Leo Tolstoy, Childhood, translated by C.J. Hogarth.
Posted by celticman on Sat, 05 Dec 2020
After reading War and Peace I felt that someone should gallop up and hang a medal around my neck. I’m easily confused and Russian names are Russian to me. Childhood is a much easier beast. Short pen-portraits of, for example, ‘The Tutor, Karl Ivanitch,’ ‘Mama,’ ‘Papa,’ ‘Lessons,’ ‘The Idiot’.
His is a very structured life. Papa is a little god, all bow before him. He runs the estate with an iron grip. No rouble unaccounted for. Yet, he can lose a million roubles playing cards. Mama, is an angel, as all mama’s are.
‘Get up my darling, it’s time go by-by.’ No envious gaze sees her now. She is not afraid to shed upon me the whole of her tenderness and love. I do not wake up, yet I kiss her and kiss her…
She does not remonstrated with Papa, for she is a simple woman with a belief in God’s goodness. All is as it should be. Papa may need to sell some of her estate, but what is hers is his. Echoes of this gambling loss appear in War and Peace.
When the children need to leave for Moscow to stay with Grandmamma for their proper education not on tutoring, but how to enter a room, for example, she knows it is for the best. Living in the countryside would hold them back. High society resides in Moscow and they must learn who is and who is not to be snubbed.
'I cannot explain my cruelty on this occasion. Why did I not step forward to comfort and protect him (a boy, not quite of their aristocratic heritage)? Where was the pitifulness that made me burst into tears at the sight of a young bird fallen from its nest…'
And his first love Sonatcheka (after a boyish crush on another boy).
'The most prominent features of her face was a pair of unusually large half-veiled eyes, which formed a strange, but pleasing contrast to the small mouth. Her lips were closed, while her eyes looked so grave that the general expression of her face gave one the impression that a smile was never to be looked for from her: wherefore when a smile did come, it was still more pleasing.'
Tolstoy’s heroines are here and undiluted by age, made stronger by yearning. The outward and inward. The use of ‘gave one’, rather than gave me, moves it from the first-person narrative to the universal. She’s still not smiling—yet when she does the world moves around her to accommodate her.
'I had strange ideas on manly beauty. I considered Karl Ivanitch one of the handsomest men in the world, and myself so ugly that I had no need to deceive myself on that point…
[Grandmamma] patted my cheek; “You know Nicolinka, nobody will ever love you for your face alone, so you must try and be a good and clever boy”.'
Tolstoy’s insecurity as a boy also has a universal appeal. As does his grief at the death of his mother and her beloved servant and former serf Natalia Savishina in ‘Sad Recollections’. Natalia’s brother found it hard to believe that after sixty years’ dedicated serve Natalia had left only sixty roubles. Her love couldn’t be counted in roubles, but, hey, I’m with the revolutionaries here.
Millions lost on the turn of a card, but around a rouble a year so the Tolstoy family can get three meals a day and their every aristocratic need catered for. Tolstoy is not writing history, but re-living it. His story is not my story. I’m the Idiot, the peasant ploughing his fields, serving his meals and looking after his horses. There way of life was not to my liking, then or now. The quality of the writing, well…that’s a different kind of lesson.