Tolstoy’s Cossacks.

I just finished Tolstoy’s Казаки [The Cossacks]; as with Dostoevsky’s Скверный анекдот [A Nasty Story] (see this post), the plot is easy to summarize: the spoiled, self-absorbed young aristocrat Dmitry Olenin goes to the Caucasus as an officer and falls in love with the Cossack girl Maryana, who has been promised to the Cossack Lukashka, and it doesn’t go well for him. It starts beautifully (“Все затихло в Москве. Редко, редко где слышится визг колес по зимней улице” [Everything has quieted down in Moscow. Only rarely, very rarely can the squeal of wheels be heard somewhere on the winter street]) and ends powerfully. The problem is what comes in between.

Back in May, I complained bitterly about Tolstoy’s Семейное счастие [Family Happiness], and one of my complaints was that it was too long. The Cossacks is a much better work (Edward Vasiolek called it “the masterpiece of Tolstoy’s pre–Voina i mir [War and Peace] period,” which is at least plausible), but it too is too damn long at 150 pages. Tolstoy gets his hero out of Moscow at the end of the first chapter (fleeing boredom and his mounting debts), but once he gets to the Caucasus and the stanitsa where he will live among the Cossacks, he has nothing to do but envy and try to share their lifestyle (boozing, hunting, and killing Chechens) and admire their strong, shapely women (often wearing only a long shirt through which you can glimpse their shapely forms). Oh, and think long adolescent thoughts about love and happiness and how true happiness is only possible through self-sacrifice. All of this is repeated over and over, chapter after chapter: boozing and/or hunting with old Yeroshka, watching village life and the strong, shapely Maryana through his window, and thinking long adolescent thoughts. After about thirty chapters I would have been delighted to have the Chechens come through and massacre him. As I say, eventually Tolstoy pulls it together and comes to a satisfying conclusion, but it amazes me that in just a few years he will have learned how to tell a story so efficiently that even the 1,200 pages of War and Peace won’t feel too long. (Well, except for that Second Appendix.) But at this point in their careers, I would have to say that Dostoevsky is way ahead of him.

Comments

  1. After reading The Kreutzer Sonata, I didn’t trust Tolstoy on matters of the heart, very much.

  2. “For there are some eunuchs, which were so born from their mother’s womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it.”(c) JC

  3. David Eddyshaw says:

    I like the Second Appendix. Admittedly I have yet to meet anybody else who does …

  4. Just out of morbid curiosity, what do you like about it? And do you, perchance, read Buckle for amusement?

  5. David Eddyshaw says:

    I like his anti-Great-Men-of-History stance (and am, to a great extent, persuaded by it.) It sheds an interesting sort of retrospective light on his hero Kutuzov, too, though I suppose that I would have to concede that all of that is made pretty clear in the novel proper.

    Buckle! Ah, sounds just my sort of thing. Thanks for the tip … (Actually, I do prefer Thucydides to Herodotus, so there is probably little hope for me.)

    I like the technical bits about whaling in Moby Dick too.

    (Apropos of nothing, impressed that autocorrect caught my original misspelling of Thucydides. I’ve misjudged him/her/it.)

  6. David Eddyshaw says:

    (There may be a genetically transmitted defect involved. My younger son, a great enthusiast for Anna Karenina, finds Karenin the most sympathetic figure.)

  7. I like the technical bits about whaling in Moby Dick too.

    Oh, so do I! (I was the only student in my high school English class to read the whole book, whale bits and all.) But they’re written with brio, whereas the Second Appendix… isn’t.

  8. And Thucydides, while not the greater in terms of brio, is miles better than Herodotus nonetheless.

  9. In what sense?

  10. David Eddyshaw says:

    Incidentally (pursuing my theme of self-exculpatory genetic determinism) my mother particularly dislikes the First Appendix, particularly in its portrayal of Natasha.

    I’m the victim here, really.

  11. As a historian in the modern sense. Herodotus is still writing about his ἱστορία ‘inquiries’: he asks questions and writes down what people tell him. Unsurprisingly, it’s highly readable; unsurprisingly, it’s biased in a way that is impossible to remove (per Butterfield’s famous remark).

  12. David Eddyshaw says:

    I recall reading an introduction to Thucydides which made the uncomfortable point that, though he gives the impression of scrupulous care for accuracy (and obviously did care), we are actually rarely in a position to cross-check his facts, and on the relatively few occasions when we are in such a position (for example through archaeology), the results can be disconcerting.

    It’s the obverse, in a way, of a point I saw made about Tacitus: certainly Tacitus’ treatment of Tiberius (say) is highly tendentious, but Mr T cannot ever have imagined that his work would end up one day as really the sole surviving rigorous historical source covering that period. (Moreover, in a large part we are only able to challenge his hatchet job on that emperor because Tacitus has himself given us the facts to do so, spin or no.)

    What I appreciate about Thucydides is that he tries to understand.

  13. Moreover, in a large part we are only able to challenge his hatchet job on that emperor because Tacitus has himself given us the facts to do so, spin or no.

    Precisely, which is why Tacitus is not a Whig author. Butterfield.

  14. According to Russian Wikipedia, Tolstoy had actually planned and begun a third volume of The Cossacks before scrapping it and deciding his роман could be a повесть. Which is to say, if it’s too damn long, it could have been much longer.

  15. Unsurprisingly, it’s highly readable; unsurprisingly, it’s biased in a way that is impossible to remove (per Butterfield’s famous remark).

    But so is Thucydides; it’s just not as obvious because of his “objective” style, which of course is what fans of “objectivity” love about him. It’s a classic general’s history of a war, with all the virtues and vices that implies. Someone else would have written a completely different history with different “facts” and emphases and interpretations; if we had a number of such histories/memoirs, we could triangulate, but since we only have Thucydides we happily take his word for everything and marvel at his objectivity. No men with goat’s feet, no people who sleep six months out of the year — must be Truth!

  16. Michael Hendry says:

    It’s been many years, but I remember being impressed by R. G. Collingwood’s argument that Herodotus is a true historian – stuffing in every fact or possible fact he runs across whether it fits a pattern or not – while Thucydides is something else entirely, more interested in deriving general rules about how people act in the political and military spheres than in specific historical events. I don’t recall that he came up with a name for it, but I take it he thought Thucydides was something like a crowd psychologist or political philosopher, only interested in historical facts that could be fitted into a scheme.

    David Eddyshaw (9:25pm):
    I made that very point (Tacitus not imagining the possibility that all other sources would be lost while his work survived) in a lecture at the U. Durham Classics Dept in 2000. Were you there, or has someone else argued the point elsewhere? (I should probably put a PDF of the lecture on my webpage, since it’s no closer to being a full-fledged book or journal article than it was then and I’m not getting any younger.)

  17. David Marjanović says:

    a true historian – stuffing in every fact or possible fact he runs across whether it fits a pattern or not

    The famous example is his comment to the effect of “I don’t believe it, but perhaps someone else will” about those Phoenicians hired by Pharao Necho sailing around Africa clockwise and having the sun to their right.

  18. Michael Hendry says:

    DM: Thanks for the example of Herodotus’ omnivorous method turning out successful.
    Here’s another: I’ve heard (but can’t confirm) that western scholars doubted for centuries Herodotus’ report that the ancient Scythians burned hemp (Greek kannabis) in tents and got drunk just by inhaling the smoke. No one has any trouble believing that now.
    And another: a modern scholar arguing that Herodotus never visited some of the places he claims to have visited suggested that he had made up his report of a river in Scythia so poisonous that it killed all the fish for many miles downstream. Another modern scholar pointed out that there’s a town at that very place in what is now Ukraine called ‘Dead Waters’ (Vodi Mrti or something like that – it’s been a few years) because the local river waters are in fact poisonous. And why shouldn’t they be? Springs often have characteristics of the rocks they flow through before emerging. There are salt springs and soda springs, so why not (e.g.) arsenic springs?

  19. Indeed. There are places called “Arsenic Springs” in North Carolina, Arkansas, and New Mexico, and known arsenic springs in Argentina, Brazil, California, Belgium, France, Italy, Poland, Russia, Germany (four of them), Italy, and Japan. The waters are used to treat external fungus infections, and formerly venereal diseases as well.

    However, although predatory fish can accumulate arsenic, I find no evidence that fish can be poisoned by swimming in arsenic-laden waters. Fishing with poison generally involves ordinary organic compounds (without heavy metals) from toxic plants.

  20. David Eddyshaw says:

    @Michael Hendry:

    Were you there, or has someone else argued the point elsewhere?

    I was in fact not far from Durham in 2000, but not (alas) attending lectures on Tacitus. I for one would like to see the PDF …

    I undoubtedly got this from either the introduction to an edition of the Annals, or perhaps from Ronald Syme; unfortunately in either case from one of the many books I sold or gave away when I left the UK in the early 90’s and haven’t subsequently repurchased, so I can’t now run it to earth. It doesn’t seem to feature in Furneaux’s edition (which I kept and took with me.)

  21. marie-lucie says:

    JC: I find no evidence that fish can be poisoned by swimming in arsenic-laden waters.

    i had no idea that there were springs with arsenic in them.

    About the fish, could their flesh be toxic to humans although they themselves don’t seem to be affected?

  22. Michael Hendry says:

    I should clarify that I don’t know whether the river in Ukraine is poisoned with arsenic. It seems likely there’s more than one mineral that could poison water passing through it. I mentioned arsenic with an “e.g.” as a famously poisonous element that would surely be found in some rocks.

    David E:
    Thanks for the nudge. I will format the lecture and handout, make a PDF, and upload them to my website before midnight (it’s 8:26pm right now). Just wait a few hours, go to http://www.curculio.org, select Publications in the right margin, and scroll down to item 4 under ‘Tacitus and Suetonius’. Warning: I am not attempting to transform it from a lecture into a written paper – the jokes are all written out.

  23. About the fish, could their flesh be toxic to humans although they themselves don’t seem to be affected?

    Yes, indeed; mercury is of more concern than arsenic, but I’m sure it can happen with arsenic too.

  24. Michael Hendry says:

    David E:
    The paper and handout are now uploaded, and you can even comment on them, if you like, at the blog post announcing the upload: http://curculio.org/?p=1668. Thanks again for the nudge.

  25. Michael Hendry says:

    David E:
    Oops – forgot to mention. See Section 7, point c of my lecture (bottom of page 13 of the PDF) for the argument pertinent to what you wrote: that Tacitus never imagined that his own works (or large portions of them) might survive while the public archives and the second-string historians and annalists and most of the public inscriptions were lost, and therefore felt free to omit many details that we wish he had included.

  26. David Eddyshaw says:

    @Michael Hendry:

    Many thanks. Most interesting (though destined to remain largely speculative, I suppose.)

    The expression “old paranoids and young maniacs” strikes me as having broad potential applicability, and I shall try to shoehorn it into my correspondence at work. (I fall now into the former group.)

    Apropos of nothing (because our tolerant host permits – nay, encourages – such meandering) your

    The only really incredulous-sounding question I got when I presented the middle part of this paper

    happened to remind me of a remark I just came across from the philosopher-logician David Lewis:

    What arguments can be given against realism about possible worlds? I have met with few arguments – incredulous stares are more common.

  27. our tolerant host permits – nay, encourages – such meandering

    I do indeed; some of my favorite threads have gone hopelessly off the rails in terms of the original subject!

  28. Trond Engen says:

    Michael Hendry: The paper and handout are now uploaded

    I’ve read it, and I like it, but I know nothing of the subject, so I’ve nothing worthwhile to add

  29. David Eddyshaw says:

    I know nothing of the subject, so I’ve nothing worthwhile to add

    Subversive! With that attitude, how would the rest of us cope?

  30. Trond Engen says:

    Oh, sorry. I didn’t mean to imply that I know anything about anything else I’m commenting on.

  31. David Eddyshaw says:

    OK. Sorry I doubted you.

  32. That made my day.

  33. What arguments can be given against realism about possible worlds?

    The fact that there is zero reason to believe in them? The fact that they are a fundamentally useless construct that purport to explain necessity and possibility (either of which is definable in terms of the other), but there is no way to say which worlds are possible and which are impossible?

  34. —there is no way to say which worlds are possible and which are impossible?

    Actually there is.

    Worlds which are internally consistent are possible.

    Those which are not, not possible.

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