I’ve previously posted on one long piece in this book: Hadji
Murat. The remainder of this book is a
collection of short stories selected by the book’s translators, Richard Pevear
and Larissa Volokhonsky, no doubt to show off the diversity in Tolstoy’s story
structure and subject matter. But in doing this, they’ve perhaps inadvertently
selected stories that, except for a pair, depict Tolstoy’s project of using story
to demonstrate his views on morality.
Some of his moral depictions here (and almost all literature
trifles with ethical dilemmas of the author’s times to one degree or another)
are as subtly put as those modern by a hundred years. On the other hand, others
are actually quite ham-handed. But more on this subject below and in the
following two weeks’ posts.
The translators made these stories entertaining – not only by
showing us the more timeless aspects of Tolstoy’s literary thinking – but in
herding them ever so gracefully into modern times via a more contemporary
language that refuses to betray Tolstoy and the language of that time. As I’ve
implied previously, these two translators are likely without peer in doing so.
Possibly since I’m a blue collar dude by sensibility, my
favorite story (besides Hadji Murat) is Master and Man, in which a man of
means, Vassily Andreich and a servant, Nikita, an older muzhik, or peasant,
take off on a winter trip to another town with a snowstorm looming.
The story is a masterwork of the dynamics between the two
men, how they both complement one another and manage inherent class conflicts.
As well, it depicts as deftly as any modern work might the ways in which Nikita
belongs to nature, in which he understands, despite his usual drunken state,
how to navigate nature in such times and how to yield to it in order to
survive. Vassily, on the other hand, is headstrong to a fault, which proves his
undoing in this Jack London-style story of man versus the elements.
I’m not going to blather on about each story in this way.
Instead, what I propose is a radical departure from my usual book posts.
I’ve mentioned several times here my observation that
secular culture’s Achilles heel is its underdeveloped sense of what’s ethical
and what’s not. And further, my wish that literature be looked upon as
something I’ve called secular scripture, writing that complements religious
precepts and writings over the millennia on ethics (okay, some – including me
at times – would also wish that literature’s depictions of ethical successes
and failures actually supplant those of religion)
So. If I’m going to rattle on about such high-minded things,
I think I should get that conversation going, don’t you?
Over the next two posts, I’ll use two of Tolstoy’s stories
in this collection as springboards into the possible uses of literature as
ethical texts in the secular world.
My rating for the book: 4-1/2 of 5 stars
Ethics, literature, secularism, Russian literature, religion