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Tolstoi roundup

November 15, 2011

I’ve been reading much more about Lev Tolstoi than usual, thanks no doubt to the hundredth anniversary of his 1910 death. Here’s a summary of the tiny piece of recent Tolstoi scholarship I’ve posted on:

First, the major novels. Jeff Brooks suggests that Tolstoi used so much French in the beginning of War and Peace to make it harder for the raznochintsy to read it, as he preferred to address the narrow, aristocratic audience Russian writers aimed at early in the century (I later backed off a bit from my facile Tolstoi/Nekrasov contrast in that post). He also argues that a deep strain of folk humor in War and Peace made it rich material for satirists at The Spark, and discussed Tolstoi’s idea of “ethical” humor. Julie W. de Sherbinin interprets Levin’s forays into peasant life in Anna Karenina as comparable to white Americans who borrow freely from black culture, taking “everything but the burden.” Finally Jacob Emery looks at infection (and sometimes inoculation) in Tolstoi’s life, essays about art, and fiction, especially Anna Karenina (on several levels, from mentions of it in dialogue to one plotline “infecting” another).

As for Tolstoi’s other works, Ronald D. LeBlanc reads Kholstomer (1861-65) in the context of Tolstoi’s thinking (and reading) about celibacy, sex, and castration. Brooks’s article on humor introduced me to Tolstoi’s play Зараженное семейство (An Infected Family, 1864), which has very clear caricatures of nihilists and, for all its flaws, makes the intergenerational tension of the time palpable (even more than Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons). The play also gives a picture of changing relationships after the emancipation of 1861, repeatedly critiquing the fashion of superficial egalitarianism among the younger gentry (and here I’ll stand by a different Tolstoi/Nekrasov contrast).

A book about Tolstoi near the end of his life, Pavel Basinskii’s Лев Толстой: Бегство из рая (Lev Tolstoi: Fleeing from Paradise, 2010), won varied reactions. Hugh McLean calls it “a beautiful book, thoughtful, original, deeply felt and deeply sympathetic to its characters and their plights, yet distanced enough to be capable of well-rounded judgments.” Sergei Bocharov thinks it’s a distraction to focus so much on Tolstoi’s departure from his house and family, instead talking about his departure from literature, which can be dated as early as 1859 (!), and in some ways echoed Gogol’s.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Julia Denne permalink
    December 9, 2011 10:42 pm

    Tolstoy explains quite well in “Some Words about War and Peace” and his drafts to Introduction the reasons to include French. As a native Russian speaker who doesn’t know French, I don’t find it irritating to see French in the Russian text and enjoy Tolstoy’s translation of it as footnotes. It makes me aware in what situations Tolstoy used French and when he preferred Russian. I don’t believe that the inclusion of French would make “raznochintzy” stay away from the book or think that it is intended inclusively to the gentry.

  2. xixvek permalink*
    December 9, 2011 11:10 pm

    Thank you for the comment! In defense of Jeff Brooks’s idea, I’d reiterate his point that the French is especially thick at the beginning of the novel. Also, did Tolstoi actually translate it in footnotes? In the 1868 edition of the novel, it appears to be left untranslated (an example: except for very long passages ( In the 1865 journal version, there are footnotes translating the French, but they’re attributed to the editor (

    I agree with you that for the modern reader the French isn’t irritating, and maybe you’re right that raznochintsy in the 1860s would also have found it interesting. What does Tolstoi say in “Some Words about War and Peace” and the drafts of the introduction about why he included so much French?

  3. Julia Denne permalink
    December 11, 2011 5:20 pm

    Here is what Tolstoy says in “Some Words about War and Peace”: “(3) The use of French in a Russian book. Why in my book do Russians as well as Frenchmen sometimes speak Russian and sometimes French? The reproach that in a Russian book people speak and write French is like the reproach of a man who, looking at a portrait, notices black spots (shadows) on it which do not exist in nature. The painter is not to blame if to some people the shadow he has put on the face of the portrait appears as a black spot nonexistent in nature; he is only to blame if such shadows are put on wrongly or coarsely. Dealing with the beginning of the 19th century, and depicting the Russians of a certain class and Napoleon and other Frenchmen who had so direct a part in the life of that epoch, I was involuntarily carried away to an unnecessary extent by the form in which they expressed their French way of thought. And so, without denying that the shadows put on by me are probably incorrect and coarse, I would only ask those to whom it seems absurd that Napoleon should speak now Russian and now French, to realize that this seems so to them only because they, like the man looking at the portrait, notice a black spot under the nose instead of observing the face with its lights and shades.” (Maude translation)

    Together with other changes, Tolstoy translated all French into Russian in the third edition in 1873, but it was restored in the following editions. The French in my Russian edition (Tolstoy’s collected works in 22 volumes published in the 1970s and 1980s) is translated by Tolstoy as stated on the first page. I agree that the French passages are intrusion into the Russian text but they echo the intrusion of the French culture into the Russian society and the French military forces into the Russian land. French often stresses the artificial character of feelings and attitudes, but it is even more important that Tolstoy uses the mixture of Russian and French already in the first sentence of the book where a single Russian word is used as a calculated disparagement. This mingling of French with Russian, including Bilibin’s jokes, Pierre’s “proposal” to Helene, Hippolyte’s anecdote about the Moscow ‘barynya’, and Natasha’s mistakes in French go far beyond the need for local coloring. I am not persuaded by Jeff Brooks argument, especially if you think that prior to writing “War and Peace” Tolstoy turned to building schools and educating peasant children, because he thought that it was shameful that only the gentry could read Russian literature (see Simmons

  4. December 12, 2011 12:29 am

    It’s interesting that Tolstoi evidently tried so many approaches: leaving the French untranslated, replacing it altogether with Russian (if I understand you right about the 1873 edition), and supplementing it with his own translation. His use of French was more controversial than I realized, given those changes and his apparent need to defend it in “Some Words…”

    Your description of how French is used in the novel seems convincing to me, but not necessarily incompatible with Tolstoi pointedly not writing for an audience of raznochintsy. His ideas on class and education for peasants seem rather complex (I’m thinking here of de Sherbinin’s article on Anna Karenina). But as a non-Tolstoi scholar I’m out of my depth, and I’ll stop here with thanks for your thoughtful and substantive response.

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