arched his back more strongly to ease his arms
his inturned toes in his felt boots with their soles patched with felt
seated himself in front on the left side, with one leg hanging over the edge
To me, the most evocative detail of the scene in the courtyard, before the wild journey through the blizzard which is the bulk of the story, is just a few words which made real to me the rural 19th century in a way nothing else I’ve read has:
the frozen manure which lay in the yard
I can’t think of other fiction so realistic about practical details. Perhaps Jack London – I can’t recall. In Moby Dick, Melville goes into details like this to great length, but those passages are presented as non-fiction diversions, essays on tradecraft, not integrated into the action. Anyway, Moby Dick is as much an insane masterpiece of finickiness as Finnegan’s Wake and doesn’t lend itself to comparison with ordinary fiction, even other fiction by Melville and Joyce.
The details of the blizzard, the sled’s passage through it, the tribulations of the men in the sleigh, and the horse pulling it, all are presented in precise detail. It is pure genius, the way these details –precise and dry as a bureaucrat’s report – make Master and Man so moving. It may not be a masterpiece, but it touched me deeply.
An excerpt from the journey:
Nikita silently got out of the sledge and holding his coat, which the wind now wrapped closely about him and now almost tore off, started to feel about in the snow, going first to one side and then to the other. Three or four times he was completely lost to sight. At last he returned and took the reins from Vasili Andreevich's hand.
'We must go to the right,' he said sternly and peremptorily, as he turned the horse.
'Well, if it's to the right, go to the right,' said Vasili Andreevich, yielding up the reins to Nikita and thrusting his freezing hands into his sleeves.
Nikita did not reply.
'Now then, friend, stir yourself!' he shouted to the horse, but in spite of the shake of the reins Mukhorty [the horse] moved only at a walk.
The snow in places was up to his knees, and the sledge moved by fits and starts with his every movement.
Nikita took the whip that hung over the front of the sledge and struck him once. The good horse, unused to the whip, sprang forward and moved at a trot, but immediately fell back into an amble and then to a walk. So they went on for five minutes. It was dark and the snow whirled from above and rose from below, so that sometimes the shaft-bow could not be seen. At times the sledge seemed to stand still and the field to run backwards. Suddenly the horse stopped abruptly, evidently aware of something close in front of him. Nikita again sprang lightly out, throwing down the reins, and went ahead to see what had brought him to a standstill, but hardly had he made a step in front of the horse before his feet slipped and he went rolling down an incline.
'Whoa, whoa, whoa!' he said to himself as he fell, and he tried to stop his fall but could not, and only stopped when his feet plunged into a thick layer of snow that had drifted to the bottom of the hollow.
The fringe of a drift of snow that hung on the edge of the hollow, disturbed by Nikita's fall, showered down on him and got inside his collar.
That last sentence – simple, natural, almost conversational. Do you think it is easy to gather all those elements together in one sentence and put them in the right order, finishing with what will send a sympathetic chill through the nape of any reader who has lived in a snow belt?
The Cossacks, 160 pages long, would be considered a novel these days. It draws on Tolstoy’s experiences in the Crimean War (or should we say the First Crimean War?). John Bayley, in his introduction, says that the main character, Olenin, a sophisticated Muscovite who joins the army in the Caucuses to escape gambling debts (as Tolstoy did), is not a self-portrait. I’m not so sure. No matter.
Bayley calls The Cossacks a comedy. It didn’t strike me as a comedy. (Like most of us, I leave the reading of Introductions – if they are not by the author – until after I have finished a book.) It is a comedy in the broad sense, perhaps – a plot which teeters on the edge of melodrama, to be pulled up short time and again by the arbitrary reality of ordinary people and ordinary life, ordinary for Cossacks in a Cossack village in the 1852. (Tolstoy includes the exact year in his subtitle, “A Tale of 1852”.)
The effect of Master and Man hinges on what happens in the story – on the plot – and its graphic realism is a tool that enhances its effect. Plot is incidental to The Cossacks. It is a portrait of Cossack life. Its effect is more that of good travel writing than of good fiction. I’m thinking of the kind of in-depth, personalized portraits of places and people by writers such as Paul Theroux and Bruce Chatwin.
The Cossack girls had not yet started dancing their khorovods, but having gathered in groups, in their bright coloured beshmets with white kerchiefs on their heads pulled down to their eyes, they sat either on the ground or on the earth-banks about the huts sheltered from the oblique rays of the sun, and laughed and chattered in their ringing voices. Little boys and girls playing in the square sent their balls high up into the clear sky, and ran about squealing and shouting. The half-grown girls had started dancing their khorovods, and were timidly singing in their thin shrill voices. Clerks, lads not in the service, or home for the holiday, bright-faced and wearing smart white or new red Circassian gold-trimmed coats, went about arm in arm in twos or threes from one group of women or girls to another, and stopped to joke and chat with the Cossack girls. The Armenian shopkeeper, in a gold-trimmed coat of fine blue cloth, stood at the open door through which piles of folded bright-coloured kerchiefs were visible and, conscious of his own importance and with the pride of an Oriental tradesman, waited for customers. Two red-bearded, barefooted Chechens, who had come from beyond the Terek to see the fete, sat on their heels outside the house of a friend, negligently smoking their little pipes and occasionally spitting, watching the villagers and exchanging remarks with one another in their rapid guttural speech. Occasionally a workaday-looking soldier in an old overcoat passed across the square among the bright-clad girls. Here and there the songs of tipsy Cossacks who were merry-making could already be heard. All the huts were closed; the porches had been scrubbed clean the day before. Even the old women were out in the street, which was everywhere sprinkled with pumpkin and melon seed-shells. The air was warm and still, the sky deep and clear. Beyond the roofs the dead-white mountain range, which seemed very near, was turning rosy in the glow of the evening sun. Now and then from the other side of the river came the distant roar of a cannon, but above the village, mingling with one another, floated all sorts of merry holiday sounds.
Or even Peter Mathiessen. (The following are excerpts from a single paragraph that is three pages long.)
The day was perfectly clear, calm, and hot. The morning moisture had dried up even in the forest, and myriads of mosquitoes literally covered his face, his back, and his arms. His dog had turned from black to grey, its back being covered with mosquitoes, and so had Olenin's coat through which the insects thrust their stings. Olenin was ready to run away from them and it seemed to him that it was impossible to live in this country in the summer. He was about to go home, but remembering that other people managed to endure such pain he resolved to bear it and gave himself up to be devoured. And strange to say, by noontime the feeling became actually pleasant. He even felt that without this mosquito-filled atmosphere around him, and that mosquito-paste mingled with perspiration which his hand smeared over his face, and that unceasing irritation all over his body, the forest would lose for him some of its character and charm. These myriads of insects were so well suited to that monstrously lavish wild vegetation, these multitudes of birds and beasts which filled the forest, this dark foliage, this hot scented air, these runlets filled with turbid water which everywhere soaked through from the Terek and gurgled here and there under the overhanging leaves, that the very thing which had at first seemed to him dreadful and intolerable now seemed pleasant. . . Having found the traces of yesterday's stag he crept under a bush into the thicket just where the stag had lain, and lay down in its lair. He examined the dark foliage around him, the place marked by the stag's perspiration and yesterday's dung, the imprint of the stag's knees, the bit of black earth it had kicked up, and his own footprints of the day before. He felt cool and comfortable and did not think of or wish for anything. And suddenly he was overcome by such a strange feeling of causeless joy and of love for everything, that from an old habit of his childhood he began crossing himself and thanking someone. Suddenly, with extraordinary clearness, he thought: 'Here am I, Dmitri Olenin, a being quite distinct from every other being, now lying all alone Heaven only knows where--where a stag used to live--an old stag, a beautiful stag who perhaps had never seen a man, and in a place where no human being has ever sat or thought these thoughts. Here I sit, and around me stand old and young trees, one of them festooned with wild grape vines, and pheasants are fluttering, driving one another about and perhaps scenting their murdered brothers’ [he is carrying a some pheasants he has shot] . . . he felt tired to death and peered round at every bush and tree with particular attention and almost with terror, expecting every moment to be called to account for his life. After having wandered about for a considerable time he came upon a ditch down which was flowing cold sandy water from the Terek, and, not to go astray any longer, he decided to follow it. He went on without knowing where the ditch would lead him. Suddenly the reeds behind him crackled. He shuddered and seized his gun, and then felt ashamed of himself: the over-excited dog, panting hard, had thrown itself into the cold water of the ditch and was lapping it!
Bayley, in his Introduction, attributes more cynicism to Tolstoy in these stories than I detected. I suffer from chronic sentimentalism, so I sometimes fail to recognize a cynical twist to what seems an earnest romanticism.
The story, Father Sergius, was completely new to me. I can’t remember having heard of it, even though I’d read plenty about Tolstoy, including Henri Troyat’s biography. Father Sergius is the most undisguisedly Tolstoyan (in the polemical sense) of the stories. Its protagonist is an aristocrat, a prince, who is aware that he suffers from the sin of pride and becomes a monk to purge himself of it. Unfortunately for him – from a Tolstoyan point of view – he becomes a famous holy hermit, more full of self-regard than ever (although he is always aware of it and ashamed). Disgusted with himself, with one particular deed most unbecoming to a living saint, he takes to the road as an anonymous vagrant. Finally, because he lacks identification papers, he is exiled to Siberia. This is the last paragraph of Father Sergius:
In Siberia he has settled down as the hired man of a well-to-do peasant, in which capacity he works in the kitchen-garden, teaches children, and attends to the sick.
Reading this, it seemed to me that Prince Kasatsky, a/k/a Father Sergius, was in the end able to shed his pride and become a true Tolstoyan. Bayley, however, says that even in Siberia, Kasatsky does not find peace, freedom from the “pride and self-will” that Tolstoy, himself, could not shed. I don’t know whether my reading is too sentimental, too forgiving, or whether Bayley is drawing an unfounded parallel between Tolstoy, who was never able to shed his ego, and the fictional prince.
Bayley thinks that Hadji Murad is the best of the book’s stories. I think not, not at all. It is poorly structured. For example, a complication which is crucial to the overall plot – the fact that the family of Hadji Murad, who has gone over to the Russians in their fight against the Chechens, are prisoners of his Chechen nemesis – is presented late, so the reader has to go back and revise his evaluation of Murad’s motivation. It does not strike me as a deliberate literary device. The story just seems sloppily put together.
What is most fascinating about Hadji Murad is that the behavior of the Chechens, their mores, their adeptness at dissimulation and concealing and revealing their contempt for infidels at will as called for by circumstances, their bravado, their devotion to Islam, even though they feel free to pick and choose which elements of it to revere and when, seem to demonstrate an unbroken line of identity between the Islamic insurgents of the mid-19th century and those who bedevil us today.
The translations are by Aylmer and Louise Maude (except for Alyosha). (Wikipedia tells us the Maudes were friends of Tolstoy’s, translating and promoting his work in England, and that Louise mainly dealt with Tolstoy’s fiction, while Aylmer took on the philosophical works. The translations were done between 1900 and 1925.) They seems just fine to me. There are some quirks, probably to help English readers with Victorian prejudices get over some xenophobic humps: Russian proper nouns of more than two syllables include an acute accent to show where the stress is. And for amounts of rubles the Maudes give parenthetical equivalencies in pounds – which are as meaningless as the original value of the rubles to today’s reader, as they would have been to the 1967 reader too.
Good stuff, by and large. Family Happiness is a weak rehearsal for Tolstoy’s later great portraits of marriages. The Devil is a portrait of sexual obsession which doesn’t seem even to have as much insight into the subject as do Maugham’s early stories (Rain, etc.) which I’m now in the middle of reading.