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.