Leo Tolstoy’s Favorite Russian Writers

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Leo Tolstoy’s library contains an inconceivable number of books on all kinds of subjects and in many different languages: Tolstoy had an excellent reading knowledge of about 15. From ancient Eastern thinkers to the latest titles of Russian literature, he was trying to know everything. Tolstoy wrote reviews of many works and described his impressions in letters to friends and editors. In the 1890s, he even compiled a list of what he considered to be the most important books, sorted by age at which they should be read.

He was known to be very attached to Victor Hugo and Charles Dickens, while his disdain for William Shakespeare, and even for Alexander Pushkin, is legendary. He disdained the plays of Anton Chekhov. And generally preferred prose to poetry.

Which Russian writers did he appreciate the most?

Alexander Pushkin

No, we are not contradicting each other. Pushkin the poet (as well as Pushkin the playwright) Tolstoy really disliked, writing: Boris Godunov is a weak imitation of Shakespeare. Tolstoy was unhappy, and perhaps envious, that Pushkin was so famous that monuments were erected to him. After all, “his merit lies only in the fact that he wrote poems about love, often very indecent.”

The noble Tolstoy had contempt for this “man of lax morals” who had died in a duel, “that is to say while trying to assassinate another human being!”

That said, Tolstoy had a high regard for Pushkin’s prose and simply adored TheBelkin’s Tales collection: “Every writer should study them. I did this the other day and cannot tell you how beneficial this reading had on me. Tolstoy also liked Queen of spades.

The researchers even consider the unfinished fragment “Guests gathered at the dacha” as the impetus behind Anna karenina. Tolstoy admired its debut, which plunges the reader into the epicenter of the plot without prefaces or superfluous descriptions. He applied this technique in Anna karenina, following the famous aphorism of “happy families” with the phrase: “Everything was in disorder in the Oblonsky house.

In his list of important books, Tolstoy also recommended Eugene Onegin, which, although written in verse, is a great novel.

Mikhail Lermontov

Portrait of Mikhail Lermontov by Gury Krylov

Tolstoy also appreciated Russia’s second most important poet exclusively for his prose. he reread A hero of our time on several occasions and included it in his list (especially the story “Taman”).

True, he respected Lermontov more as a soldier (Tolstoy himself served in the Caucasus) than as a writer. In Lermontov, he saw “the highest moral demands under the cloak of Byronism”. Questions of morality gnawed at the soul of the late Tolstoy. Literature scholars also believe that the two writers are united by a morbid dissatisfaction with themselves and a tendency to self-criticize.

Nikolai Gogol

Portrait of Nikolai Gogol by Fyodor Moller

“Gogol has immense talent, a magnificent heart, and a small, shy and trembling mind,” Tolstoy wrote of the author of Dead souls. In his characteristic way, Tolstoy approached all of Gogol’s works critically and found much to his disgust.

For example, despite his generally positive attitude towards the play Government inspector, he described the silent and pathetic finale as “abhorrent nonsense.” He also didn’t like the unfinished second volume of Dead souls, which Gogol himself burned, considering it a failure.

Tolstoy accused his literary ancestor of replacing true faith with superstition and “ascribing to art a high meaning which is not intrinsic to it”. In addition, Gogol’s main means was laughter, and Tolstoy was unhappy that Gogol mocked not only nobles and officials, but also peasants, who, in his opinion, did not deserve it.

What Tolstoy made as about Gogol, however, was his “folk” talent; the collection of stories about village life Evenings on a farm near Dikanka Tolstoy read aloud to the children of the peasants from the school he had created for them on his estate in Yasnaya Polyana.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Monographs and theses have been and continue to be written on the relationship between these two giants of Russian literature. They had different biographies, different artistic tools, and different attitudes towards faith and humanity. But they were both great writers, whom Tolstoy undoubtedly appreciated. When Dostoyevsky died, Tolstoy suddenly announced that “he was for me the closest, dearest, most necessary person”, and that he would have liked to ask a lot of things … Except that in the in life they have never met.

“He is undoubtedly a real writer, in a genuinely religious quest, not like some Gontcharovs,” Tolstoy wrote of Dostoyevsky. (Tolstoy thought little of Gontcharov and Turgenev, seeing in their novels only weak characters and “an abundance of trivial love episodes”. Notes from a hunter for his portrayal of ordinary people, not pretentious nobles.)

In his treatise What is Art? Tolstoy quotes Dostoyevsky Notes from the House of the Dead as an example of “the supreme religious art born from the love of God and neighbor”. Tolstoy also greatly appreciated the novels The humiliated and the insulted, Crime and Punishment and The idiot.

The Karamazov brothersAs for him, he gave up at first, since it seemed to him that the characters all spoke the same language – that of the author, even a 15-year-old girl. This remark is justified, given the significance that Tolstoy attains in his own War and peace, in which everyone – from naive girls to cranky old men, and even animals – has their own unique voice.

Of course, Tolstoy had other complaints against Dostoyevsky. In his eyes, everything was mixed: politics, religion, mysticism, which resulted in unstructured thinking and “technically weak” novels. It was obvious to Tolstoy that, unlike him, Dostoyevsky wrote in a hurry because he always needed money.

“On the one hand, the best works of art of our time convey feelings of unity and brotherhood (such are the works of Dickens, Hugo, Dostoyevsky) <...> ; on the other hand, they strive to convey feelings that are inherent not only to the upper classes, but capable of uniting all peoples without exception. Such works are still few in number, but their need has been recognized ”, presumes Tolstoy in What is Art?

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