an exchange re Tolstoy (and some things I learned) … plus, why it pays to keep one’s eye on others’ writing

 

 

Elisabeth van der Meer has a new post on her site about Russian literature, which I follow avidly.

“Tolstoy and Homer”

https://arussianaffair.wordpress.com/2017/09/21/tolstoy-and-homer/

 

Ms. van der Meer notes: “… Tolstoy considered himself equal to Homer. He was so obsessed with the classics, that he taught himself Ancient Greek in a mere couple of months when he was in his forties, so that he could read them in the original. You can find Homeric elements in all his literary works. I say elements and not influences, because they are not in the least bit contrived, far from it. They are the foundation of his writing, his natural instinct.”

 

We had the following exchange about her post.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   September 23, 2017

 

 

*****************************************************

 

This post is fascinating and very well put together, Elisabeth. Thank you.

The connections you make between the Iliad and the Odyssey and various Tolstoy works such as Hadji Murad and War and Peace are fascinating.

You note that Tolstoy “was so obsessed with the classics, that he taught himself Ancient Greek in a mere couple of months when he was in his forties, so that he could read them in the original.”

It is my understanding that he wished to learn Greek so that he could read the Gospels in the original. His writings about the Gospels can be seen in works such as “The Gospel in Brief, or A Short Exposition of the Gospel,” “The Four Gospels Unified and Translated,” and “What I Believe.”

You state that “Tolstoy may have been a pacifist, but he did like to write about war, often drawing from his own memories; he went to war in the Caucasus as a young man.” His descriptions of battles in his early works are incredible. I have read at least part of The Cossacks, but not Sevastopol Sketches.

I would like to comment on some specific observations/sentences of yours that I particularly enjoyed.

“You can find Homeric elements in all his literary works. I say elements and not influences, because they are not in the least bit contrived, far from it. They are the foundation of his writing, his natural instinct.

GREAT SENTENCE! BEAUTIFUL!

“Going to war for him was like going back to an ancient, primitive world, where men are one with their horses, and where pots are hissing and steaming above the fire at night.”

A GREAT SENTENCE BY YOU: “where men are one with their horses, and where pots are hissing and steaming above the fire at night.” Beautifully put.

“… no one can describe the moment of death quite the way Tolstoy can, but the blood streaming into the grass is pure Homer.”

BEAUTIFULLY PUT

I think I have made a similar comment about your prose before. You have a facility for writing sentences in which a general observation is beautifully yoked to a specific images/detail chosen by you to illustrate the point — the two get fused in compressed fashion in a sentence.

I am working on a post of my own about good writing. I hope to use some of this stuff of yours as illustrative examples.

 

 

*****************************************************

 

Thank you again, Roger.

About Tolstoy learning Greek, yes, I believe you’re right in saying that he wanted to read the Gospels in the original, but he wanted to read other classics too. Here’s a quote from Henri Troyat’s biography:

“He sent for a theological student from Moscow to teach him the rudiments of the language. From the first day, the forty-two-year-old pupil threw himself into Greek grammar with a passion, pored over dictionaries, drew up vocabularies, tackled the great authors. In spite of his headaches, he learned quickly. In a few weeks he had outdistanced his teacher. He sight-translated Xenophon, reveled in Homer, discovered Plato and said the originals were like “spring-water that sets the teeth on edge, full of sunlight and impurities and dust-motes that make it seem even more pure and fresh,” while translations of the same texts were as tasteless as “boiled, distilled water.” Sometimes he dreamed in Greek at night. He imagined himself living in Athens; as he tramped through the snow of Yasnaya Polyana, sinking in up to his calves, his head was filled with sun, marble and geometry. Watching him changing overnight into a Greek, his wife was torn between admiration and alarm. “There is clearly nothing in the world that interests him more or gives him greater pleasure than to learn a new Greek word or puzzle out some expression he has not met before,” she complained. “I have questioned several people, some of whom have taken their degree at the university. To hear them talk, Lyovochka has made unbelievable progress in Greek.” He himself felt rejuvenated by this diet of ancient wisdom. “Now I firmly believe,” he said to Fet, “that I shall write no more gossipy twaddle of the War and Peace type.”

It clearly became an obsession for him.

Thanks again for the compliments!

Regards, Elisabeth

 

 

*****************************************************

 

Elisabeth — The quote from Troyat’s biography (which I read a long time ago, and was totally immersed in; it pretty much made me into a Tolstoy enthusiast on its own) is great, and very informative. It is clear from the quote that his desire to learn Greek wasn’t simply to be able to read the Gospels in the original. My comment, therefore, while it adds pertinent information, was not quite on target.

If he was forty-two when he began studying Greek intensely, that would have been in around 1870. It seems that his spiritual conversion occurred a short while after this date, although one would have to study his biographies carefully to develop a cause and effect sequence. “A Short Exposition of the Gospel” and “The Four Gospels Unified and Translated” were published in 1881. “What I Believe” was published in 1884.

Not being a Tolstoy scholar, I am inclined to believe that you’re right. Perhaps it was the case that having studied Greek for other reasons, Tolstoy found it greatly advantageous to him when it came to studying the Gospels.

“Now I firmly believe,” he said to Fet, “that I shall write no more gossipy twaddle of the War and Peace type.”

This quote which you supplied from Troyat, shows that the influence of the Greek epics on him was primarily literary — i.e., his admiration for them as literature — and would seem to imply that the added benefit of being able to read the Gospels in the original was an extra bonus.

If you know more, or find out more, please keep me informed.

 

 

*****************************************************

 

I shall certainly do that. Although I recall reading that his desire to study the gospels inspired him to learn Greek. It probably went as you say. I shall look into it when I’m home again.

Thanks, Roger!

About Roger W. Smith

Roger W. Smith is a writer and independent scholar based in New York City. His experience includes freelance writing and editing, business writing, book reviewing, and the teaching of writing and literature as an adjunct professor. Mr. Smith's interests include personal essays and opinion pieces; American and world literature; culture, especially books and reading; current issues that involve social, moral, and philosophical views; and experiences of daily living from a ground level perspective. Besides (1) rogersgleanings.com, a personal site, he also hosts a websites devoted to (2) the author Theodore Dreiser and (3) to the sociologist and social philosopher Pitirim Aleksandrovich Sorokin.
This entry was posted in literature, Tolstoy, writing (the craft of writing; good vs. bad writing; my training, experience, and lessons re same) and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s