Posts Tagged ‘War & Peace’

Leo Tolstoy: Hadji Murat

December 4, 2014

41AtezQcGSL._AA160_To most people, the name Tolstoy suggests door-stoppers; if War & Peace or Anna Kerenina are all you’ve come across, then it’s true. But there are novellas, that look almost like afterthoughts in the face of the greats – The Death of Ivan Illich, that I wrote about a couple of months ago, Hadji Murat, which I’ve just finished reading for the next meeting of our Russian literature group, and Resurrection, which is next on my list, and which apparently brought about Tolstoy’s excommunication from the Russian Orthodox Church.

I don’t think Tolstoy’s methods of writing are any different, just the scale. In Hadji Murat, apart from the eponymous hero who is present or backgrounded throughout the book, the story is populated by strongly but quite briefly delineated characters, sketched in as they move through Hadji Murat’s story in various ways. So, at various times, we get Russian military men, the Tsar himself, various Chechen companions, and his deadly enemy Shamil.

The novella is very strong on what would have been called ‘couleur locale‘ in its day, and which surely would have been extremely exotic to Tolstoy’s readers. There are the local landscapes of Chechnya, the Muslim tribes of the region with their customs, feuds, villages and religious practices, all deftly sketched in, along with the mutual incomprehension between the Russians and the local people.

Feuding and warfare are at the heart of the tragedy in this story; Hadji Murat is caught between a rock and a hard place, between the Russians to whom he surrenders in an attempt to save his family and honour from Shamil, and the tribal feuding which has given Shamil the upper hand in the region; Murat is the better soldier and campaigner and would be the ideal ally against the Russian invaders, but honour is at stake. The ending is brutal.

It is clear that nothing has changed in a century and a half: the Russians are still pursuing their attempts to overpower and control the fierce and independent Chechens; there is still senseless carnage on both sides, and Tolstoy is surely suggesting that warfare is utterly senseless, through this microcosm of the conflict. And I could make exactly the same observation about what the British have been up to in Afghanistan. Hadji Murat is a small masterpiece from a great writer.

Catriona Kelly: Russian Literature

December 18, 2013

You may have noted from earlier posts that I belong to a Russian literature reading group. So far, I’ve had a very scattergun approach to what I’ve read, but I’ve now been motivated to try and develop my knowledge and understanding a bit more systematically, and to do some background reading on the subject. Our group leader recommended Catriona Kelly‘s book, in the ‘Brief Insight’ series, among some others.

I had never really realised how relatively recently literature as we know it had developed in Russia – from about the eighteenth century onwards – or how much Pushkin, who wrote in the early nineteenth, is their equivalent of our Shakespeare, in terms of veneration, at least. It had occurred to me that there was very little writing by women, at least that I’d come across in my personal reading. Then I thought about the fact that American literature is also very ‘new’ compared to ours, where we can go back to the fourteenth century in terms of what is recognisable to the lay reader as English, and much earlier in the realms of Anglo-Saxon literature.

It had certainly become clear to me over the years that Russians wrote and thought quite  differently from the English; this is surely explained, among other things, by the vastness of the land, the extremes of the climate and the fact that they have no democratic experience compared with many Western nations. And that’s without the mental gymnastics intellectuals had to engage in during the Soviet era. Russians’ experiences and society seemed to me to be much more communal/ collective compared with our greater development of individualism. Their writers were inclined to explore and wrestle with big ideas, and spiritual (for want of a better word) themes. This contrast is particularly clear if you look at the kind of things Russian and English authors were writing in the nineteenth century. I haven’t come across the English equivalent of War & Peace or Crime & Punishment, for instance, or the Russian equivalent of Persuasion or Villette.

Kelly’s book is a curious kettle of fish, really: if you know a little about the subject already, then you will make some sense of it, but if you were new to Russian literature, then I’m not so sure. She adopts a thematic approach, which makes sense, but links everything to Pushkin and changing approaches to him over time, which I’m less convinced by. There are plenty of illustrations and examples, but I was frustrated by the lack of detail in the end; a book on Russian literature, even an introductory one, which doesn’t really say very much about War & Peace? Anna Kerenina? most of Dostoevsky’s novels? I ended up feeling a little wiser, but not much, really I could have saved the eyeball time and the money and stuck to the reference books I had already…

However, I am glad to be re-discovering Russian classics that I’d read years ago and almost forgotten, and some that I haven’t met before.

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