I’ve finally finished Tolstoy’s Юность [Youth]; it took me twice as long as it should have, because for a couple of weeks I only read one short chapter a day. This wasn’t just indolence — it usually takes me a while to get into a long work, but here I felt like I was slogging through molasses. There were some fine character sketches and nature descriptions (always a Tolstoy specialty), but the viewpoint character, sixteen-year-old Nikolai Irtenev, is a smug, preening little aristocrat whose main goal in life is to be comme il faut and to look down on anyone who isn’t, and while Tolstoy has fun with the disasters this leads him into, it gets boring having a succession of episodes that can be boiled down to “although I liked X, I treated him/her contemptuously because they weren’t comme il faut, and then I was surprised they didn’t like me!”
Part of the problem is that Tolstoy himself wasn’t old enough to have a fully adult detachment from the character, so there’s an element of “And I am two-and-twenty, And oh, ’tis true, ’tis true” about it. Although the story is not autobiographical in detail, the general arc is true to his experience: he himself flunked out of the Department of Arabo-Turkic Languages at the University of Kazan in 1844, having spent the year in drinking, gambling, and visiting brothels. (He then enrolled in the Department of Jurisprudence, dropped out when he inherited Yasnaya Polyana, tried to devote himself to estate management and self-improvement, but got bored and returned to dissipation, this time in Moscow.) Still, I was glad I persevered, because whenever the narrator turns his attention outward there are fine vignettes, including descriptions of the university examination system and the Yar restaurant, a Moscow favorite for generations. And of course I was immensely gratified by the following passage, from Chapter XLIII, about the fellow students he is trying to study with (despite not having paid attention to either the reading or the lectures):
Это чувство возбуждали во мне […] в особенности их манера говорить, употреблять и интонировать некоторые слова. Например, они употребляли слова: глупец вместо дурак, словно вместо точно, великолепно вместо прекрасно, движучи и т. п., что мне казалось книжно и отвратительно непорядочно. Но еще более возбуждали во мне эту комильфотную ненависть интонации, которые они делали на некоторые русские и в особенности иностранные слова: они говорили ма́шина вместо маши́на, дея́тельность вместо де́ятельность, на́рочно вместо наро́чно, в камине́ вместо в ками́не, Ше́кспир вместо Шекспи́р, и т. д., и т. д.
This feeling [of dislike for them] was aroused in me […] especially by their way of speaking, of using and pronouncing certain words. For instance, they used the words glupets instead of durak [‘fool’], slovno instead of tochno [‘as if’], velikolepno [‘splendidly’] instead of prekrasno [‘excellently’], dvizhuchi [i.e., instead of dvizhushchii ‘driving (force)’], and the like, which seemed to me bookish and repellently uncouth. But what aroused even more strongly in me this comme-il-faut loathing was their improper accenting of certain Russian and especially foreign words: they said máshina instead of mashína [‘machine’], deyátelnost’ instead of déyatelnost’ [‘activity’], nárochno instead of naróchno [‘on purpose’], v kaminé instead of v kamíne [‘in the fireplace’], Shékspir instead of Shekspír [‘Shakespeare’], etc. etc.
The last is especially amusing: the English stress is vulgar, only the French will do!