Tuesday, 11 August 2009

'there is a season for every love'

Three Novellas
by Leo Tolstoy

After a couple of books which didn't quite hit the mark I needed a little corrective and for some reason I always feel safe in Russia. Having tackled Tolstoy's biggies (War and Peace and Anna Karenina) Oneworld Classics provided me with an opportunity for something a little more manageable. The three stories in this collection cover a period of over 5o years (the first written in 1852, the last in 1909 shortly before his death) and their grouping together illuminates on several fronts, not only as reflections of the social and political mores of the time but also of the character of the author himself and his own narrative.

A Landowner's Morning and The Devil present very different views of peasants, whose emancipation came in 1861 between the writing of the two stories. In the former an idealistic young landowner tours his estate, visiting his peasants in an attempt to remedy their problems. With such honourable intentions he is surprised to find his overtures met with mistrust and suspicion and he comes to represent Tolstoy's own, and even then, outmoded view that education of the peasants would do nothing to improve their lot in life.

It is a very different view he presents in The Devil written in less than two weeks but a closely guarded secret for much of his life due to the subject matter. He feared that a story about a man not dissimilar to himself ('not a debauchee, as he was fond of saying, but neither was he a monk.') who struggles to control his sexual feelings towards the peasant woman who had been his lover before marriage might well upset his wife. And given that his own life had followed such a close trajectory to that of his central character he was probably absolutely right. There is something hot and urgent, particularly in the cold and often outdoor setting that marks his depiction of passion and guilt as genuine.

'He felt that he was losing all self-control, that he was becoming almost insane...he knew that that he only had to run into her somewhere, to touch her in the dark, if possible, and he would abandon himself to his feeling. He knew he was only held back by his sense of shame - shame of other people, of her, and of himself. And he knew that he was seeking circumstances in which this shame would not be apparent - either the dark, or some contact which would smother shame with animal passion. And therefore he knew he was a loathsome criminal, and despised and hated himself with all his soul.'

Marriage is one of the strongest themes in Tolstoy's major works and one finds its genesis in a story like Family Happiness. That it was written so early (around 1858) is a surprise because of the gulf that separates it from A Landowner's Morning not only in content but also in style and accomplishment. Narrated convincingly by a woman, Masha, who almost grows up before us, it charts her awakening to love, marriage and life thereafter with a thrillingly ambiguous ending. After the death of her mother leaves her and her sisters effectively orphaned the figure of Sergey Mikhailovich, guardian to them all looms larger in Masha's life. Even a story which doesn't concern itself with the peasantry is able to raise the issue as Masha has her eyes opened.

Even this story which doesn't concern peasants provides an opportunity to see them from a new perspective 'He taught me, too, to look at the people who worked for us - at the peasants, at the servants and girls - in quite a different way. Ridiculous as it may seem, I had lived amongst these people for seventeen years, and yet had remained more alien to them than I was to people whom I never saw; I never once realized that they had loves and desires and regrets, as I had. Our garden, our woods, our fields which I had known for so long, suddenly became new and beautiful to me. He was right when he said that there was only one undoubted happiness in life - to live for others.'

The greatest challenge for Masha is going to be far more intimate, in keeping control of her burgeoning emotional landscape within which she is a stranger. The path to marriage is fraught and no sooner is she married than she finds herself beset by fear.

"You're frightened of me, my dear?" he said, taking my hand and bending his head over it.
My hand lay lifeless in his, and the cold made my heart ache.
"Yes," I whispered.
But at that very moment my heart suddenly began to beat faster, my hand trembled and pressed his hand, I began to feel hot, my eyes sought his in the dusk, and suddenly I felt that I was not afraid of him - that this fear was love, a new kind of love, a tenderer and stronger love than before. I felt that I was entirely his, and that I rejoiced in his power over me.

It will be of no great surprise that the rejoicing is short lived and the challenge of married life, and the special concerns of a significant age gap, begin to exert pressure. Tolstoy's expression of Masha's emotional development seems to me to be acutely observed.

'...my love stood still and ceased to grow and, apart form love, some new restlessness began to creep into my heart. Once I had experienced the happiness of falling in love with him I could not rest content with affection. I wanted movement, not the calm flow of life. I wanted emotion, danger, and self-sacrifice for the sake of feeling.'

Her naivety is replaced by self-awareness and finally honesty and confidence. This I think is what makes the closing paragraph so interesting. This edition also makes clear that the final sentence had previously been amended by translators to include a conclusion which changed the entire character of the narrator. Whilst Tolstoy wasn't responsible for that he did write an alternative ending for The Devil, both of which are printed in this edition, which further illuminates the character of the man who managed to find in his writing the complicated emotions and psychology of women whom he singularly failed in his personal life.


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