Denisov, the good guy from War and Peace

The writer Boris Akunin once said in an interview that Tolstoy’s characters are as real to him as, and sometimes even more real than, real people. I absolutely agree, and I enjoy exploring the various characters. So for those who also agree, here’s yet another War and Peace blog post. About Denisov this time. A favorite of many readers, and one of those characters who one would have liked to have had a bigger part.

The opposite of Dolokhov

Denisov is the complete opposite of Dolokhov. Where Dolokhov is described as handsome, with piercing blue eyes and without moustache, Denisov is hairy, with a disheveled moustache, and eyes as black as coal. Dolokhov usually wins when playing cards (albeit cheating) and Denisov usually loses.

Their personalties couldn’t be more opposed either: although Tolstoy describes a rogue who drinks heavily and curses heartily when he introduces Denisov, from the way his eyes light up when he sees Nicholay it is immediately clear that he is a good guy.

Denisov has some endearing characteristics: he can’t pronounce the letter ‘r’. Everyone in the army calls him ‘Waska’, a rather childish diminutive of Wasili. He only makes an effort with his appearance when going into battle or in the company of ladies, making it clear where his priorities lie. Although we never find out much about Denisov’s background, he has an uncle with a high rank and that’s all, he is clearly from the same background as Nicholay, and has for instance had dancing lessons at the same place as all of the young Rostovs. Although he is short, he looks like a fine fellow on horseback and when dancing.

Denisov’s mazurka

There are four epic dance scenes in War and Peace: the old count Rostov, dancing like an ‘eagle’; Natasha’s Russian dance at Uncle’s house; Natasha’s dance with Andrey and then there is Denisov’s mazurka. He dances such a dazzling mazurka with Natasha, that she nearly falls in love with him. But she is only fifteen then, and Denisov is at least ten years older, practically an old man!

Denisov is, as he puts it himself, bewitched by Natasha and adores the whole family. When he proposes to Natasha, he doesn’t just propose to her, but to her whole family. Dolokhov takes revenge on Nicholay after Sonya has refused him; Denisov loves Nicholay more after Natasha’s refusal. At some point we can hear him mutter with a choked voice “Ah, what a mad bweed you Wostovs are!”. And when he finds Petya Rostov dead, bystanders can hear a yelp like of a dog coming from him.

A heart of gold

Denisov is driven by his care for others. He would give his life twice for any of the Rostovs and risks serious repercussions when he steals a food supply for his starving soldiers. His soldiers in turn like him, and show it by building him an extra nice ‘house’ during their exploits. He gets gloomy when bored and almost depressed when in hospital, but when he goes into action he is clearly in his element. His bravery does not require recognition from superiors, he would rather be respected by his equals and subordinates. The ones that are lucky enough to be loved by him, can count on his (albeit somewhat sentimental) devotion.

Beneath his rough exterior, but not very deep beneath it, Denisov has a heart of gold.

*****

Text and photo © Elisabeth van der Meer 2019

Book: War and Peace – Tolstoy – the Louise and Aylmer Maude translation

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Pierre’s Duel with Dolokhov

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It is one of the most memorable scenes in War and Peace: the duel between Pierre and Dolokhov. Tolstoy builds up the tension steadily. The scene is told from Pierre’s perspective, so that the reader really feels Pierre’s hurt feelings and damaged pride from a front row position.

Hélène

Pierre had married Hélène against his better knowledge. He knew that there was something strange about her, he had heard something about her improper relationship with her brother Anatole, but still he married her. It doesn’t take long for Hélène to show her true nature, but for now Pierre ignores his problems.

Rumours

Even when there are rumours going around that Hélène has an affair with Dolokhov, his friend whom he has offered a place to stay, has lent money and knows only too well, he does not want to believe them. Bottled up feelings, however, have the nasty habit of bursting out at the most inopportune moments.

The dinner

The old count Rostov gives a grand dinner, in true Moscow style, meaning that no expense or trouble is spared, in honour of general Bagration. Both Pierre and Dolokhov are present and they sit opposite each other. Because of the rumours about his wife, Pierre is in a bad mood and eats and drinks too much. At his wife’s command he is not wearing his spectacles (does she command him to see nothing?), but he is constantly rubbing the bridge of his nose (does he miss his spectacles and wishes to see better?). Pierre is becoming more and more convinced that the rumours must be true. Dolokhov’s insolence, sitting there across the table, merrily, is starting to annoy him more and more. He knows him better than anyone and he knowns that sadistic side of him, and he sees it in Dolokhov’s eyes right now. 

Pierre has finally had enough

He feels something terrible and monstrous rising in his soul. Dolokhov must be hoping for some kind of escalation, because he makes a toast “to the health of all lovely women, Peterkin—and their lovers!”. The terrible and monstrous feeling now takes complete possession of Pierre.  He rises, and as we know, he is big, and shouts at Dolokhov. All except Dolokhov are scared. Pierre challenges him.

The duel

The next morning they meet in a forest clearing and it turns out that Pierre has never even held a pistol. Dolokhov is an experience duelist and officer. All five people present know that this is murder. Neither Pierre nor Dolokhov apologises and the duel takes place. Pierre is willing to die and Dolokhov is willing to kill. Pierre is holding his left hand behind his back, because he knows it is not done to hold the pistol with both hands. He shoots first and is very surprised when he discovers he has hit Dolokhov in the chest, and he starts to sob. Dolokhov falls down into the snow, bites into the snow and raises his pistol. He refuses to give up. The seconds shout at Pierre to cover himself with his gun, but Pierre just stands with his feet apart, broadly. Everyone closes their eyes, Dolokhov shoots and… misses. Pierre lives!

When he comes home, Hélène makes a terrible scene and Pierre gets so angry with her, that he nearly kills her. 

Philosophy

The duel can be seen as a small scale version of the Napoleonic wars: Tolstoy even uses the same words here: “(…) the affair (…) was taking its course independently of men’s will”. Precisely the big idea behind the novel, history takes its’ course, in spite of our individual efforts to influence it.

The consequences 

The bear in Pierre has woken up. He is no longer the nearsighted and fat rich man that everybody takes advantage of and who is ordered around by his wife and used by his friend. He surprises even himself. He takes control of his life and tries to find himself. It will be a long journey, with plenty of hardship, but he’ll get there. 

Hélène has one lover after another and dies of the consequences of an abortion. Here too is an analogy with a bigger dispute, the Trojan wars in this case. This Helen may not have caused a thousand ships to launch, but she too was the cause of quarrel and bloodshed.

And Dolokhov? He survives and has learnt nothing. If anything he is even more bitter and cruel than before. He continues on his path of death and destruction. Except when he’s with his angel mother of course!

Tolstoy – War and Peace, part 4, chapters 3,4,5,6.

Text and photo © Elisabeth van der Meer 2019

A Russian Affair is four years old!

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A Russian Affair is four years old!

And still going strong. The followers of this blog know that in 2018 I have moved from the Netherlands to Finland to live with the love of my life. Moving countries is no small feat, but Finland seems to agree with me and I’m settling in well. The (next) best thing about Finland is of course the beautiful nature, I love to go out and enjoy it! 

Meanwhile there was plenty going on at A Russian Affair as well: I wrote about War and Peace again, about Russian horror stories, about Finns in Russian literature and the wives of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy also got some well deserved attention. Your favourite blog post was Russian Ghost Stories, one that I particularly enjoyed making. I had great fun reading all those stories again and making the photos for the post.

All time favourites by far are still Fyodor Dolokhov – the Bad Guy from War and Peace and Is there really an incestueus relationship in War and Peace?

But I’m not finished with War and Peace yet (will I ever be?): I’m going to write something about Denisov and about Pierre’s duel. I would also like to talk about Turgenev’s Smoke and to tell you something about Russian plays. Chekhov was of course a famous playwright, but Gogol and Turgenev wrote plays as well.

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I get inspired by whatever comes across my path and often by your commentary and blogs, so who knows what else the year will bring.

I wish you all a wonderful blog year!

x

text and photos © Elisabeth van der Meer, 2019

Six Degrees of Separation – From A Christmas Carol to War and Peace

Inspired by fellow blogger An Argumentative Old Git, I decided to make a #6degrees blogpost too. The idea is that each month there is another book as a starting point, and this month it’s A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. From there you can connect to six other books. The meme is hosted by Kate of Books are my Favourite and Best.

So we start with A Christmas Carol (1843), the classic Christmas story. 

fullsizeoutput_6f.jpegScrooge is visited by three ghosts, showing him the past, the present and the future. Scrooge quickly understands that he needs to better his life. The Undertaker by Pushkin (1831) features an un-Dickensian undertaker with a Scrooge-like disposition. He too is visited by ghosts, a whole party of them: they are his dead clients, accusing him of ripping of their next of kin. Unlike Scrooge, Prokhorov does not seem inclined to better his life the next morning; he simply orders tea and calls his daughters. And we can almost hear him think “Bah! Humbug!”.

IMG_3931.JPGThere’s a ghostly party in The Master and Margarita (1940) by Bulgakov too. In this satirical novel Satan himself himself has come to Stalinist Moscow to organise a ball on Walpurgis night. The guests are all dead and they have all committed a crime that has sent them to hell. Among the guests are famous people and notorious criminals. They arrive at the party through the fireplace. Sounds familiar, right? But we’re not going there. The novel’s most famous quote is “Manuscripts don’t burn”.

IMG_3923.JPGIn 1852 Gogol famously burned most of the manuscripts containing the second part of Dead Souls shortly before he died in sad circumstances, suffering from depression. Dead Souls (1842) is, contrary to the title, a lively tale. A satire about an aspiring noble man traveling around Russia and the people he meets. Chichikov is accompanied by a faithful servant, Petrushka, who likes a drink and smells peculiarly, but is devoted to his master.

fullsizeoutput_5d.jpegThat brings us to another devoted servant: Zakhar. The interfering, lazy, complaining and gossiping servant of Oblomov. Oblomov has perfected the art of procrastinating and famously does not get out of bed for the first 150 pages of the novel. Oblomov was written by Goncharov in 1858, as an example of a ‘superfluous man’. Oblomov simply refuses to worry about things that everybody else already worries about, and does not like it when ‘things’ are expected of him. His home is his safe haven.

fullsizeoutput_6cFrom that save haven on Gorokhovaya Street we take stroll to Stolyarny Alley, to the humble quarters of another famous Petersburg hero: Raskolnikov. The protagonist of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866) doesn’t just dream and scheme; he acts out his plan and murders an old pawnbroker. With her money he wants to help the poor, but he becomes consumed by guilt.

fullsizeoutput_6eCrime and Punishment was first published in episodes in the famous Russian magazine The Messenger. If you were a subscriber to that magazine, you were in for a real treat each month; just imagine, in 1866 it also ran Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Of course the reader already knew how the war with Napoleon ended, but what about Natasha, was she going to be reunited with prince Andrey?! The novel is full of cliffhangers and the reason is precisely that: the monthly episodes.

Dickens was immensely popular in Russia, and both Dostoevsky and Tolstoy admired him and were influenced by him. Where would A Christmas Carol lead you?

Text and photos © Elisabeth van der Meer

Books read: all of the above and an article from The Dickens Magazine by George Gorniak about Tolstoy, sent to me by Roger W. Smith 

Natasha’s Russian Dance at Uncle’s House

In which Natasha shows that she has pure Russian blood running through her veins

At Uncle’s

After the hunt the young Rostovs come along with Uncle to his authentic Russian wooden house. Uncle isn’t married and from an impoverished branch of the family. He lives alone with his serfs. As soon as he gets home, he changes into a Cossack coat, blue trousers and boots. Nicholas and Natasha are so full of expectations and in such a happy mood, that they can only look at each other and burst out laughing. Now that the hunt is finished, Nicholas can act normally again with his sister. Petya has fallen asleep on the sofa. The housekeeper Anisya brings in the most delicious dishes, all prepared by herself. From her countenance Natasha and Nicholas soon conclude that she is not just Uncle’s housekeeper.

 

The young Rostovs savour the local dishes while someone in the background is playing on the balalaika. Uncle asks Anisya to bring his guitar and it turns out that he can play very well. His Russian notes hit Nicholas and Natasha straight in the heart. Every time a song finishes, Natasha begs Uncle to play another. The music becomes livelier, and Uncle gets up and challenges Natasha: he expects her to dance Russian style. But Natasha was raised by a French governess and learned to dance at Iogel’s*…

 

Nonetheless she dances as if she has always danced like that, conveying with every movement that Russian feeling, that is inimitable, that you have to have inside you, and that Natasha apparently breathed in together with the Russian air, in spite of her foreign upbringing. Anisya, who is watching from the door opening with the rest of the staff, is moved to tears. “Well, little countess, that’s it – come on!” cries uncle with his favourite expression. After the dance there’s more singing, but soon, much too soon, the carriage arrives to take the Rostovs home.

 

On the way home Petya is still sleeping, and Natasha and Nicholas discuss their evening at Uncle’s and both agree that it was an excellent evening. Nicholas thinks that that Natasha of his is his best friend, and that he wishes that she wouldn’t get married and that they could stay together forever. Natasha thinks that that Nicholas of hers is a real darling.

Domestic happiness and being authentic

This scene revolves around two main themes: domestic happiness and authenticity. Uncle shows the young Rostovs that happiness doesn’t mean having a lot of money and status. Real happiness can be found in a pleasant home, comfortable clothes, simple but excellent Russian food, Russian music and dance, and even in a relationship with a simple housekeeper. All those frills that Nicholas and Natasha were raised with don’t really matter.

 

Natasha likes being unconventional: she has been on horseback the whole day, like a man, and at Uncle’s house she has shown her true Russian spirit. And although Uncle, Nicholas and Anisya all adore her like this, it remains to be seen if Andrew, her fiancé, appreciates this deeply rooted aspect of her character. Natasha enjoys her position in the Rostov family very much. She realises only too well that the happiness that she feels now won’t last and that she has to enjoy it now. At the same time she dreams of her future happiness, but it’s the circumstances of her engagement that make her doubt: she is separated from Andrew by the war, and his despotic father is against the marriage. It seems that Nicholas isn’t a fan of Andrew either. The Rostov family is close knit and warm; the Bolkonski’s (Andrew’s family) are distant towards each other and live according to strict protocol.

Most readers will have understood immediately that Natasha won’t fit in, but we can certainly understand her getting carried away and thinking perhaps that she can change him. During the course of the novel we follow Natasha from being a thirteen year old to being a married woman with children. There are many defining moments in her young life, but we can be sure that she’ll always remember this evening with particular fondness.

This is definitely one of my favourite scenes in War and Peace. What’s yours?

*Iogel was a famous dance teacher who held popular balls for the young people. Natasha is one of his favourite pupils, but she certainly didn’t learn any folk dances from him.

 

*****

 

Photos and text © Elisabeth van der Meer

Tolstoy’s War and Peace as translated by Louise and Aylmer Maude

 

The Hunting Scene in War and Peace

In which Nicholas wants to show that he is a grown-up, but instead proves that he’s still a boy.

Financial problems

Nicholas Rostov has quit the order and clarity of the army and returned home to the chaos of family life, where his mother expects him to sort out the financial problems of the family. In order to save some money, the family has moved to their country estate. Because their financial struggles are partly his own fault for losing a fortune to Dolokhov, Nicholas makes a serious effort, but it soon becomes clear that he is as good with money and business as his father is, and he quickly gives up. He tries instead to fulfill his position as Count Rostov and eldest son in a more pleasant way.

Planning to go hunting

One fine morning in September he organises a hunting trip*. He summons the main huntsman Daniel and together they make a plan. Although this Daniel looks scornfully at Nicholas, Tolstoy reassures us that that’s just part of the hunter’s careless air and that Nicholas knows that Daniel is his serf. The first real flaws in his authority appear when he’s unable to stop Natasha and Petya from coming along on the hunt. The discussion he has with them in his study in front of the perplexed Daniel appears to come straight out of the nursery:

Nicholas, carelessly: We are going, but only wolf hunting: it would be dull for you.

Natasha, outraged: It’s not fair, you are going by yourself, are having the horses saddled and said nothing to us about it.

Petya, shouting: No barrier bars a Russian’s path – we’ll go!

And so the hunting party, consisting of around 130 dogs and 20 horsemen, they have to cut down on their spending, after all, sets off.

Uncle

They go to the Otrodnoe enclosure, where they intend to hunt an old wolf**. On the way there they meet ‘Uncle’, a neighbor and distant relative, who is also going hunting. They decide to join up. Uncle also doesn’t like to combine the serious business of hunting with frivolities: “Only mind you don’t fall of your horse, little countess”, he warns Natasha. Everybody is appointed a strategic position, Natasha and Petya are put somewhere where the wolf can’t possibly appear.

The old Count

The old Count Rostov has also come along, looking “like a schoolboy on an outing”. Although he knows the rules of the hunt very well, he’s not as obsessed as Nicholas. Sitting on his horse he starts to daydream about his children and how proud he is of them. Smiling he takes out his snuffbox. The wolf appears and he lets it slip by, much to the anger of Daniel. Now the Count looks like “a punished schoolboy”. The roles appear indeed to have reversed…

Nicholas prays

Although… Nicholas, meanwhile, is also prone to childish behaviour, praying to God to make the old wolf come his way and to let his dog catch the wolf. When the wolf does come his way, he forgets everything else, it’s just him, his horse, his dogs and the wolf and when they do eventually get the wolf, it’s the happiest moment of his life. He wants to kill the entrapped wolf, but Daniel suggests that they take it alive. The hunt is a success.

Good intentions

It is clear that Nicholas is not yet the man he so wants to be. He came home to sort out the finances, but gave up after the first hurdles, and instead of getting advice, he goes and spends more money. In that respect he is a lot like young Tolstoy himself: a lot of plans and good intentions that usually nothing comes from.

The hunting scene, in which the family relations, traditions and values of the Rostov family are underlined, is written by Tolstoy with a particularly loving hand and a lot of humour.

*The magnificent hunting scene in War and Peace was according to Maude very much influenced by a hunting trip that Tolstoy had made with a neighbor. I’m certainly no hunting expert, so I’m sticking to what I know from Russian literature and that describes basically two different types of hunting: the Turgenev kind; a man and a dog, sleeping rough and hunting mainly fowl for the dinner table; and the War and Peace kind (Tolstoy describes a Turgenev hunt in Anna Karenina): a huge party of noblemen, servants, grooms, horses and dogs, hunting for wolves, foxes and hares. In the first case the dogs retrieve and in the second they scent, chase and kill. The dogs used in the second kind, hounds and borzois, are often very expensive and highly treasured by their owners. In both cases the hunter needs to have a careless appearance, he’s preferably dressed in rags.

**In ancient Russian folklore the wolf symbolises darkness, evil and foreignness. Superstitious Russians were afraid to call the wolf upon themselves by saying its name, and called it by various nicknames like ‘shaggy’ instead. Here you could say that the wolf symbolises Napoleon. At this moment in the book Napoleon and Alexander are allies, so he is for now not a threat. In the book too, Napoleon is often not called by his name, but referred to as ‘the Antichrist’.

*****

Text and photos © Elisabeth van der Meer

 

War and Peace – Tolstoy, translated by Louise and Aylmer Maude

 

 

Should Sonya have married Dolokhov?

In Tolstoy’s famous novel War and Peace bad guy Dolokhov proposes to good girl Sonya. She refuses him, but one of the readers of this blog wondered if she should have married him after all. So let’s try to analyse this romantic affair.

Sonya

Sonya is a poor orphan cousin living with Rostovs. Tolstoy describes her as a promising kitten at the beginning of the novel. She’s very pretty, loyal, sweet and has a strong sense of justice. She’s her cousin Natasha’s best friend and this little kitten is very much in love with her cousin Nicholas.

Dolokhov

Dolokhov is a good looking officer, notorious gambler and duelist. He has no connections or money. Most people consider him a cruel and cold hearted person. In fact the only person who thinks he has a heart of gold is his mother. Dolokhov is an enigmatic character. He seems disappointed in the world and feels a strong need to revenge himself.

Sacrifice

Dolokhov tells Nicholas that he will sacrifice anything for the people he loves, but we don’t see any proof of that; au contraire, he claims to be Nicholas’ friend but not much later tries to steal his girl, and when she rejects him, he punishes Nicholas by cheating him out of 43000 (precisely 43000, because 43 is the combined age of him and Sonya) roubles in a game of cards.

Sonya really does make sacrifices: she risks her friendship with Natasha in order to prevent Natasha from eloping with Anatole. Later she writes Nicholas to forget his promise to marry her, so that he is free to marry Mary.

Does Dolokhov love Sonya?

So why does Dolokhov propose to Sonya? I’m mostly inclined to say out of jealousy. In his mind people like Pierre and Nicholas get all the good things in life because of their name, connections and money, and for the same reasons they get away with anything. Perhaps he has heard or sensed that Sonya loves Nicholas and he wants to take her from Nicholas, who, after all, already has so much good luck*.

When he is recovering from the injuries he suffered in his duel with Pierre he confides in Nicholas, telling him that he is looking for “divine purity and devotion” in women; he needs a woman who will “regenerate, purify and elevate” him. It is technically possible that he saw those qualities in Sonya, and that that’s why he proposed to her.

The refusal

Either way, Sonya was right to refuse Dolokhov. His mother may have been blind to his faults, but our Sonya is a smart girl, guided by a strong sense of right and wrong. She inadvertently uses Nicholas as an excuse, probably thinking optimistically that Dolokhov will at least be happy for his friend. Her euphoric state immediately after the refusal speaks volumes; she made the right choice.

In 19th century terms Dolokhov would have been a good match for Sonya; the old countess, who disapproves anyway of a marriage between Nicholas and Sonya, clearly thinks that Sonya should have accepted him. But Sonya is to remain single and together with the old countess she’s going to live with Nicholas and Mary. Like a cat, Tolstoy writes, she had attached herself not to the people but to the home.

And as for Dolokhov’s need to be purified, regenerated and elevated? Well, he shouldn’t rely on a woman to better his life, let alone a sweet seventeen year old girl. He shows his true colours and punishes Nicholas severely for his cousin’s love: first by making him lose a fortune and then by not preventing the death of his little brother Petya. Tolstoy doesn’t tell us if he ever found the wife of his dreams.


*In the beginning of War and Peace, Dolokhov, Pierre and Anatole tie a bear to a policeman and throw them in the river. For this ‘prank’ Dolokhov gets reduced in rank to soldier. Anatole, who is rich and well connected, remains an officer. Pierre is a civilian, but doesn’t get any punishment because of his dying (and extremely wealthy) father. Nicholas, similarly, seems to have everything going for him, he’s a count, wealthy, makes a dashing career in the army, everyone likes him, and he comes from a warm and loving family. He too is protected by his family name: For being Dolokhov’s second in the duel, he ought to have gotten punished. Instead he gets a promotion.

Have you read War and Peace? And if so, what are your feelings about Sonya and Dolokhov? Should Sonya have married Nicholas?



© Elisabeth van der Meer / illustration from War and Peace


See also:

https://arussianaffair.wordpress.com/2016/03/15/fyodor-dolokhov-the-bad-guy-from-war-and-peace/

https://arussianaffair.wordpress.com/2016/01/24/love-in-war-and-peace-1/

https://arussianaffair.wordpress.com/2016/02/07/love-in-war-and-peace-2/

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

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

 

 

A Russian Affair is two years old!

Two years ago I wasn't sure if the world was waiting for a blog about Russian literature, but hey, I'm the kind of girl who reads Nabokov's comments on Pushkin's Eugene Onegin for fun, so it was only natural that if I was going to have a blog, that that should be the subject.

My aim was to keep it as accessible as possible. I regularly hear people say that they find Russian literature daunting, even intimidating, before they've even read one page! So I took it upon myself to use this corner in cyber space to take away that prejudice. And judging by the comments I have already convinced some of you.

Inspired by the fantastic BBC series War and Peace, I wrote several posts about that epic Tolstoy novel. People were particularly interested to find out about the relationship between brother and sister Hélène and Anatole and Is there really an incestuous relationship in War and Peace? (http://wp.me/p5zzbs-4L) became by far the most popular post on my blog. Another favourite was Fyodor Dolokhov – the Bad Guy from War and Peace (http://wp.me/p5zzbs-5t).

Undoubtedly the most fun to make was In the Footsteps of Tolstoy and Turgenev in Paris (http://wp.me/p5zzbs-4F). For two days I wandered through Paris with Google Maps, searching the addresses where the two writers lived. I was particularly keen to see the house where Turgenev had lived for many years with the Viardot family. Nowadays there is an authentic French patissier on the ground flour of the house on the Rue de Douai. They serve a delicious breakfast and I thoroughly enjoyed sitting there and watching tout l'arrondissement buy their pain quotidien there.

The most interesting blog post to make was Turgenev's birds (http://wp.me/p5zzbs-7h). It was a spontaneous post inspired by another blogger. It showed beautifully why Turgenev was such an accomplished writer. Fathers and Sons is a masterpiece, and it features many subtle details that make it very atmospheric. Unconsciously our brain makes all kinds of associations while reading, even if you don't pick up on it. By focussing on a seemingly small detail, birds in this case, I managed to show that that detail was put into the novel with a purpose.

In 2016 I have started a series of “Typically …”. So far we've had Tolstoy, Turgenev and Dostoevsky. In 2017 I shall write about Gogol, Chekhov, Goncharov, Pushkin and Lermontov. But you can also expect spontaneous blog posts like In the Footsteps and Turgenev's Birds.

My goals for my blog remain the same: to show you how fascinating, rich and most of all fun Russian literature really is!

Reactions, questions and requests are always welcome. Happy reading!

*** Photos by me, except Anatole and Hélène from the BBC's War and Peace.