Category Archives: Tolstoy

Roger W. Smith, “Биографический Очерк Льва Николаевича Толстого” (Biographical Sketch of Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy)

 

 

 

Roger’s biographical sketch of Tolstoy

 

my Tolstoy essay – RUSSIAN

 

my Tolstoy essay – TRANSLATION

 

 

 

I am posting here for the first time (downloadable documents above) the following:

— a PDF file of the handwritten draft of a paper on Tolstoy that I wrote, in Russian, for a Russian course at New York University

— a typed version of the original of my Russian paper

— my English translation of the paper

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   August 2020

 

 

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SEE ALSO:

 

 

“first draft of my Russian essay on Tolstoy (and how it came to be written)”

 

https://rogersgleanings.com/2016/05/08/my-russian-essay-on-tolstoy/

post updated — “spring (as seen by The Bard, by Tolstoy; and felt by us all, myself included)”

 

 

See my updated post

 

spring (as seen by The Bard, by Tolstoy; and felt by us all, myself included)

 

https://rogersgleanings.com/2016/04/01/spring/

 

 

It seems relevant now.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

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

 

 

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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.

 

 

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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

 

 

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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.

 

 

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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!

first draft of my Russian essay on Tolstoy (and how it came to be written)

 

 

biographical sketch of Leo Tolstoy

 

 

Posted here (PDF file above) is a handwritten student paper by me, written in Russian, about Leo Tolstoy.

It was written by me for a Russian course at New York University.

The way this came about was as follows.

I was taking a noncredit course in Russian at NYU — I believe it was in 1977. I had enrolled for advanced Russian. I was underqualified to take the course, having so far completed only first year Russian. But, I wanted to be challenged. I had done some extra studying of the language on my own.

I seemed to be the weakest student in the class. Our instructor, a Russian woman who was an adjunct professor, commented after a few classes that I didn’t belong in the class.

I was a Slavophile and a big fan of Tolstoy, among other Russian writers. One evening, our instructor was discussing Tolstoy briefly. She made the suggestion, off the top of her head, that perhaps someone in the class would like to write an essay on Tolstoy.

No one volunteered, so I raised my hand. It was clear that she did not think I should or could do it, but she begrudgingly agreed, by default, to let me.

In the next class session, I read my essay, which was twelve pages long, handwritten on loose leaf paper. (See PDF file, above.)

At the end of my presentation, the instructor said — maintained adamantly — that I must have copied the essay from somewhere.

No, I insisted, I had written it myself. I said to her in Russian,”Я сам написал” (Ya sam napisal), meaning “I wrote it myself.” This was slightly incorrect. The correct Russian is Я написал это сам: Ya [I] napisal [wrote] eto [it] sam [myself]. (Note the Russian word sam, meaning myself. It is a root of the Russian word samizdat, which means self publishing.)

She still didn’t believe me. She said that in the next class I should present the essay again, this time without reading from my written text. I’m sure she thought she had me.

The day of the next class arrived. It was in the evening. I got to NYU about a half an hour early and took a stroll in Washington Square Park. I had not prepared, had not memorized the essay!

I walked in circles around the park for a half an hour or so with the handwritten essay in my hand. I was reading and reciting it to myself. I found that it was not hard to memorize. I think this was because of the fact that I had put such effort into writing it, had slaved over it with an English-Russian dictionary close at hand. I remembered stuff from having drafted it.

After a while, I said to myself: I’ve got it. I can do it.

I went to the class and recited the essay word for word off the top of my head, without reading from my paper.

I think the professor was flabbergasted; certainly, she was surprised.

To be honest, I myself was surprised that I could do it.

 

 

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I have posted a revised version of my essay, typewritten in Cyrillic characters, on this blog:

Roger W. Smith, “биографический очерк Льва Николаевича Толстого” (Biographical Sketch of Leo Tolstoy)

It can be accessed at

 

https://rogersgleanings.com/2020/08/23/roger-w-smith-biographical-sketch-of-lev-nikolayevich-tolstoy/

 

or through the category “Tolstoy”: on this blog.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

    May 2016

Leo Tolstoy and wife; photo and portraits

 

 

spring (as seen by The Bard, by Tolstoy; and felt by us all, myself included)

Hudson River Park 12-30 p,.m. 4-6-2020

Hudson River Park, Manhattan, April 6, 2020

 

 

In springtime, the only pretty ring time,

When birds do sing, hey ding a ding, ding;

Sweet lovers love the spring.

 

— William Shakespeare (from As You Like It)

 

 

 

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Как ни старались люди, собравшись в одно небольшое место несколько сот тысяч, изуродовать ту землю, на которой они жались, как ни забивали камнями землю, чтобы ничего не росло на ней, как ни счищали всякую пробивающуюся травку, как ни дымили каменным углем и нефтью, как ни обрезывали деревья и ни выгоняли всех животных и птиц, — весна была весною даже и в городе.  Солнце грело, трава, оживая, росла и зеленела везде, где только не соскребли ее, не только на газонах бульваров, но и между плитами камней, и березы, тополи, черемуха распускали свои клейкие и пахучие листья, липы надували лопавшиеся почки; галки, воробьи и голуби по-весеннему радостно готовили уже гнезда, и мухи жужжали у стен, пригретые солнцем. Веселы были и растения, и птицы, и насекомые, и дети. Но люди — большие, взрослые люди — не переставали обманывать и мучать себя и друг друга. Люди считали, что священно и важно не это весеннее утро, не эта красота мира божия, данная для блага всех существ, — красота, располагающая к миру, согласию и любви, а священно и важно то, что они сами выдумали, чтобы властвовать друг над другом.

 

ЛЕВ НИКОЛАЕВИЧ ТОЛСТОЙ, воскрешение (1899), Часть первая, глава первая

 

 

 

Though hundreds of thousands had done their very best to disfigure the small piece of land on which they were crowded together, by paving the ground with stones, scraping away every vestige of vegetation, cutting down the trees, turning away birds and beasts, and filling the air with the smoke of naphtha and coal, still spring was spring, even in the town. The sun shone warm, the air was balmy; everywhere, where it did not get scraped away, the grass revived and sprang up between the paving-stones as well as on the narrow strips of lawn on the boulevards. The birches, the poplars, and the wild cherry unfolded their gummy and fragrant leaves, the limes were expanding their opening buds; crows, sparrows, and pigeons, filled with the joy of spring, were getting their nests ready; the flies were buzzing along the walls, warmed by the sunshine. All were glad, the plants, the birds, the insects, and the children. But men, grown-up men and women, did not leave off cheating and tormenting themselves and each other. It was not this spring morning men thought sacred and worthy of consideration not the beauty of God’s world, given for a joy to all creatures, this beauty which inclines the heart to peace, to harmony, and to love, but only their own devices for enslaving one another.

 

— Leo Tolstoy, Resurrection (1899), Part One, Chapter One; translated by Louise Maude (italics added)

 

 

 

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See photographs of New York City in the spring, below.  Also posted here is Thomas Morley’s song (set to Shakespeare) “It was a lover and his lass.”

 

 

–posted by Roger W. Smith

    April 2016

 

 

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photographs taken in Queens and Manhattan, NYC, April 2016, by Roger W. Smith

 

 

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Woodside, Queens, May 22, 2016 (taken by Roger).JPG

Woodside, Queens, NY, May 2016

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Juniper Valley Park, Middle Village, Queens, NYC

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Maspeth, Queens, NYC

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Bryant Park, New York City

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Juniper Valley Park, Middle Village, Queens, NY