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

Typically Gogol

Just like Pushkin Gogol is considered to be the father of Russian literature. Pushkin provided a modern language for future writers and proved to be an inexhaustible source of inspiration, and Gogol gave Russian literature its’ own identity and he wrote the first Russian novel: Dead Souls. He doesn't quite fit into a genre, his work has both romantic and realistic elements, and one could even say that he was a fantastic realist avant la lettre.


His career


Gogol was born in the Ukraine from Cossack descent. At school the other children called him a ‘mysterious dwarf’, but his mother adored him. When he was nineteen he moved to Petersburg to become either an actor or a writer. At the time folklore was very popular in Petersburg and writing about the Ukraine was easy for Gogol. His first collection of stories, Evenings on a farm near Dikanka (1832), was soon a modest success.


He followed it up with another set of Ukrainian stories, Mirgorod (1835). His first big success came with his play The Government Inspector (1836). It managed to get through the strict censure, even though Gogol parodied the bureaucracy in Russia. The so called Petersburg stories were written between 1835 en 1842. With that first of all great Russian novels, Dead Souls (1842) Gogol’s star was firmly set on the Russian firmament.


Great sense of humour


Gogol was a genius when it came to making ordinary situations comical. Dead Souls, described as an ‘odyssey through the great Russian land’, is riddled with anecdotes and eccentric characters. No one escapes Gogol's satire. There is a hilarious scene where two servants come back to the hotel where their master stays in an apparent state. They need fifteen minutes to conquer the stairs. Once inside they fall asleep immediately and soon the whole hotel is snoring. Quite a funny situation already. But add to that one person who is not asleep, a lieutenant, of absolutely no relevance to the rest of the novel, who has just bought four pairs of new boots and is parading up and down his room in them, admiring them and unable to take them off. That's when we have Gogol's inimitable sense of humour*.


Style


His writing style is rather old fashioned and complicated in Russian. Even though he wrote in Russian, he used a lot of Ukrainian words. He had a great sense of humour, but it is not always clear where he gets serious. His characters are described in detail by their appearance and actions, but unlike Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, Gogol does not provide any psychological insights into their behaviour, nor do his characters develop. And he is terrible when it comes to describing women, probably because he simply didn't know many women.


Influences


Gogol was influenced by his paternal grandmother, who told him all about Ukrainian folklore and superstitions, Cossack legends and taught him the old songs. He corresponded with his contemporary Pushkin and it was he who stimulated Gogol to write, and supposedly gave him the idea for Dead Souls. Dickens’s influence can also be felt, as well as Homer’s and Walter Scott’s.


Gogol, in turn, has influenced all Russian writers after him, particularly Dostoevsky and Bulgakov, who frequently mentioned him in their works. Franz Kafka was a big admirer, and his famous novel, Die Verwandlung, was clearly inspired by Gogol.


Finally


Gogol was rather eccentric himself, with his funny haircut and small physique. He never married, although it is not clear if he was perhaps homosexual. He liked to travel, probably that was his Cossack blood stirring, and was abroad for long periods of time. He died at the age of 42, shortly after famously burning parts of part two of Dead Souls, one of the big mysteries in Russian literature**. He had more or less starved himself to death.


Gogol may not have left a huge legacy on paper, but his legacy in Russian literature is enormous***. At this very moment people all over the world are reading one of his books with tears of laughter rolling down their faces.



*This sense of humour made Pushkin sad, he saw the sadness behind the smile.

**Bulgakov refers to this incident in The Master and Margarita with the well known quote «Рукописи не горят – Manuscripts don't burn».

***See my piece about Taras Bulba https://arussianaffair.wordpress.com/2017/06/14/gogols-taras-bulba-a-milestone/


*****



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

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

Tolstoy or Dostoevsky?!

As far as we know, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky never met each other. Even though they were contemporaries and moved in the same literary circles. They are often named in the same breath, but there are probably more differences than similarities between these two giants. And that leads us to the eternal question: who is better, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky?


Know-it-alls


They were both pretty full of themselves, especially Tolstoy. Tolstoy considered himself equal to Homer as a writer and better than the rest. He knew better than the tsar how to run the country and better than the church how to interpret the Bible, which didn't lead to any exiles, he was too famous, but it did lead to excommunication; he was to first Russian to get a civil funeral. Dostoevsky too was obsessed with religion. He saw himself as a prophet and warned against an immoral future without God.


Gamblers


Both writers had to deal with lack of money due to their gambling addictions, and were forced to write to pay off their debts. Tolstoy managed to lose the house where he was born and Dostoevsky resorted to terrible contractual conditions to get money. Both were able to overcome their addiction, but Dostoevsky struggled for money most of his life. Unlike Tolstoy he was not from an aristocratic family and had no family estate that raised money.


Dostoevsky would postpone writing until the deadline of his contract was about to expire. In a state of panic he would then resort to hiring a secretary to dictate to, so that he could write faster. This contributed to his somewhat hasty style. Of course he imagined his contemporary in his study at Yasnaya Polyana, meticulously rewriting War and Peace seven times.

Light and darkness


Tolstoy was a healthy and strong figure, always working. In his works life always prevails, a continuing flow of life, a life that needs to be lived. There is a contrast between city life and the countryside. In the countryside his personages can be their true selves. Tolstoy starts his novels somewhere in medias res, and ends them similarly. This emphasises the sense of the eternal circle of life. His message is good, yes, terrible things happen, but the sun also rises again, every day.


Dostoevsky suffered from epilepsy, thought he was going to get shot in what turned out to be a mock execution and was sentenced to several years of forced labour in Siberia. In his works he explores the darkest corners of the mind and the city. His characters are tested to the maximum. Where Tolstoy leaves it at a hint of incest, Dostoevsky makes incest, abuse, murder, money, (mental) illness, prostitution and other moral decline his main subjects. The question of the existence of God is at the core of his writing.


Commercial success


If you have to share your convictions and philosophies with the world and you need money, it helps, of course, to have good commercial insight in order to reach as big an audience as possible. Both writers succeeded extremely well. Dostoevsky weaved his psychological and religious insights into dramatic, blood-curdling murder mysteries, for which he took inspiration from newspapers, the truth often being more fantastic than fiction. Tolstoy incorporated his visions into enthralling novels, life bursting from their pages.


Two very different writers. Both very, very good. The question will always remain open to discussion. I don't believe in God, but I can imagine these two somewhere up there, looking down upon all this and smilingly stroking their long beards…


*****


© Elisabeth van der Meer


As a source of inspiration I read my father's old copy of Steiner’s Tolstoy or Dostoevsky. The photos of Tolstoy’s study and Dostoevsky’s manuscript are from Wikipedia. The others are mine. I'm adding the link to eight other opinions on this question and to my posts about incest in War and Peace and Dostoevsky and Tolstoy for further reading. Thanks for stopping by and until next time!

 

https://arussianaffair.wordpress.com/2016/01/15/is-there-really-an-incestuous-relationship-in-war-and-peace/

https://arussianaffair.wordpress.com/2016/12/13/typically-dostoevsky/

https://arussianaffair.wordpress.com/2016/09/15/typically-tolstoy/

http://www.themillions.com/2012/04/tolstoy-or-dostoevsky-8-experts-on-whos-greater.html

 

 

Typically Chekhov

Anton Pavlovich Chekhov (1860-1904) is the last Russian realist and the first modern writer. His plays made him world-famous, but above all his stories are phenomenal. His sincerity and moderation are his biggest accomplishments as a writer and earn him a place among the other giants of Russian literature.

His life

After an unhappy childhood, Chekhov studied medicine, and his medical practice, like the unhappy childhood, turned out to be a great source of inspiration for his literary work. He never made a choice between literature and medicine, as he put it himself: “Medicine is my lawful wife and literature is my mistress.”. In 1901 he married actress Olga Knipper, but unfortunately Chekhov died in 1904 from tuberculosis, an illness that he had suffered from for years.

Style and content

Above all Chekhov kept it short, there is not one word too many. Important themes in his work are inner conflict, feelings of nostalgia, a longing for the past or a better future, hopelessness, lack of willpower and powerlessness. His characters wish to escape their current situation, but they are incapable of doing so, even if there is apparently nothing holding them back. The Three Sisters (1901) for instance talk about moving to Moscow all the time, but it’s their own indecisiveness that stops them from actually moving. People (and dogs, like Kashtanka) prefer to remain unsatisfied or unhappy in familiar circumstances than to risk happiness in the mysterious unknown.

Stanislavski

Chekhov wrote the play The Seagull in 1896. When it premiered in Moscow it was not exactly a success and Chekhov decided not to write any more plays; however, when the famous theatre director Stanislavski put it on stage in Moscow, it became a huge success. Stanislavski’s method focused on psychological realism and all the subtle details were done justice to. After this success, Chekhov continued to write Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard, every one of them plays that are still being performed nowadays.

Chekhov’s Gun

Chekhov wrote a lot about writing and his most famous piece of advice is called “Chekhov’s Gun”: “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”. In other words: use only relevant details and use them to create a certain expectation with the reader.

Influence

His work has influenced countless writers. Tennessee Williams, Hemingway, Alice Munro, Virginia Woolf, Kunio Shimizu; most modern writers were influenced by Chekhov. His contemporary Tolstoy thought he was a genius and was genuinely sad when he died before him. Chekhov himself was influenced by Pushkin, specifically by his Belkin Stories, short stories with a surprising ending.

In short:

Chekhov is a calm and objective story teller. Always an observer and never a preacher. His characters are real, not purely good or evil, often complete with human flaws. He appeals to the sentimental feelings of his reader. He is subtle and often funny. His work is modern and fresh. Chekhov is justifiably considered to be the best short story writer ever.

*****

Books read:

Geschiedenis van de Russische literatuur – Karel van het Reve

Chekhov – Henri Troyat

Several stories, plays, letters and fragments from Chekhov

Practically everything that Chekhov wrote has been translated into English and his collected stories are widely available. Below follows a link to 201 stories in English online. My favourites are Kashtanka and Rothschild’s Fiddle.

Photos © Elisabeth van der Meer and Wikipedia

Text © Elisabeth van der Meer

 

http://www.eldritchpress.org/ac/jr/

Typically Goncharov

Goncharov (1812-1891) is perhaps not the most famous nineteenth century Russian writer, but he is most certainly one of the great Realists. He didn’t write much; some stories, a travel journal and three novels. One of those novels made him world famous, and according to some people it is the ultimate novel in Russian literature: Oblomov.

 

Oblomov

Oblomov is a man in his thirties, he lives with his servant Zakhar and his cook Anisha in a St Petersburg apartment. He spends most of his time sleeping or daydreaming in bed. His favourite piece of clothing is his robe, and although Zakhar polishes his boots every day, it’s the slippers that are always exactly there where his feet land when he finally gets up, that he prefers to wear. Oblomov refuses to make a fuss and dreads anything that could possibly endanger his peace and quiet.

His estate Oblomovka, situated in the far east of Russia, needs urgent attention, but Oblomov can’t even get himself to reply to a letter that his neighbour sent him, let alone travel all the way to Oblomovka. As a result of his indecisiveness and generosity people take advantage of him. His peasants lie about the earnings of his estate and his friends, and even Zakhar, steal from him. His good friend Stolz tries (in vain) to bring Oblomov back to life.

What is Oblomovism?

Stolz calls it ’Oblomovism’. It’s the result of an extremely idyllic childhood in Oblomovka, and Oblomov tries very hard to recreate that carefree idylle in the present time. Immediately after the novel was published in 1859, Oblomovism became a household term in Russia and abroad. If you look it up in the Oxford dictionary you’ll find that it means ”sluggish or languorous inertia; supineness, indecision, procrastination”.

”What is Oblomovism” is a famous essay that literary critic Dobrolyubov wrote in 1859. He stated that Oblomovism was a social problem, it stood for the ancient aristocracy that was afraid of reforms such as the abolition of serfdom. Stolz, being half German, doesn’t catch the contagious Oblomovism and stands for progress and modernisation. Contrary to the superfluous man (of which Oblomov is the ultimate example) he is decisive and takes responsibility for his own life. Oblomovism is often seen as symbolic for the slow and ancient Russian society, some even go as far as to call it Russia’s national disease.

 

Style

Goncharov uses the third person narrator. He uses mainly dialogue to characterise the characters and almost doesn’t let the narrator judge. Goncharov is at his best in describing domestic scenes. The personal environment is also used to characterise. He writes with a fantastic sense of humour that gives his work a light and airy quality. Because of this his work is rarely sentimental.

 

Masterwork

Oblomov is an undisputed masterwork. Thanks to its layers it can be read at several levels; if you (don’t want to) know nothing of the social problems in nineteenth century Russia, you simply read an amusing character study of an eternal procrastinator. Many of the issues in the novel are still relevant, xenophobia for instance.

 

Influence

The impact of the novel was enormous. Goncharov had been working on it since 1847, but it was finished and published in 1859, on the eve of major reforms, like the abolition of serfdom in 1861. The timing was perfect, because the sluggish society was a hot topic in 1859.

 

In short

Goncharov uses a sense of humour to address social issues, and that is a whole lot more palatable than the methods that Tolstoy and Dostoevsky used. His dreamy writing style is pleasant, but he doesn’t take you to the highs and lows that Tolstoy and Dostoevsky take you to.

We can easily say that Oblomov had a ’Stolz-effect’ on society. But if we are to believe Goncharov there is no cure for such deeply ingrained Oblomovism…

 

 

Books used:

Geschiedenis van de Russische literatuur – Karel van het Reve

Geschiedenis van de literatuur in Rusland 1700-2000 – Emmanuel Waegemans

Oblomov – Ivan Goncharov

 

Photos from Wikipedia and Eldritchpress

“Ждун” – a modern example of Oblomovism

 

Typically Dostoevsky

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. Next to Tolstoy and Turgenev the third giant in this genre is Dostoevsky (1821-1881) of course.

Literary History

The start of his career as a writer is legendary: after the military academy he knew that a military career was not for him and he started writing seriously as soon as possible. He gave his first novella, Poor Folk, to his friend Grigorovich to read. Grigorovich read it together with Nekrasov, the most influential critic at the time. They finished reading it at four in the morning. Their enthusiasm was such, that they went straight to Dostoevsky and woke him up. They congratulated him Russian style on his literary talents, and the rest is history…

Influences

Dostoevsky was mostly influenced by gothic and romantic writers such as Walter Scott, Ann Radcliffe, Dickens, Schiller, Pushkin and Karamzin. He, in turn, influenced writers like Kafka, Sartre, Bulgakov, Gide and Nietzsche. To name but a few. His most famous novel, The Brothers Karamazov, was and is a favourite of Stalin, Camus, Joyce and Putin. It was lying on Tolstoy's nightstand when he died.

Before and after Siberia

Dostoevsky's work can be devided into two parts: before and after Siberia. In 1849 he was sentenced to four years of forced labour and another four years of exile in Siberia, due to his political engagements. His works from before Siberia are perhaps a bit more sentimental, more romantic. From this period we have Poor Folk, White Nights, The Double and Netochka Nezvanova. After Siberia he wrote The Player, The Idiot, The Possessed, Crime and Punishment and, of course, The Brothers Karamazov. These works are darker and more thought provoking.

Great psychological insight

Dostoevsky is well known for his psychological character studies. His characters often personify one of his ideas, like Raskolnikov (Crime and Punishment) represents his theory that a select group of people could decide what's right and wrong for the majority, even murdering a bad person to save other people. His character seems contradictory at first sight; gentle and compassionate, but at the same time calculating and cold. Naturally both sides are necessary to carry out the theory. Another major Dostoevskian idea is spiritual regeneration through suffering. Raskolnikov is torn by remorse and doubt after his horrible deed. He is sentenced to a prison camp in Siberia and finally after a few years he starts to feel regenerated.

Ordinary people, small talk and everyday situations? There's none of that with Dostoevsky. You will meet a whole lot of pawn brokers, prostitutes, failures, misfits, nihilists, religious fanatics, gamblers, murderers and hysterical women, sometimes combined into one character. Recurring themes are religion, redemption, the mighty rouble, the innocence of children, lost honour, suicide, alcoholism and epilepsy.

Punishment in Siberia

His involuntary stay in Siberia influenced him tremendously and Dostoevsky's work contains many autobiographical elements. In those days the labour camp was mixed, the political prisoners sat together with the criminals. The circumstances were almost unbearable and he learned a lot about people. He observed murderers from close by.

Style

His writing style is very enthusiastic. He talks to the reader, draws him into his exciting and scandalous story, and demands him to think about the big questions in life. He often had to finish his books before a certain deadline, to earn money to pay off his gambling debts. As a result his style is a bit hasty. He did not take the time, like Tolstoy, to endlessly revise. Most of the action takes place in the course of a few days and in a room full of people. As Nabokov has pointed out, this and the lack of background details, make his novels feel more like a play. He thinks Dostoevsky would have been better as a playwright.

In short

It's easy to recognise Dostoevsky; not a normal person in sight and everyone is in a heightened state of excitement. His novels are mostly written in the classical detective style. No detailed natural descriptions such as Turgenev wrote, only the most necessary. His characters don't go through any psychological growth, like Tolstoy's Pierre. But it's not all misery with Dostoevsky, he had a great sense of humour. He often gave his characters appropriate names; a 'raskolnik' for instance, is someone who separates himself, a nonconformist.

 

Dostoevsky is not for everyone, and not for every day either, but boring he is definitely not. Virginia Woolf described his work as follows:

 

“We open the door and find ourselves in a room full of Russian generals, their stepdaughters and cousins, and crowds of miscellaneous people who are all talking at the top of their voices about their most private affairs.”

 

Books read: Geschiedenis van de Russische Literatuur – Karel van het Reve

Lectures on Russian Literature – Vladimir Nabokov

Photos and dates from Wikipedia