Tolstoy and Homer

As I write this I'm sitting by the Mediterranean Sea, enjoying a view that has been the same for thousands of years. It’s the perfect place to write about the similarities between Homer and Tolstoy.

As I have written before, Tolstoy considered himself equal to Homer. He was so obsessed with the classics, that he taught himself Ancient Greek in a mere couple of months when he was in his forties, so that he could read them in the original. You can find Homeric elements in all his literary works. I say elements and not influences, because they are not in the least bit contrived, far from it. They are the foundation of his writing, his natural instinct.

Typically Homer

The epic poems The Iliad and The Odyssey were written some 2800 years ago, assumedly by Homer. They are about the Trojan War and its aftermath and have been extremely influential. The major themes of the Iliad are glory, honour, wrath and fate. The Homeric hero would rather die honourably and receive eternal glory than be a coward. The war is constantly interfered with by the eternal gods, who use the war to fight their own petty battles with each other.

Fascination with war

Tolstoy may have been a pacifist, but he did like to write about war, often drawing from his own memories; he went to war in the Caucasus as a young man. Going to war for him was like going back to an ancient, primitive world, where men are one with their horses, and where pots are hissing and steaming above the fire at night. It provides a chance to escape from daily life and responsibilities, and to prove yourself. Striving for glory is important. In War and Peace Nicholas and later his younger brother Petya can't wait to go to war. In the Iliad Paris is scorned for his unwillingness to fight. For Hadji Murad there simply is no other way of life, he will fight until the end.

Contrast with home

Nevertheless, both writers contrast life on the battlefield with that that the heroes have left behind: home, family, and working the land. The shield that Hephaestus makes for Achilles is adorned with more peaceful scenes than war scenes. In between battles the hero Hector visits his family, showing his tender side. Hadji Murad’s life had always been rather violent and the Russians regard him as a heroic and legendary figure, but he too gets sentimental thinking about his mother and his family and it's the welfare of his family that motivates him.

To die heroically

When Hector faces Achilles in a man to man fight, he is initially scared, but eventually he faces Achilles and dies a hero. Hadji Murad dies heroically as well, still standing, even though he is mortally wounded; he keeps fighting until he literally falls down. The scene is extremely Homeric and Tolstoyan at the same time: no one can describe the moment of death quite the way Tolstoy can, but the blood streaming into the grass is pure Homer.

Fate

The outcome of wars is decided by the arbitrariness of the gods or the tsar or Napoleon. We humans are mere mortals, without control of our destiny. And because of this the message of these two gigantic writers is that life has to be lived and enjoyed right now.

“As when the smith an hatchet or large axe

Temp’ring with skill, plunges the hissing blade

Deep in cold water, (whence the strength of steel)

So hiss’d his eye around the olive-wood.” (Homer – The Odyssey)

“With a solemn, triumphant march there mingled a song, the drip from the trees, and the hissing of the sabre, “Ozheg-zheg-zheg…” and again the horses jostled each other and neighed, not disturbing the choir but joining in it.” (Tolstoy – War and Peace)

Books in my suitcase:

George Steiner – Tolstoy or Dostoevsky

Homer and Tolstoy

© Elisabeth van der Meer – photos by me and from Wikipedia


Liever in het Nederlands? http://www.vanpoesjkintotpasternak.wordpress.com

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Gogol’s Taras Bulba – a milestone

Gogol gave Russian literature its' own identity

Gogol's Taras Bulba (1842) is a milestone in Russian literature. If Pushkin provided a language and inspiration for future Russian writers, than Gogol gave them their own distinct identity. When you're reading Taras Bulba, you recognise so much of what has been written later.

The Romantic Era

Romanticism was the main literary movement in Russia from the end of the eighteenth century until halfway into the nineteenth century. Lermontov and Pushkin are the most famous writers of this period. The industrial revolution sparked an interest in all things pure, natural, past and authentic.

Gogol was an Ukrainian with Cossack blood running through his veins living in Saint Petersburg. When everything to do with Little Russia, as the Ukraine was called back then, became hugely popular there, he cleverly wrote Taras Bulba. The story is full of Ukrainian words, folklore and Cossack customs.

The story

It's a rather violent story. The hero of the story, Taras Bulba, is a Cossack headman, who in order to complete his sons' education, takes them to fight against the catholic Poles. The youngest walks over to the other side for the sake of a Polish girl and for that his father kills him, while the oldest gets tortured to death by the Polish in front of his father. Not for the faint-hearted.

“Oh, steppes, how beautiful you are!”

The story has often been criticised. Historically it's incorrect and the centuries are mixed up. The Cossacks are so violent that they would make the average Isis soldier look away. A Polish servant girl escapes through a secret tunnel from the city that has been besieged by the Cossacks. She wakes up the youngest son to tell him that his sweetheart is among the starving in the city. Together the go through the tunnel into the city, where indeed the people are dying in the streets. Why didn't they just all escape through that tunnel?! The love story is not at all plausible. Gogol talks about the unspoiled Steppe, 'upon which were sprinkled millions of different flowers', and 'the air was filled with the notes of a thousand different birds', and more of this.

Its' Follow-ups

Dostoevsky apparently said once that every Russian writer came from underneath Gogol's Overcoat. He was a huge fan of his work and found him very inspiring. In The Brothers Karamazov (1880) there is a rather painful scene that appears in Taras Bulba too: an emaciated woman with a infant clutched to her dried out breasts. Just like Gogol, Dostoevsky was fascinated by the excesses of human existence.

Turgenev most definitely took inspiration from Taras Bulba. Especially the striking nature scenes resound even more beautifully in Turgenev's work. His Acia (1858) contains many Romantic elements and there too the protagonist falls in love with a lively dark-eyed girl.

And in Tolstoy's Cossacks (1863) too: it starts more or less the same. The protagonist is traveling to the Caucasus and thinks about his past and future. The scene is reminiscent of Taras Bulba departing with his sons, each with their own thoughts. Tolstoy's protagonist is very much attracted by the Cossack way of life and he too falls in love with a spirited dark-eyed girl. Tolstoy's Cossacks are not as violent, though.

Hadji Murat (1904) is most similar. Both stories are named after their hero, and both heroes are exotic leaders, feared and admired by all. It breathes the same atmosphere, we encounter the same freshly plastered walls and the same girls with coins on their necklaces. Tolstoy's last fictional story would appear to be an homage to Gogol.

Conclusion

Gogol used a lot of humour in his work. Although it is not always clear if he meant something as humorous or if he was genuinely exaggerating, I'm more inclined to consider the former. If Taras Bulba slays six enemies with one sway with his sword, surely that is meant to be funny. All in all it's a pretty good story, just like Pulp Fiction is a pretty good film. Is it one of the ten best books ever written, like Hemingway once claimed? No, that really is exaggerated. But it is definitely a milestone well worth reading.



© Elisabeth van der Meer

The illustrations are from an old Russian edition of Taras Bulba

I read the Peter Constantine translation

 

Typically Tolstoy

Russian literature from the second half of the nineteenth century aims to describe and analyse life in all its aspects. This literary movement is called realism. And realism fits Tolstoy like a glove!

The set-up

The set-up of Tolstoy’s novels and stories is usually simple: there are good and bad people and after the necessary struggles the good win and the hero and heroine end up together. The, often internal, struggle between good and bad is the main subject, but other themes like war, love, discrimination, adultery and happiness feature regularly too.

Writing style

Tolstoy’s writing is uncomplicated. Dutch slavist Karel van het Reve even went so far as to say there there is not a single sentence in War and Peace that a twelve-year-old wouldn’t be able to understand. He doesn’t use difficult words either, keeping his writing as clean as possible. He does, however, frequently use French, as that was the spoken language of the gentry at the time, but in English translations the French is often translated into English as well. Another difficulty is the vast amount of characters (with long Russian names) that Tolstoy introduces. He often uses the omniscient narrator technique: the narrator knows what goes on in Napoleon’s mind on the eve of the battle and what Natásha talks about with her mother before she goes to sleep.

Research

Tolstoy took his writing extremely seriously. He rewrote War and Peace seven (!) times before he was completely happy with it. His research was so extensive that he went to Borodino (W&P) to see where the sun came up on the morning of the battle of Borodino. To make his characters as real as possible, he often sought inspiration within his own family. The Bolkonski family (W&P) was based on his mother’s family, the Volkonskis, and the Rostovs are based on the Tolstoys. For realistic female characterisation Tolstoy consulted his wife.

Mise-en-scène

Tolstoy knows how to bring a scene to life. In Hadji Murad there is a scene in which four soldiers are keeping watch at night. An ordinary writer would have stated the fact and that would have been that. Not Tolstoy. He describes all their little habits, their conversation and the silences in between, giving the reader that fly-on-the-wall experience. These soldiers are not relevant in the story, but their story helps to make the story, it gives it the necessary couleur locale.

Moralistic

As he got older Tolstoy’s work became more and more moralistic. In War and Peace (1869) his reflections are still of a philosophical nature, but by the time he writes Hadji Murad (1904) he is explicitly against the war and interference in the Caucasus. Towards the end of his life he wrote less and less literature and more moralistic and religious essays.

In short:

You can recognise Tolstoy by his (numerous!) extraordinarily lifelike and recognisable characters, his great psychological insight, his superior descriptions, his clear writing and unpretentious vocabulary and his warning finger. Books such as Anna Karenina and War and Peace are unrivalled classics that will, once read, remain with you throughout your life.

******

Photo: Wikipedia

Is Hadji Murat the improved version of War and Peace?

Earlier I wrote that Hadji Murat can be seen as a mini version of War and Peace. But did Tolstoy deliberately rewrite War and Peace?

Tolstoy’s final work of fiction

Tolstoy wrote Hadji Murat over the course of eight years at the end of his life, from 1896 until 1904. It is the last piece of fiction that he wrote and his wife Sophia cherished it particularly. Because at that time he also wrote What Is Art? (1897), in which he, among other things, condemns fiction, he felt obliged to write Hadji Murat on the side.

Similarities and oppositions

In both works we find a large number of characters, 580 in War and Peace and 151 in Hadji Murat. Tolstoy uses these characters, from a simple soldier up to the tsar, to illustrate the war from a wide variety of perspectives. Real and fictitious characters and facts are intermingled.

In both works domestic scenes are contrasted with military scenes; in War and Peace the family life plays a bigger part, in Hadji Murat it’s the other way around. The domestic life is often luxurious, whereas at the front things are kept simple.

War can be beautiful too

Tolstoy philosophises in both works about the reasons for warfare. The war is typically started by an ambitious ruler, spirals out of control and before you know it millions of people have lost their lives. But it’s not all evil; there are many cheerful military scenes, particularly in Hadji Murat, even though Tolstoy was a self-proclaimed pacifist around 1900. Perhaps out of nostalgia, having fought in the Caucasian war himself.

In the beginning of Hadji Murat a small scale gun fight takes place between Russian and Chechen soldiers, in which one soldier is killed. This fight is described as “… the incessant, merry, stirring rattle of our rifles began, accompanied by pretty dissolving cloudlets of smoke.”. In War and Peace there are similar battle scenes; on the morning of the Battle of Borodino, for instance, Pierre is mesmerised by the battlefield scene in front of him: “… these puffs of smoke and (strange to say) the sound of the firing produced the chief beauty of the spectacle.”.

The eyes are the mirror of the soul

One of the most beautiful scenes in War and Peace is the reunion of Nicholas, returning home on leave, and his youth love Sonya. Because this reunion takes place in the drawing room in front of the whole family, Nicholas keeps it formal. He kisses Sonya’s hands and addresses her with you in stead of thou, but “глаза их, встретившись, сказали друг другу “ты” и нежно поцеловались”, their eyes met and said thou and exchanged tender kisses.

Tolstoy uses the exact same construction in Hadji Murat: a formal meeting takes place between the hero of the story and the Commander-in-Chief Vorontsov. Hadji Murat is formally surrendering himself to the Russians. “Глаза этих двух людей, встретившись, говорили друг другу многое, невыразимое словами, и уж совсем не то, что говорил переводчик.”,the eyes of the two men met, and expressed to each other much that could not have been put into words and that was not at all what the interpreter said.

Thanks to those two sentences the reader now knows much, much more about the characters. Although Nicholas ends up being happily married to Mary, the reader cannot help but think that he would have been happier with Sonya. In the case of Hadji Murat we now know, already in the beginning of the story, that Hadji Murat’s surrender was not sincere, but motivated by the hope that with the help of the Russians he could free his family and that Vorontsov knew this too. And Vorontsov knowingly agreed, probably because it was a matter of prestige for the Russians to have the great naïb on their side. And so Tolstoy cleverly lets the reader draw their own conclusions and actively involves them into the story.

Conclusion

All these similarities can lead only to one conclusion: Tolstoy deliberately rewrote War and Peace, probably to convey his current outspoken ideas about pacifism, and perhaps to write one more final work of fiction before he died, in order to close off his literary career once and for all.

Louis Lejeune – Battle of Moscow (Wikipedia)

 

Reading list: War and Peace and Hadji Murat

For a review on Hadji Murat  https://booksyo.wordpress.com/2015/11/15/hadji-murat-by-leo-tolstoy/


 

Tolstoy and the Caucasus

Unlike Pushkin and Lermontov Tolstoy (1828-1910) went to the Caucasus voluntarily. He had accumulated considerable gambling debts in Moscow. Gambling addiction was a big problem with the Russian aristocracy, and the stakes could get really high. The Tolstoy family was no exception. Remember the American( http://wp.me/p5zzbs-2n )? When he couldn’t pay his debts anymore, he contemplated suicide, but his gypsy girlfriend gave him the money and saved him. The wild stories about Leo’s illustrious great uncle circulated in Moscow for years after his death in 1846.

Good intentions

In order to escape from his troubles in Moscow, Leo decided to join his brother Nikolay, who was positioned with the Russian army in the Caucasus. In their enthusiasm the brothers forgot to take into consideration the well known fact that the average Russian officer loves a game of cards. In no time at all Tolstoy was 850 roubles in debt again and was forced to sell off more of his inheritance. His other good intentions didn’t come to much either; he had gypsy girl after Cossack girl.

The start of his writing career

Tolstoy stayed in the Cossack village Starogladkovskaya for two and a half years. This period turned out to have a positive influence on his writing at least. He even started his writing career in the Caucasus. His war experiences there were used for War and Peace and several of his stories, like The Cossacks and Hadji Murad are situated in the Caucasus.

“He admired the Cossacks”

The novella The Cossacks (1862) is Tolstoy’s first masterpiece and it was Turgenev’s favourite. It starts like any Romantic story. The hero Olenin leaves his troubled past behind to start a new life in the Caucasus. Tolstoy himself, having read Pushkin and Lermontov, must have felt like that too when he made that journey. Tolstoy, however, is not a Romantic writer and Olenin is no Pechorin. Where Pechorin left a trail of destruction behind him, Olenin leaves no impression at all, he doesn’t get the girl and before he’s even out of sight he’s forgotten. This is a technique that Tolstoy uses frequently, making the familiar strange. Ironically Tolstoy needed the proceeds from this work to pay off more gambling debts.

Tolstoy’s final piece of fiction

At the end of his life, between 1896 and 1904, Tolstoy wrote his last masterpiece: Hadji Murad. At that time he wrote mainly religious and pacifist texts and had already declared that literature was a waste of time. As a result he felt guilty working on it. Perhaps we owe it to Turgenev’s deathbed plea that Tolstoy did once more what he was so extraordinarily good at: writing superb fiction. The story is based on a piece of Caucasian history from 1851, precisely the year that Tolstoy went to the Caucasus.

“This Hadji Murad was Shamil’s naïb”

It’s a typical Tolstoy story, actually a mini version of War and Peace. It tells the story of the dilemma that Hadji Murad, Chechen rebel leader and hero, faced in the final year of his restless life. We see Hadji Murad through the eyes of the Russians, who admire but also distrust him. We see him through the eyes of his own people, through women’s eyes and finally as a father whose family is being held hostage. It’s a bloody war story and to clear his conscience Tolstoy warns us at regular intervals: war is evil. Feel free to skip these passages and enjoy the great Tolstoy at his best. Tolstoy knew very well why people wage wars and why people like reading fiction. After all he was only human himself.

Hadji Murad in 1851 (Wikipedia)

The quotes are from The Cossacks and Hadji Murad.

The books I used were:

Tolstoy, A Russian Life by Rosamund Bartlett

Tolstoy by A.N. Wilson