Tolstoy & Political Correctness

Drawing of Leo Tolstoy by David Levine (New York Review of Books)

Two English professors, Melvin Jules Bukiet and Lyell Asher, write in The American Scholar that Tolstoy is politically incorrect for students of the twenty-first century. (Was he ever politically correct?)  They say students’ exaggerated consciousness of racism, sexism, LGBT rights, etc., interferes with their ability to read and understand Tolstoy–and, in the age of trigger alerts, they  ask to be excused from class if content offends them.

Thank God they’re not teaching D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover! (John Thomas and Lady Jane would set off trigger alerts.) But, seriously, Tolstoy is one of my favorite writers, and I pray they exaggerate students’ misreadings.

Melvin Jules Bukiet, a professor at Sarah Lawrence, recently reread War and Peace, a novel he has loved since college.  In his essay, “By the Content of Its Characters,” he writes,  “All happy writers may be alike, but nowadays they’re also different in their own special national, ethnic, racial, religious, or sexual ways. Paradoxically, they’ve become individual by category.”

Then he satirizes how Tolstoy could be misinterpreted in the trigger alert culture.

When Pierre Bezukhov, arguably the protagonist in a novel that follows scores of lives, is introduced, he is described as “fat.” Well, that’s a bit harsh, but Tolstoy created Pierre, so if he says the man is fat, he is, and I wouldn’t want a euphemistic translation like “dietarily challenged.” Fat. Fat. Fat.

He  suggests that Pierre today would be considered a pedophile because of his relationship with Natasha; that Prince Andrew Bolkonski  and Count Nicholas Rostov (Natasha’s brother), both officers in the war against Napoleon, are male imperialists;

“and the ultimate class offense finally struck me: nearly every character in War and Peace is noble.”

All right, a little satire goes a long way.

In “Low Definition in Higher Education,” Lyell Asher, an associate professor of English at Lewis & Clark College, says that he has taught Anna Karenina for more than a decade. Students often simplify this long, complex text, believing Anna is right to have an affair because of her passion, and that Karenin is an unfeeling stick figure who deserves to lose her.  They don’t see shades of gray.  (I might add, nor did I when I was young.)

Asher writes,

At more than 800 pages, Tolstoy’s saga can invite hurried reading, so a lot of class time is spent applying the brakes: “Not so fast.” “How do you know that?” “What’s it look like from her point of view?” There’s a useful speed bump in that famous first line: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” In its own way. Don’t assume you know who these people are, Tolstoy cautions, however familiar they may seem.

And he goes on to say that college administrators today encourage this over-simplified thinking.

But what happens when the administrators…—sometimes in tandem with professors who teach the courses—pretend to have so mastered the difficult questions of race, of social justice, of meaning and intention, that they feel entitled to dictate to others? What happens when they so pixelate the subject matter that what emerges is a CliffsNotes version of human experience, the very thing that a college curriculum should be working against?

What happens is that many students will accept these simplifications. Some will even cling to them for dear life. Finally a map—with shortcuts!—and a way out of bewilderment. Feeling offended implies an offense, and where there’s an offense there must be a culprit guilty of having committed it. No need to bother with the complexities of context and intention—it says here that “impact” is what matters, that how I feel is what counts. No need to wonder whether an expression of hatred is real or a ruse, isolated or endemic—assume the worst and take the part for the whole.

Well, in my day, we radical students embraced controversy, not whining, and we wouldn’t have accepted pixelated pamphlets on life.   But perhaps these students are not radicals?  Is this the common culture now?

I’m going to blame it on the internet, the way I blame everything else.

Dating in Alice Adams’s Superior Women & Tolstoy’s War & Peace

barbie queen of the prom 859b73499fc1bc9866aebc53112bb08cI often think of Barbie Queen of the Prom when I think of dating. In this Monopoly-like 1961 board game, you roll the dice to acquire, among other things, a date to the prom.  The possible dates are Ken, Bob, Tom, and Poindexter (pictured left).  Needless to say, Poindexter is the geek. Cards give you directions like:  “YOU ARE NOT READY WHEN HE CALLS. MISS 1 TURN.”

But the game is much more fun than dating.  Actual dating so often means getting stuck on a sailboat with a virtual stranger, or discovering he/she has no bookshelves.  Instead of “dating,” I hung out with bookish men I met at parties, at work, or in language classes.  Yes, I married one.

But would it work for Peg, the fat, plain character in a group of friends at Radcliffe in the 1940s in Alice Adams’s novel, Superior Women (1984)? This stunning  novel, reminiscent of Mary McCarthy’s The Group, follows a group of friends over four decades.  At Radcliffe, the maternal Peg plies her friends with cookies and tea and is much more intelligent than they think.    Lavinia, the beauty, is an aristocratic Southerner who wants total control:  she mourns a boyfriend who died in World War II, neglecting to say he dumped her before he shipped out. Plump, sexy Megan is irresistibly attractive to men, who tell her she is different because she likes sex (they don’t actually want to go on dates, though); Janet, a Jewish woman who criticizes Megan’s WASPy “technical virgin” friends, is in love with an  Irish Catholic whose  mother opposes the match.  Cathy, a smart Catholic, goes out with a flashily-dressed Catholic from Ohio (known as Flash by snobs) with whom she shares a taste for good steak.  Are they in love…?  Well…

You see Peg’s dilemma.

Alice Adams Superior Women 41xTsBHIaNLWhen her friends  learn Peg is going on a date with a Yale man she hasn’t seen since childhood, they humiliate her by helping her get ready.

Thus it works out that getting Peg ready for her date is a group project. With a variety of emotions that includes both genuine kindness and an incredulous condescension (Peg, on a date? what will he think when he sees her, no matter what she has on?), the three friends, her “best friends,” gather in her room; they watch and they make suggestions, helpful and otherwise. They make silly jokes. Megan and Cathy and Lavinia, all concentrated on poor Peg.

And not one of them has the slightest idea of what is going on in Peg’s mind. In close physical proximity to her, looking at her and talking, not one of them recognizes what is actually a serious anxiety attack; they do not feel Peg’s genuine panic.”

The Maude translation (Everyman)

The Maude translation (Everyman)

Adams, who graduated from high school at 15 and Radcliffe at 19, is very smart: the preparation-for-the-date scene is a homage to a scene in Tolstoy’s War and Peace.  In Tolstoy’s masterpiece, Princess  Mary,  a young, very kind, very plain  woman who lives in the country with her severe father, is excited because a suitor, Prince Anatole, is coming to meet her. Her  French companion, Mademoiselle Bourienne , and her pregnant sister-in-law, Princess Lise, help her prepare for the “date,: only to find that she actually looks worse in chic clothes and the new hairdo.  Here is a passage from the Maude translation.

It was not the dress, but the face and whole figure of Princess Mary that was not pretty, but neither Mademoiselle Bourienne nor the little princess felt this; they still thought that if a blue ribbon were placed in the hair, the hair combed up, and the blue scarf arranged lower on the best maroon dress, and so on, all would be well. They forgot that the frightened face and the figure could not be altered, and that however they might change the setting and adornment of that face, it would still remain piteous and plain. After two or three changes to which Princess Mary meekly submitted, just as her hair had been arranged on the top of her head (a style that quite altered and spoiled her looks) and she had put on a maroon dress with a pale-blue scarf, the little princess walked twice round her,

In neither Peg’s nor Mary’s case, does the date go well.  In Superior Women, the plain, red-faced Yale man, Cameron, gets drunk and almost rapes Peg, who fortunately is strong enough to shove him off her.   In War and Peace, Princess Mary is very shy and stilted, but Anatole will marry her for her money. But the next day, but after finding him making out with Mademoiselle Bourienne, she turns down the proposal.

Whether it is the nineteenth century or now, dating can be grueling.

Tolstoy’s The Kreutzer Sonata and Other Stories

tolstoy the kreutzer sonata and other stories 4164Top38+L._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_I am mad about Russian literature.

And I am fascinated by the development of the nineteenth-century Russian novel, as writers began to experiment with point of view and psychologization. What a century!  Gogol, Turgenev, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Chekhov.

But is there any greater writer than Tolstoy?

If you a admire his realism, beautifully-crafted scenes, and depth of characterization, you read and reread War and Peace, Anna Karenina, and Resurrection. And then you turn to his stories and novellas, though they are less satisfying than his novels:  Tolstoy needs space. The Kreutzer Sonata and Other Stories (Penguin), translated by David McDuff and Paul Foote, is a collection of four stories about the consequences of love and sex.

“Family Happiness” is an early story, a predecessor of Anna  Karenina. It is an astute, if somewhat rambling, story of a marriage. After her mother’s death, the narrator, Masha, falls in love with her guardian. They had meant to move to the city for Masha’s “coming out.” in society, but now she is stuck in the country with her governess and younger sister.  At the age of 17, she is depressed.

The loss of my mother was a very great grief, but I must admit that there was also a feeling that I was young and pretty, as everyone told me, but that I was wasting a second winter in seclusion on our estate.  Before the end of the winter, this feeling of melancholy, loneliness, and sheer boredom increased to such an extent that I never left my room, never opened the piano and never took a book in my hands….  In my heart a voice said:  “Why?  Why do anything, when the best days of my life are being wasted like this?”

Sometimes falling in love is a matter of being primed for an emotion.  Sergei, their neighbor and guardian, arrives in March for a visit, and Masha  plays the piano for him and enjoys their conversations.  Masha makes the first advances in the summer, while Sergei is, appropriately, picking cherries for her.  He feels too old for her, and they discuss the nature of love.   They  get married and are sexually compatible and very happy.  Masha has a baby.   Then Sergei takes her to the city and she finally enjoys the whirl of society.  As Masha becomes excited by flirtations with other men, she spends more time in cities and travels.  Perhaps Sergei was never her soulmate, but they do manage to work out their problems after Masha glimpses the ugliness of a potential lover’s cynical view of her. And so it is an optimistic story, though Tolstoy clearly believes that first love cannot last.

Kreutzer sonata yale 9780300189940Tolstoy’s famous novella, “The Kreutzer Sonata,” was banned in 1890 by Russian censors for its sexual content.  It is by far the most idiosyncratic  story in this collection.  It is misogynistic to the point that Tolstoy’s wife Sofia  wrote her own version, as did their son.    (The counterstories are published in The Kreutzer Sonata Variations, along with Tolstoy’s novella, translated by Michael Katz)

Set on a train, this brilliant novella is told in the form of a frame story.  In the opening chapters, the narrator describes his fellow passengers and recounts their discussion of marriage and divorce.  A merchant claims that women’s education has ruined marriage: a feminist woman believes women should not have to live with their husbands if they fall out of love.  And then another passenger, Pozdnyshev, tells his story to the narrator:  he murdered his wife but was acquitted because she committed adultery. He verbally attacks the “animal” nature of human sexuality, women’s use of contraceptives (one of the things that pushed him over the edge),  and preaches abstinence.  But Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata was the trigger for the murder, when he found his wife and a violinist playing it together on the piano.  One of Tolstoy’s later, quirkier beliefs was that music could be too “infectious.”  You had to be careful that art didn’t affect your mood!  But in many ways the story is redeemed by the reaction of his dying wife, who shows her contempt for him and screams, “Nurse, he’s killed me!”  He cannot take it in that he really killed her.

Fascinatingly, Tolstoy meant this story in part as an attack on Turgenev, whose lyrical, philosophical writing he disliked, according to Donna Tussing Orwin, the editor of the Penguin edition.  And “The Kreutzer Sonata” duplicates the structure of Turgenev’s First Love (1861) and Spring Torrents (1871), in which philosophical dialogues about love predominate.

Orwin writes,

In these stories Turgenev depicts failed romantic love and opportunities that his characters usually lacked the courage to pursue.  By contrast, The Kreutzer Sonata attacks romantic love, and even associates it with murder.

I admire the brilliant structure, but must admit I hate the story.

In the last two stories, Tolstoy brilliantly continues to explore sexual problems.  In “The Devil,” the hero is torn between love of his wife, who does not sexually excite him,  and lust for another woman.  In “Father Sergei,” the handsome hero breaks off the engagement when he learns his fiancée used to be the czar’s mistress.  He becomes a monk, then a hermit, to get away from women, who continue to pursue him sexually.  But his ineluctable fall is in a way his return to grace.

Tolstoy  is a superb writer, though his  philosophy is sometimes cranky.  Yet these stories are structurally little gems.

Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilyich”

Death of Ivan Ilyich tolstoy 9780140449617

I am always reading something by Tolstoy.  I love Anna Karenina, but War and Peace  is a masterpiece.  I now limit my rereadings  of it to once a year.

I must make do with Tolstoy’s short stories for a while. Anyway, I have not read all the stories.

In the Penguin edition of The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories,  translated by Ronald Wilks, Anthony Briggs, and David McDuff, “The  Death of Ivan Ilyich” is a grisly masterpiece.  It is both satiric and incredibly grim.

Divided into chapters, it  begins with the end.  Anthony Briggs writes in the introduction that it is a very unusual story.

…we are barely a hundred words into the narrative when we are told, ‘Gentlemen!   Ivan Ilyich is dead.’  So much for suspense. At no stage in the succeeding pages are we going to entertain doubts about the protagonists’ fate, which has been settled and sealed.

The structure is a ring composition.  It begins with and ends with Ivan’s death.

In Chapter 1, Ivan Ilyich’s colleagues learn from the newspaper that Ivan has died. Nobody is emotionally affected.  They start immediately thinking about how it can benefit themselves:  can they get a promotion?  can they get their brother-in-law the job?

And that is how society is:  brutally shallow.

Tolstoy

Tolstoy

All the characters in Ivan’s social circle care about the same things. They furnish their houses the same, they make the same conversation, they have the same opinions.  No one deeply cares for anyone else.   Even Ivan’s wife and daughter do not care much for him.  His long illness, with its intense pain, has been vaguely diagnosed by the doctors as a floating kidney or colitis. For his family, it is a drag on their social life.

His daughter Liza says, “I’m sorry for Papa, but why do we have to suffer?”

He tries to deny that he is dying, because it could not be happening to him.  He goes to work every day–he is a judge–until he begins to lose his concentration.

According to Anthony Briggs’s introduction, the story was based on  a true story.  A judge who lived near Tolstoy in the town of  Tula died of stomach cancer.  The judge sentenced people to very harsh punishments.  Tolstoy wondered how he could go home and enjoy his life.

Tolstoy tells the story of Ivan’s life.  It is a simple story of a successful man.  He graduated from law school and qualified for the civil service.

His career started in the provinces, where he had affairs, played cards, and married a pretty woman.

…it did not take Ivan Ilyich long to arrange a lifestyle that was as easy and agreeable as the one he had enjoyed at law school.  He did his work, pursued his career and at the same time discreetly enjoyed himself.

He does not have enough money, he and his wife think, so he goes to Petersburg, and through connections, gets a job as a judge for five thousand pounds a year. He buys a big house and arranges it all to his own taste before the family arrives.  He tracks down antiques, rugs, and plants and shows the upholsterer how to hang the curtains.  Ironically, all the accoutrements he acquires make Ivan look exactly like every other person who wants to appear richer than he is.

And while he is on the ladder to attend to the curtains, he slips and falls and bumps his side on a window knob.  He tells his family,

It’s a good job I’m athletic.  Any other man would have killed himself, but all I did was bruise myself a bit here.  It hurts when you touch it, but it’s getting better.  It is only a bruise.”

That is the beginning of his death.  He complains of the pain in his side and a funny taste in his mouth.  The doctors cannot make a definite diagnosis, though they sound authoritative. The medicine doesn’t help. He can no longer play cards.  The opium makes him sicker. Tolstoy does not say that he has cancer.  But the pain, the screaming, implies that he does.

He begins to wonder about his life.  “What if I really have been wrong in the way I’ve lived  my whole life, my conscious life?”

We are with him to the moment of his death.

This story is so realistic, and even modern, in its depiction of the doctors’ failure to diagnose and treat difficult illnesses that it is difficult to read.

Of course Tolstoy being Tolstoy, there are also spiritual problems.

The translation by Briggs is seamless.  He is one of the best Russian translators today.  I love his War and Peace (though I also love the other translations of War and Peace.).

Only Notes: The Olympics, Tolstoy’s Resurrection, & Prostitutes in Literature

Yuna Kim, short program Olympics

Yuna Kim, Short Program Sochi Olympics

Before I write about Tolstoy’s Resurrection and prostitutes in Literature, here are some NOTES ON THE OLYMPICS.  Yes, I’m goofing around in front of the  TV tonight.  Loved the snowboarding, loved the Alpine skiing, adored the ice dancing.  I took a night off from the Olympics last night, and now I’m ba-a-a-a-a-ck!

Skip ahead if you don’t like the Olympics.

Women’s Bobsled:  We’re interested because of Lolo Jones, the track star/bobsled brakeman from Des Moines (Dead Moines, as it’s called in Iowa). Yes, we’re Midwesterners.  USA Teams 1 and 2 (not Lolo’s sled 3) won silver and bronze. Canada won gold, and I was impressed by their clean, perfect runs, but aren’t American silver and bronze as good?  USA, USA…

Alpine Skiing:  I muted it so I can blog.  Is Ted Ligety in medal position? Yes!  He’s in first place.  WHOOOOOO!  Ted just won the Gold Medal in the slalom.  The first U.S. Alpine skier to win two gold medals (or something something something). Feel like a drink?

Figure skating:  Yuna Kim, the defending gold medalist from South Korea, is more elegant and limber than anyone in her field .   She has speed and flow, and, as one narrator said, “She may be the greatest competitor I’ve ever witnessed.” Another said, “She totally owns the audience and that performance.”  American Gracie Gold had one wobble, the little Russian fell down, and the beautiful Italian is my favorite but still perhaps not as good as Kim.  More on this tomorrow.

On to Tolstoy:

If you’ve read this blog, you’ll know that Tolstoy is one of my favorite writers.  Last year I reread War and Peace  and Anna Karenina, and then immediately started rereading W&P again.

And now I’m returning to Tolstoy’s other work.  Rereading Tolstoy is like reliving your life.

resurrection briggsIn his beautifully-written novel, Resurrection, a prostitute, Katyusha Maslova, is accused, along with another woman and man, of theft and poisoning one of her clients.  She is innocent, having been told that the drink would make him sleep.

Then, unexpectedly, Prince Dmitri Ivanovich Nekhlyudov, a man in his prime who seduced Katyusha years ago at his aunts’ house, recognizes her.  He is on the jury.  His life is in control, he might marry a rich woman (though he doesn’t like her much), and what if anyone finds out he was connected to the accused? But when a mistake on the jury condemns her to hard labor, he is conscience-stricken.  He does everything he can to help her and other prisoners, many of whom have been unjustly locked up.  He decides he will give up his estate, marry Katyusha, and follow her to Siberia.

But what if the woman doesn’t feel like marrying the landowner?  Katyusha decidedly does not.  She is angry about what happened long ago. She lost her position with his aunts (they had brought her up almost as a niece and even educated her) because of pregnancy.  One night, in the early stages of her pregnancy, she walked through a rainstorm to see him at the train station–he had telegraphed his aunts that he would pass through but not have time to stop.  Arriving a little late, she tried in vain to get his attention, running along beside the train.

He didn’t see her.  She is desperate, furious, and pregnant.

And then she is like Anna Karenina.  The scene boldly refers  to Anna’s suicide..

He’s there in that carriage with the bright lights, sitting on his velvet chair, joking and drinking, and I’m down here in the dirt and the darkness, in the rain and the wind, standing here weeping,” she thought ,as she came to a stop, threw back her head, held it with both hands and howled….

“The next train–under the wheels–and it’s all over,” thought Katushya…

She does not commit suicide, and in fact Nekhlyudov does renew her life by making sure she is put with the political prisoners instead of the criminals.  She gets a sort of education from these radicals.

And for Nekhlyudov?  Does he find resurrection?

It’s a complicated novel about prison reform, Christianity, and judgment.

Nekhlyudov asks himself, What right does a Christian have to judge the poor and the ignorant?

And on the final page:

“Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness, and all the rest will be added on to you.”

Nana by ZolaPROSTITUTION IN LITERATURE.  I’m in notes mode.  This is just a list of books with prostitutes, guys and gals.

1.  Tolstoy’s Resurrection

2.  Zola’s Nana

3.  Trollope’s The Vicar of Bullhampton

4.  Stephen Crane’s Maggie:  A Girl of the Streets

5.  Balzac’s A Harlot High and Low

6.  Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind

7.  Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders

8.  Dickens’ Oliver Twist

9.  Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment

10. Louisa May Alcott’s Work

Any more prostitutes in literature?  Let me know!

My Horse Came in Second, Russian Translators, & Did Dickens Meet Dostoevsky?

Golden Soul

Golden Soul

Isn’t Golden Soul gorgeous?

We got home just in time to watch the Kentucky Derby. Every year it starts when–5:25?–and I watch the horses and jockeys and pick my winner.  I picked Golden Soul minutes before the Kentucky Derby started.

He was such a long shot that everyone thought I was being stubborn for no reason.

“I like a long shot,” I said.   “I just think he’s the most beautiful horse.  I don’t care if he wins or not!”

He came in second!

Hurrah, Golden Soul.

Now if only I had bet–there’s win, place, or show–I could apparently have made some serious money!

RUSSIAN TRANSLATIONS:  TOLSTOY AND DOSTOEVSKY

war-and-peace-briggs-bigI am reading War and Peace for perhaps the seventh time.

I am delighted by Anthony Briggs’s wonderful 2005 translation, and recommend it to those of you who are making the difficult choice of which translation to read.  Of course I have also enjoyed the Maude, the Constance Garnett, and the Pevear and Volokhonsky, so it’s safe to say I’m not fussy.  (Or is there a bad translation of War and Peace somewhere?)

At my house the general opinion is that reading War and Peace may save my mind from the internet.   Blogging is bad enough, they think, but far, far worse is Twitter.

“I don’t get it.  You’ve read War and Peace six times and now you’re on Twitter?”

Am I on Twitter?  I don’t know my Twitter address.  (Far more likely that I’m on  War and Peace.)

If you don’t believe I prefer Tolstoy to Twitter, let me tell you that I even love his shorter works.  You think Tolstoy’s Resurrection is bad?  Try me.  I’ve read it and will be happy to read it again.

Hadji Murat by tolstoyMany novels and stories by Tolstoy have been translated in recent years to great acclaim.  When Oprah chose Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s Anna Karenina for her book club, no one thought anybody would read it.  May I just say that my book group, who aren’t always reading Tolstoy, read and loved it?

In the March/April edition of of Humanities,  Kevin Mahnken interviews Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky about their translations of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.  They have finished Tolstoy’s major works: Hadji Murat was the last they translated.

The married couple’s process is interesting:  Volokhonsky, who is Russian, translates the Russian word for word, and then Pevear, who is American, smooths it out into literary English.

They started with Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, because they thought a new translation was needed to convey the humor and irony.

The couple are thinking about translating Turgenev: I hope they do.

DICKENS AND DOSTOEVSKY.

Naiman_Commentary_336746h Dickens and DostoevskyIn the TLS, Eric Naiman’s article,  “When Dickens Met Dostoevsky,” will divert both Dickens fans and Dostoevsky fans.

Did Dickens meet Dostoevsky?

Naiman begins his article, which actually reads like a mystery:

Late in 2011, Michiko Kakutani opened her New York Times review of Claire Tomalin’s biography of Charles Dickens with “a remarkable account” she had found in its pages. In London for a few days in 1862, Fyodor Dostoevsky had dropped in on Dickens’s editorial offices and found the writer in an expansive mood. In a letter written by Dostoevsky to an old friend sixteen years later, the writer of so many great confession scenes depicted Dickens baring his creative soul…

But it seems that no one quite knows where this letter is.  Hmmm.  Was it a hoax?