I love Russian literature, but I have to admit, this is probably not one of my favorites, in fact, these are perhaps
not great stories by an author who most certainly is one of the Russian literary masters. Maybe it's because they are
so personal and autobiographical that they give one the uncomfortable feeling of peering just a bit too closely into someone else's life. To make matters
even more awkward, some of them deal with the author's own sexual issues, and two of them, The Devil and Father Sergius, were not even published
during Tolstoy's lifetime, possibly for fear of upsetting his wife. Before their marriage, in an attempt to be open and honest, he allowed her to read his
diaries, and her jealousy remained throughout their life together.
Tolstoy and his wife were together for fifty years, and she bore him thirteen children. Before his marriage, he had an affair with a peasant woman with whom he had a son. The Devil is an expression of this passion and frustration, although the ending "is a terrible disappointment," as stated in the introduction to the Dover edition, and I certainly agree. Tolstoy actually wrote two endings, neither of which found a viable or satisfying solution to the problem of the character Eugene's lust for a peasant woman for whom he had no love (he truly loved his wife), but had an incurable lust which preyed on him to the point of insanity.
Father Sergius is probably the most distressing work of the six presented here, and again, deals with love and relationships, intense sexual frustration and the self-imposed guilt that many people associate with it. The introduction says that this story came about as a result of a "spiritual crisis" in Tolstoy's life. And it is one of severe self-recrimination and punishment through denial of that which enables physical well-being. I like to read about different spiritual philosophies even if they are much different than my own, but I found this one downright repugnant.
The introduction to the Dover edition says of Tolstoy: "In his earlier fiction, he had approached the world with artistry and an open mind. In his later work, the artistry is still there, but it is sometimes at war with the spiritual message he wants to convey." It seems to me that Tolstoy had, in his later years, an obsession with spiritual perfection, to be gained at all costs, and with great severity and punishment to anyone who did not reach that perfection. Certainly, the above story falls into that category, and so does Master and Man, whose main character learns through the most brutal lesson that accumulation of wealth is not an accumulation of purity. I also found this one extremely distressing.
The cover story, Family Happiness is mild compared to some of the others. It is about falling in love, growing apart, then returning to love, but a much different one than the passionate yearning which often brings couples together. However, there is a tenderness to it, as we observe the maturing of Marya Aleksandrovna and her husband Sergey Mikhaylych, who is much older than her and much more worldly. Although well-off, she is a country girl, with little societal experience. Intensely happy at first, just being in the presence of her husband, she soon grows bored, and wishes to stay in town for the winter. Though Sergey knows what will happen, he allows it because he knows she must experience this breaking away in order to return. While in town, she becomes infatuated with societal life, especially since she is highly admired. But it ends all at once through a shocking awakening, and she and her husband once again settle in the country, more as friends than lovers, but that is OK.
Three Deaths is a very short and rather strange account of the deaths of two totally different people—a rich and selfish woman, a poor man—and a tree!
My favorite, by far, was The Three Hermits, taken from an old legend from the Volga District. It is the only one with even a drop of humor, and is guaranteed to make you chuckle. A bishop is traveling by sea, and an island is pointed out to him where it is said three hermits live. He insists on visiting them, even though it will upset the schedule of the ship upon which he is boarded. He offers money, and is finally granted a boat that can convey him to the island. He meets the three: one, probably at least one hundred years old, bent over and wearing a cassock; a tall one wearing only a piece of matting around his waist; and a third in a tattered peasant coat. They greet their visitor, but can barely speak, the tall one having hair grown over his mouth, and the bent one having no teeth. The bishop, however, asks them how they serve God, and they reply, as much as they can, that they only serve themselves. Having heard that, the bishop is determined to teach them the Lord's Prayer. Repeating the words over and over and over, the three hermits are finally able to say it on their own. The Bishop kisses them all, then returns to the ship. But after the bishop departs, the hermits stop repeating the prayer, and soon forget it. What happens next, is not only funny, it shocks the bishop out of his arrogance!
This collection would probably not be that enjoyable to a casual reader. However, to anyone devoted to the great masters of literature, who wish to experience the whole gamut of writings from literary greats such as Tolstoy, I would certainly recommend it. It is an expression of Tolstoy's own personal turmoil and struggle, and gives one further insight into his soul.
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