Sunday, January 6, 2013

The Trouble with Tolstoy

Nice two-part special on Leo Tolstoy by the History Channel.  Probably no writer has affected so many people as has Tolstoy.  Alan Yentob takes the viewer on an impressive journey over the expanse of old Russia in search of Tolstoy's vast legacy, starting and ending at his beloved Yasnaya Polyana.

I was particularly drawn to Tolstoy's time at Sebastopol, where he experienced the ravages of the Crimean War.  This became the subject of his Sebastopol Sketches, making him one of Russia's first front line writers.    These stories are relatively hard to find, despite having first been translated into English by Frank Millet in 1887.  There is no publication any longer in print but you can find the 1887 available at abebooks for a good price.  These "sketches" would implant in him the seed for his epic work, War and Peace.

There is a nice intermixing of past and present in this documentary, as well as interviewers with great grandchildren, biographers and other persons who have been touched by Tolstoy.  The Battle of Borodino is re-enacted outside Moscow, and Tolstoy's novel remains the "Bible" of those who replay this historic event, but none have captured the scene as well as Sergei Bondarchuk did in his epic cinematic recreation of the novel.  I was surprised Yentob didn't reference the film.

In Part Two Yentob explores the troubles with Tolstoy, as his conscience became rattled while staying the night in a remote tavern, following the success of his novel.  It seems it was at this point that Tolstoy seriously began to question his place in the world, making the remainder of his life a kind of existential journey that would put him at odds with virtually everyone around him.

The painting is by Ilya Repin, dated 1907.

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