Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Tolstoy in the Kitchen

On the refrigerator there's a photograph of Tolstoy taken a few years, I guess, before his death. I don’t like the look of him. Cheerless. Prophetic. Actually: insane. Physically, psychologically unkempt, and self-certain. Although he does look generous, and unhappy to be sitting for a photograph, which might be sign enough of sanity. Very Russian—his presentation is more culturally determined than I'd expect. And he looks like he’s dying, which I find repulsive.

At the time of the photograph his great work is finished, although he'll still give us Hadji Murad, one of my favorite books—a splendid tale that begins as well as Absalom, Absalom, One Hundred Years of Solitude, even The Trial. “I was returning home by the fields.”

Now I set alongside the aged Tolstoy the cover of my Modern Library edition of War and Peace, which gives us a photograph of Tolstoy in his thirties, on the cusp of greatness.

I don't know why, but the young Tolstoy allows me to see the aged Tolstoy anew. He no longer looks ravaged but merely frail; he seems kind, even majestic, tired, yes, but no less intelligent than he was as a young man, and more plainly spiritual.

The young man is in that dying organism.

Because I've been reading War and Peace again (the relatively new, superb Pevear/Volokhonsky translation), it's hard to look at him as he neared the end of his life. I’m frightened of his—our—mortality and by the way his face acknowledges, even foretells his approaching death. It's an honest, doomed face.

Reading Tolstoy ruins my self-esteem.

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