Saturday, October 29, 2011

"The Sevastopol Sketches" and other early works by Leo Tolstoy

Source of Book: I own this - used hardback

Tolstoy is best known for his two long novels, War and Peace, and Anna Karenina, neither of which I have read. Actually, this is a somewhat odd omission, because I have read three of Dostoyevsky’s novels, which are equally as long and difficult. I have, however, read and enjoyed a number of Tolstoy’s shorter works.

In this case, I am tackling part of a collection of short stories and novellas that the editor has titled “Tales of Courage and Conflict”. The works within the collection are presented in essentially chronological order, and contain a significant slice of the Author’s short works. I decided to jump in at the beginning and read until I decided to stop. As I did with my review of assorted short works of Henry James, I will look at each work briefly, rather than attempt an overview of the whole.

“The Invaders”

This short story was Tolstoy’s first. It is alternately titled “The Raid”. This is one of several stories that Tolstoy based on his experiences fighting in the Russian army in the Caucasus. Not being particularly familiar with 19th Century Russian history, I had to look up what on earth this war was about. Apparently, most of the first half of the century was taken up by Russia expanding its empire into the Caucasus, in places that have now returned to some degree of independence: Georgia, Azerbaijan, Chechnya, and others. Turkey and Iran were also involved as interested parties, if not exactly belligerents.

This story focuses on a conversation between Tolstoy and a superior officer about the nature of courage, which is defined by the officer thus: “A brave man is one who conducts himself as he ought.” This theme is then developed throughout the rest of the story. I should note that a Tolstoy “short story” is rarely as short as one would expect, and is typically divided into chapters. The chapters are shorter than those in a novel, and there are fewer of them, making the overall length less.

I particularly enjoyed Tolstoy’s description in this story of rising early and setting out on a march. He beautifully paints the transformation from the foggy night to the brilliant day.

“Recollections of a Billiard-Marker”

This is the only one of the early stories that I had previously read as well as the only story in this review that is about civilian life.  Told from the point of view of a “Billiard-Marker”, who sets up the balls, keeps score, and otherwise does the work at a billiard hall; it chronicles the downfall and eventual suicide of a young, sensitive nobleman who becomes addicted to gambling and gets hopelessly in debt.

This is one of Tolstoy’s semi-autobiographical stories, and showcases one of his talents: the ability to write unflatteringly about himself. Tolstoy was a rather dissolute young man, and also quickly wound up in debt due to gambling. Rather than make his quietus, he joined the army, of course, and the world was not prematurely deprived of a fine writer.

This particular story is more tightly plotted than average, making it a focused and purposeful tale. It also shows good insight into the nature of addiction as the nobleman expresses his horror at his own descent into moral and physical blackness, but is unable to rouse himself to take action. Finally, in his suicide note, he states that he is even unable to feel pain at the thought of his own death.

“The Sevastopol Sketches”

This is a trio of stories entitled, “Sevastopol in December 1854”, “Sevastopol in May 1855”, and “Sevastopol in August 1855”.

If you mention the Crimean war to a random stranger, you will usually get a blank look. With a few, you might get a mention of Florence Nightingale. A few war buffs might mention it as the first modern use of artillery, or mention it as one of the most pointless wars of all time. It also was a presaging of the trench warfare in World War I. This is not a compliment.

Each sketch is a snapshot of a particular moment in the siege of Sevastopol. Located on the Crimean peninsula extending into the Black Sea, Sevastopol remains an important port and naval center. After a dispute with England and France over the Dardanelles, and control of other remnants of the Ottoman Empire, the Russians sent troops to the Holy Land, sparking the war. (There is a lot more to it than that, but is better left to the military historians.)

Eventually, the Europeans laid siege to Sevastopol for about a year, finally breaking through and forcing Russia’s surrender.

Tolstoy based his stories on his own experience in Sebastopol during the war. Since he was in the artillery, that facet of the battle receives particular attention, and a good deal of careful detail.

The first story is told in the second person, that is, it is a tour given to “you”, the reader. Tolstoy is brutally effective in showing the horrors of war, from the cold and mud to the “hospitals” with the dying crammed into any available spot on the floor. These are the dreadful and hopeless conditions in which Nightingale and other nursing pioneers sought to reform. Whatever other strides have been made in warfare, the greatest has certainly been in medical care, where an injury does not have to mean death.

The second story is split between accounts of the rather vain and pointless social lives of the officers and their petty hopes of advancement, and an artillery battle. It concludes with a temporary truce called in order to collect the dead and injured. Tolstoy’s haunting language describes this scene beautifully:

Yes, white flags are hung out from the bastion and the trenches, the flowery vale is filled with dead bodies, the splendid sun sinks into the blue sea, and the blue sea undulates and glitters in the golden rays of the sun.
The white flags have been hauled down, and again the weapons of death and suffering are shrieking; again innocent blood is shed, and groans and curses are audible.

The final story tells of the final battle and the surrender of Sebastopol. It begins with two brothers making their way to the front. The elder is returning to action after being wounded, and the younger is joining the fight for the first time. Their hopes and fears are explored for much of the story, until all hell breaks loose on the front, and all is swept away by the inexorable enemy.

Tolstoy shows a foretaste of his eventual skill in psychological analysis of human nature in these sketches. Although he has not yet figured out how to focus consistently and avoid distraction with side characters and stories, he is able to keep his narrative arc together, for the most part. These are not easy to read. The death and destruction are ever present, and the author does not shy away from portraying suffering. Drawing from experience, he is able to portray the experience of injury and even death in ways that we now take for granted. Far from the heroic deaths of Medieval legend or the gory yet poetic deaths of Homer’s warriors, these are closer to death as portrayed in modern war movies. I was amazed at how few words were necessary to do this. Tolstoy does not wallow in gore, and actually moves quickly, but his deaths are hard to take.

Together, these three are nearly 100 pages of small type, making them longer as a unit than Tolstoy’s novellas.

“The Wood-Cutting Expedition”

Another “short” story about the war in the Caucasus. I would say this one is the weakest of the ones I read, particularly in its lack of economy. If Tolstoy had ended it after about 2/3 of its length, it would have made more sense. Instead, he charges on after the logical ending, introduces a few new characters which never go anywhere, and then ends it abruptly.

Also puzzling is that he starts the story with a few characters, then launches a diatribe about the basic kinds of people in the army. He then applies his categories to a few of the characters, but then apparently loses interest in this idea, and never really brings it up again. This would have been interesting had he stuck with it and made the story about the types. If he had left out the types and made it a musing on the responses to the death of a soldier, that also would have been interesting. Had he focused instead on the reasons each of the characters was in the army in the first place, that too would have been intriguing. Instead, he flirts with each of these ideas, never committing to one long enough to make for a coherent central idea.

“An Old Acquaintance”

In contrast, this story is highly focused, with the narrator and another character taking center stage, and a minimum of supporting characters largely in the background.

The narrator is a nobleman serving in, predictably at this point, the Caucasus. During a gathering of officers while on an exhibition, an odd and pathetic soldier appears at their gathering. He is a former officer who has been “cashiered”, that is, stripped of his rank for disciplinary reasons. It turns out that he is also of noble descent, and knew the narrator during their pre-military days. At that time, he was a bit of a prig, and his priggishness has done him no favors in the army, to say the least.

The two have an extended conversation, in which the author alludes to some sort of incident which led to the soldier being disinherited. Unfortunately, Tolstoy declines to indulge our curiosity, claiming that the story would be boring. I suspect Tolstoy at this stage in his career, either did not wish to write of such things, or felt more at home writing about military rather than civilian issues. Either way, I was disappointed that this was omitted. It would have been very interesting indeed to know the cause of the disgrace of the soldier, as it was the inciting event that led to his ever increasing degradation.

This story is an excellent use of the unpleasant, unlikeable character. The soldier is clearly irritating to all he encounters because of his belief that he is better than everyone else. It is true that he comes from a better background, is better educated, and has broader interests. However, this causes him to despise everyone else as inferior. Even worse, his sufferings have utterly failed to bring him humility. Humiliation, yes, in spades; but not humility or even empathy.

As a group, these stories show a broad slice of life as Tolstoy knew it in his early years. From the gambling to the mud and blood, Tolstoy shows his observational powers, and the early gleams of his genius of characterization. He also shows his tendency to lose focus and ramble without tying up the loose ends. Although these stories are not a bad way to start, I would recommend short stories or novellas from Tolstoy’s mature period for the first time reader. Such novellas as Family Happiness or The Death of Ivan Ilyich, or short stories such as “What Men Live By” or “How Much Land Does a Man Need” show the more typical philosophy of the older Tolstoy, and showcase his talents at their peak.

Translation notes;

No, I do not speak or read Russian, so these are in translation. The Sevastopol Sketches were translated by Isabel F. Hapgood. The rest were translated by Nathan Haskell Dole. I have nothing negative to say about the translations. I have read a few stories that seemed ill translated before, but there were no real off notes here.

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