I’m reading Tolstoy’s first published work, the 1852 Istoriya moego detstva [The story of my childhood] (in 1856 published in the book Detstvo i Otrochestvo [Childhood and Boyhood] and known from then on as Detstvo [Childhood]), and I was struck by this passage, from a description of a hunt:
Говор народа, топот лошадей и телег, веселый свист перепелов, жужжание насекомых, которые неподвижными стаями вились в воздухе, запах полыни, соломы и лошадиного пота, тысячи различных цветов и теней, которые разливало палящее солнце по светло-желтому жнивью, синей дали леса и бело-лиловым облакам, белые паутины, которые носились в воздухе или ложились по жнивью, – все это я видел, слышал и чувствовал.
The voices of the peasants; the clatter of horses and wagons; the joyous whistling of quails; the buzz of insects hovering in motionless swarms in the air; the smell of wormwood, straw, and horse-sweat; the thousands of different lights and shadows which the blazing sun poured out over the light-yellow stubblefield, the blue distance of the forest, and the white-and-lilac clouds; the white spiderwebs which were floating in the air or lying on the stubble—all this I saw and heard and felt.
That final “all this I saw and heard and felt” sums up for me what is so striking in Tolstoy, his unique ability to convey in words the sense of life as it is happening and as it is experienced. Even in this early work (he was only twenty-three when he wrote it), his prose has that magical effect; it’s no wonder people took notice and wanted more from him.
Incidentally, I’ve translated полынь as “wormwood,” but it could equally well mean “mugwort”; I have no idea which is more likely for a central Russian rye field in late summer, or for that matter what either smells like.
Update. According to John Cowan in the comments: “For practical purposes the names wormwood and mugwort are interchangeable.” Which would make the task of the translator easier, except that both are exceptionally ugly words. Also, I finally looked up “mugwort” in the OED (entry updated 2003) and discovered it’s etymologically “midge-wort”: “The plant is said to attract flies and midges, and has therefore been used as a means of disposing of them (compare the North German custom of hanging up bundles of mugwort in rooms to attract flies, which are then easily caught by pulling a sack over the bundle).”