Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

All reviews copyright 1984-2015 Evelyn C. Leeper.


THE DEATH OF IVAN ILYICH by Leo Tolstoy:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/04/2015]

Our discussion group chose THE DEATH OF IVAN ILYICH by Leo Tolstoy (translated by Louise and Aylmer Maude) (ISBN 978-0-553-21035-4) for this month. The first observation to make is that it is more about the life of Ivan Ilych rather than his death, though perhaps the idea is that the way he lived his life was such that in some sense he started dying very early on. He was always more of an opportunist than someone with a moral compass:

"At school he had done things which had formerly seemed to him very horrid and made him feel disgusted with himself when he did them, but when later on he saw that such actions were done by people of good position and that they did not regard them as wrong, he was able not exactly to regard them as right, but to forget about them entirely or not be at all troubled at remembering them."

Earlier, Tolstoy described someone else as having "the sort of career which brings men to positions from which by reason of their long service they cannot be dismissed, though they are obviously unfit to hold any responsible positions, and for whom therefore posts are specially created, which though fictitious carry salaries of from six to ten thousand rubles that are not fictitious, and in receipt of which they live to a great age." It is this sort of person who moves up to make room for people like Ivan Ilych.

Tolstoy seems to get a sly insult in when he says, "Neither as a boy nor as a man was he a toady, but from early youth was by nature attracted to people of high position as a fly is drawn to the light." I think most people reading this in English would finish the phrase "attracted to people of high position as a fly is drawn to ..." with a word other than "light."

Ivan Ilyich drifts through life with little feeling or connection to anything. "The preparations for marriage and the beginning of married life, with its conjugal caresses, the new furniture, new crockery, and new linen, were very pleasant until his wife became pregnant." Love and "conjugal caresses" are no different to him than furniture, crockery, and linen. "Though the salary was higher, the cost of living was greater, besides which two of their children died and family life became still more unpleasant for him." The fact that two of his children died is a mere aside, of little importance.

And his ambition is very limited: "All he now wanted was an appointment to another post with a salary of five thousand rubles, either in the administration, in the banks, with the railways in one of the Empress Marya's Institutions, or even in the customs -- but it had to carry with it a salary of five thousand rubles and be in a ministry other than that in which they had failed to appreciate him." He has no interest in what he is going to be doing to earn this salary--indeed, it is probably one of those jobs described above, fictitious and of no responsibility.

All that makes his marriage better is to make it less: "Now everything had happened so fortunately, and that he and his wife were at one in their aims and moreover saw so little of one another, they got on together better than they had done since the first years of marriage."

Ivan Ilyich's goal is to imitate not those he wishes to become (or be seen as), but those who are in the same position he is. They think they are imitating the upper class, as does he, but in fact they are merely imitating each other. As Tolstoy writes, "In reality it was just what is usually seen in the houses of people of moderate means who want to appear rich, and therefore succeed only in resembling others like themselves." And, "Just as his drawing- room resembled all other drawing-rooms so did his enjoyable little parties resemble all other such parties."

In a lesson to us all, he becomes too attached to things, because it is things he has been focused on: "Every spot on the tablecloth or the upholstery, and every broken window-blind strong, irritated him. He had devoted so much trouble to arranging it all that every disturbance of it distressed him."

And there is a final universality that Tolstoy describes: "His condition was rendered worse by the fact that he read medical books and consulted doctors."

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HADJI MURAD by Leo Tolstoy:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/28/2006]

Coincidentally, someone in our discussion group wanted to read a Russian novel, but no one wanted a "doorstop", so we chose HADJI MURAD by Leo Tolstoy (GREAT SHORT WORKS OF TOLSTOY, ISBN 0-060-58697-4). (This book also contains THE COSSACKS.) HADJI MURAD came highly recommended by Harold Bloom, but on the whole we were less than bowled over. Though Bloom claims the characters are all very detailed and well-drawn, we did not find it that way. An additional problem for me was that while there was a short glossary provided for the Tartar (Chechen) words, the edition I was reading did not translate any of the French that the characters spoke. I realize that all of Tolstoy's contemporary audience understood French as well as Russian, but the audience here and now does not. (Later translations seem to have fixed this with footnotes.) Oddly, this novel was made into the Italian movie THE WHITE WARRIOR, with muscleman Steve Reeves, and Mark said if you read it as an action-adventure novel, it is not bad.

To order Great Short Works of Tolstoy from amazon.com, click here.


WAR AND PEACE by Leo Tolstoy:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/02/2015]

I am reading WAR AND PEACE by Leo Tolstoy (translated by Aylmer and Rose Maude) (ISBN 978-1-853-26062-9). It has some footnotes explaining Russian customs, puns, etc. Among these is: "It is not strictly accurate to use the word biretta for the headgear used in the Russo-Greek church, but it is the nearest word available in English." My question is, why use any word other than the original (probably "klobuk")? After all, it isn't as though the word "biretta" has a long history in the English language.

For fans of alternate history (or for that matter, ordinary history), Book XI, Chapter I will be of particular interest. This is a Tolstoyan infodump, starting with a discussion of continuous versus discontinuous events, then onto calculus (!) and finally sequeing into a discussion of "The Tide of History Theory Versus The Great Man Theory."

Tolstoy writes, "Absolute continuity of motion is not comprehensible to the human mind. Laws of motion of any kind become comprehensible to man only when he examines arbitrarily selected elements of that motion; but at the same time, a large proportion of human error comes from the arbitrary division of continuous motion into discontinuous elements." A description of Zeno's Paradox of Achilles and the Tortoise follows.

Tolstoy then moves on to history: "In seeking the laws of historical movement just the same thing happens. The movement of humanity, arising as it does from innumerable arbitrary human wills, is continuous." But historians make a couple of errors in looking at history. They look at only a few selected events, rather than look at all events--but of course, there is no way one can look at all events from the beginning of time. The other is to look at the actions of a single man (a king or general) as being "equivalent to the sum of many individual wills." This, Tolstoy says, is never the case. "Only by taking infinitesimally small units for observation (the differential of history, that is, the individual tendencies of men) and attaining to the art of integrating them (that is, finding the sum of these infinitesimals) can we hope to arrive at the laws of history."

So attributing the French Revolution to a few men in Paris is a mistake. "'But every time there have been conquests there have been conquerors; every time there has been a revolution in any state there have been great men,' says history." True, but correlation does not imply causation.

So, Tolstoy concludes, "To study the laws of history we must completely change the subject of our observation, must leave aside kings, ministers, and generals, and study the common, infinitesimally small elements by which the masses are moved."

The next chapter goes on to explain that it may seem as though generals make decisions, but in fact they are pawns of the forces of history. A general is asked whether the troops should take a different road, but by the time the messenger gets to him with the question, and all the other distractions preying on him are dispensed with, the troops have passed the point where they could change roads and the decision is out of his hands. Similarly, by the time people starting asking whether Moscow should be abandoned to the French, it was already to late to say no.

(Book IX, Chapter I has a similar discussion, but centered on determinism (fatalism) and free will.)

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/09/2015]

I finished WAR AND PEACE by Leo Tolstoy (translated by Aylmer and Rose Maude) (ISBN 1978-1-853-26062-9) and have a few more comments to add to those of last week.

On Russian names: One needs to remember that Prince Andrew, Andrew Nikolayevich, Andrew, Andrusha, and Bolkonski are all the same person. Yes, it's true in English we could have Philip Jose Farmer referred to as "Phil" or as "Mr. Farmer", but it is unlikely that he would also be called "Philip" and "Philip Jose".

One also needs to remember that Andrew Nikolayevich Bolkonski's sister is Mary Nikolayevna Bolkonskaya.

The Maude translation (1923) is highly regarded, but uses Westernized versions of all the names: Andrew instead of Andrey, Mary instead of Maria, Sonia instead of Sofia, Helene instead of Elena, and so on. Since the modern convention is to leave the names as Tolstoy wrote them (transliterated, of course) this makes it even more complicated. For example, if one is using a plot summary or study guide, one needs to recognize that the person it calls "Prince Andrey Bolkonsky" is "Prince Andrew Bolkonski" in the Maude translation.

(Given the retention of patronymic and family names, the use of Westernized given names seems a bit peculiar. "Nikolayevich" means "son of Nikolai"--why then give the father's name as "Nicholas"?)

One does not think of WAR AND PEACE as containing humor, but there are definitely humorous sections. For example, in Book XIII, Chapter IX, Tolstoy describes all the "wonderful" things Napoleon did:

"With the object of raising the spirits of the troops and of the people, reviews were constantly held and rewards distributed. The Emperor rode through the streets to comfort the inhabitants, and, despite his preoccupation with state affairs, himself visited the theaters that were established by his order.

In regard to philanthropy, the greatest virtue of crowned heads, Napoleon also did all in his power. He caused the words Maison de ma Mere to be inscribed on the charitable institutions, thereby combining tender filial affection with the majestic benevolence of a monarch. He visited the Foundling Hospital and, allowing the orphans saved by him to kiss his white hands, graciously conversed with Tutolmin. Then, as Thiers eloquently recounts, he ordered his soldiers to be paid in forged Russian money which he had prepared: 'Raising the use of these means by an act worthy of himself and of the French army, he let relief be distributed to those who had been burned out. But as food was too precious to be given to foreigners, who were for the most part enemies, Napoleon preferred to supply them with money with which to purchase food from outside, and had paper rubles distributed to them.'"

And in Second Epilogue, Chapter I, he writes:

"Instead of men endowed with divine authority and directly guided by the will of God, modern history has given us either heroes endowed with extraordinary, superhuman capacities, or simply men of very various kinds, from monarchs to journalists, who lead the masses. Instead of the former divinely appointed aims of the Jewish, Greek, or Roman nations, which ancient historians regarded as representing the progress of humanity, modern history has postulated its own aims--the welfare of the French, German, or English people, or, in its highest abstraction, the welfare and civilization of humanity in general, by which is usually meant that of the peoples occupying a small northwesterly portion of a large continent."

Sarcasm is not dead.

Many years after the end of the Vietnam War, General Frederick C. Weyand wrote, "But America's fighting forces did not fail us. 'You know, you never beat us on the battlefield,' I told my North Vietnamese counterpart during negotiations in Hanoi a week before the fall of Saigon. He pondered that remark a moment and then replied, 'That may be so, but it is also irrelevant.'"

But in Book XIV, Chapter XIX, Tolstoy writes:

"If the aim of the Russians consisted in cutting off and capturing Napoleon and his marshals--and that aim was not merely frustrated but all attempts to attain it were most shamefully baffled--then this last period of the campaign is quite rightly considered by the French to be a series of victories, and quite wrongly considered victorious by Russian historians.

The Russian military historians in so far as they submit to claims of logic must admit that conclusion, and in spite of their lyrical rhapsodies about valor, devotion, and so forth, must reluctantly admit that the French retreat from Moscow was a series of victories for Napoleon and defeats for Kutuzov.

But putting national vanity entirely aside one feels that such a conclusion involves a contradiction, since the series of French victories brought the French complete destruction, while the series of Russian defeats led to the total destruction of their enemy and the liberation of their country."

(For that matter, I think it is argued that Hannibal never lost a battle in Italy, nor Spain in the Netherlands, but ultimately both lost their wars.)

The Second Epilogue, Chapters IX-XII, is an excellent discussion of freedom (The Great Man Theory) and necessity (determinism, the Tide of History Theory). One observation Tolstoy makes that I have not seen before is that something what seems like the doings of a single individual at the time or even a few years later will, after centuries, seem as inevitable in the tide of history. At the time of the Crusades, the actions that occurred seemed the result of the decisions of a few Popes and kings; now we see them as the result of factors such as primogeniture driving younger sons to seek fame and fortune elsewhere. Ancient migrations may have seemed to depend on the tribal leader, but we no longer even remember his name and attribute them to weather, or a famine, or the encroachment of other tribes.

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