My first ever guest post – Tolstoy!

Well, I’ve finally done it – here’s a link to my first ever guest post!

It’s my musings on what Leo Tolstoy, the person, was like based on my reading of his great work Anna Karenina – using a lot of poetic licence. Check it out – you’ll see what I mean. :)

A huge thank you to Amanda at Desert Book Chick for allowing me to be part of her Classics Month.


Tolstoy & I

It is very much with a clean slate that today I muse on my impressions of Leo Tolstoy having only recently made his acquaintance through my current reading of Anna Karenina.

However before I launch into my thoughts on Leo the person, you may be asking yourself how I can presume to know what he was like?

I am not one who has formally studied classical literature, read many classics myself or even done much reading about the guy. But, what I do know is this:

(1) a person cannot create a work as groundbreaking and as deep as Anna Karenina without investing some part of themselves into it, and

(2) it is widely thought that Tolstoy modelled one of the central characters within Anna Karenina, Konstantin Levin, on himself.

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So, who is Leo, the person?

He is a humanitarian.

Okay, so I know it should technically be ‘he was a humanitarian’ given he died almost 100 years ago, but I like to think he lives on through his works. The messages in Anna Karenina are still highly relevant to this day.

So, Leo (or more correctly Count Lyev Nikolayevich Tolstoy – his first name sounds a lot like Levin doesn’t it?) shows genuine interest and concern for the welfare of the peasants in society, as equally as for the welfare of his fellow nobility.

‘But like or dislike “the people” as something apart he could not, not only because he lived with “the people”, and all his interests were bound up with theirs, but also because he regarded himself as a part of “the people”, did not see any special qualities or failings distinguishing himself and “the people”, and could not contrast himself with them.’

Sounds like a man before his time to me.

He is a philosopher and deep thinker.

Anna Karenina is so much more than a story of romantic liaisons. That story line is simply a stage from which Tolstoy presents a commentary on the world and humanity in general. He provides many observational gems, such as:

‘Hypocrisy in anything whatever may deceive the cleverest and most penetrating man, but the least wide-awake of children recognizes it, and is revolted by it, however ingeniously in may be disguised.’

Tolstoy is also a man confident in his beliefs. Why do I think that?

From my experience it is generally those that lack confidence that feel the need to barrage everyone with their view on a matter, and their view only, until they are the only ones left sitting at the dining table (or bar, or BBQ table).

Tolstoy doesn’t do that. Through his range of characters he presents all sides of an argument for the reader, letting the reader come to their own conclusions.

He understands women.

Tolstoy’s characterisation of both men and women is amazing. But it is his perceptiveness when it comes to the goings on in the mind of women that really impresses me. (I’m allowed to say that given I’m female – we can be like a cryptic crossword at times, so I am reliably told).

‘Kitty did in fact conceal her new views and feelings from her mother. She concealed them not because she did not respect or did not love her mother, but simply because she was her mother.’

He knows how to express himself.

Tolstoy’s lyrical phrasing and penchant for a double negative rarely seen in modern works do require your brain to be engaged. His sentences are like little Russian dolls… you know the ones with a doll inside a doll inside a doll… but in Tolstoy’s prose, and most other classic authors, there is a phrase inside a phrase inside a phrase.

But that is nothing to be scared of – quite the contrary actually. Just go with it, immerse yourself in it and as with any language as soon as you stop focussing on the individual words and phrasing it starts entering your brain ‘like osmosis’ and the meaning, or in this case the story and characters quickly shine through. Tolstoy’s Russian doll sentences are beautiful and a means through which he conveys so much meaning and depth of thought.

And, if anyone can do long sentences well, it is indeed Tolstoy. For instance, I have found Anna Karenina so much easier to read than Charles Dickens’, A Tale of Two Cities. Dickens does long sentences too, but his specialty seems to be the use of semi-colons, which I found much harder to follow!

He does not mind getting his hands dirty and has staying power.

Tolstoy’s character Levin actually does the seemingly unheard of for that time – he goes out into the field and mows all day alongside his labourers. (Remember in those days that didn’t mean some fancy ride on mower – that meant back breaking work swinging a scythe!).

Also, let us not forget that Tolstoy wrote both Anna Karenina and War and Peace, both tomes at over 800 pages each, along with many other novels, novellas, plays and works of non-fiction.

Did you know that Anna Karenina was published, like many of the classics, in serial installments from 1873 to 1877 in the periodicalThe Russian Messenger? That is 4 whole years! No wonder his characterisation is so brilliant.

* * *

So, based on my first impressions (and a little poetic licence) I conclude that Tolstoy is a deep thinking humanitarian who understands women, who knows how to express himself and who doesn’t mind getting his hands dirty and has staying power. What more could one want from a man? :)

On that basis, if you have not yet made Leo’s acquaintance – why not? It has been an absolute pleasure and I know am the better for having done so.

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