Tolstoy and Turgenev.

This comparison is going to be superficial and unfair, but I don’t care, it’s in me and it’s got to come out. I finished Turgenev’s Torrents of Spring (see this post) with a certain amount of irritation, though somewhat mollified by the appearance in the text of a NYC street address, 501 Broadway; it took him 150 pages to tell a very simple story — boy meets girl, boy betrays girl, boy feels very bad — and he tells it in an ostentatiously antiquated way, full of exclamation marks and a jovially intrusive narrator (who at one point says “history is silent about what he thought then,” drawing a marginal exclamation point from me). It’s as if he’d regressed instead of progressing from the brilliantly subtle narration of A Sportsman’s Sketches, a quarter of a century earlier; it’s basically a romance novel, written as though the author were being paid by the word and needing every kopeck, and I can see why the critics of the day trashed it while the public ate it up so avidly that Vestnik Evropy had to reprint the January 1872 issue in which it appeared.

So the next item in my chronological reading list was Tolstoy’s Кавказский пленник [The Prisoner of the Caucasus]; I’m pretty sure I read it many years ago, but probably in translation. It’s only twenty pages long and written in a mildly off-putting fake-folk style suitable for children and the illiterate (it starts “Служил на Кавказе офицером один барин. Звали его Жилин. Пришло раз ему письмо из дома,” something like “Once upon a time an officer was serving in the Caucasus. His name was Zhilin. One day he got a letter from home”), and in fact it was published widely in children’s readers (and was extremely popular). It too tells a very simple story — hero is captured, tries to escape, fails, tries again — but damned if it isn’t so gripping I gobbled it up in one go. How does he do it? Whether he’s using the labyrinthine, French-infused sentences of War and Peace or the storybook ones here, he convinces you that what he’s telling you is of vital importance and you have to follow wherever he leads. I know it’s a hackneyed observation, but I’ll say it anyway: Tolstoy was a genius, a master storyteller, and it’s a crying shame he mostly gave it up for religious propaganda.


  1. I share your opinion of both works – the Turgenev has that odd split in the middle, like he did not know how to connect the two parts of the book – but I am really here to ask if you have seen Sergei Bodrov’s 1996 film version, Prisoner of the Mountains / Kavkazskiy plennik. I think it’s a wonderful film. It is a little bit frightening how little needed to be done to modernize the story.

  2. Tolstoy calls local inhabitants “Tatars” though real Tatars do not leave in the Caucasus.

  3. I am really here to ask if you have seen Sergei Bodrov’s 1996 film version, Prisoner of the Mountains / Kavkazskiy plennik. I think it’s a wonderful film.

    I have and it is; I posted about it here.

  4. Tolstoy calls local inhabitants “Tatars” though real Tatars do not leave in the Caucasus.

    Yes, that was standard Russian usage at the time — pretty much all local Muslims were Tatars.

  5. Dmitry Pruss says

    I think that most of Dagestan was the Shamkhaldom of the Kumyks, which, while multiethnic, was ruled by Turkic Kumyks and considered one of the three legacy Tatar domains along with Crimea and Tymen. The more westerly parts were the domain of Cirkassians, also multiethnic and also Muslim but considered to be ancient enemies of the Tatars.

  6. In 19th century Russian, a number of Turkic speaking Caucasian ethnic groups were officially called Tatars, eg, Mountain Tatars (Karachays and Balkars), Dagestani Tatars (Kumyks), Nogay Tatars (now Nogays), Azeri Tatars (now Azeris).

    Geographical descriptions given by Tolstoy fit the Karachays, I think. Karachay mountains are the closest to Pyatigorsk where Tolstoy spent two years.

  7. I can’t hear it in Russian (it might not be there at all), but it’s certainly there in English — the sing-song meter, not strong but detectable: would be strong given time — and perhaps that’s unconsciously** responsible for the superfluous “(and was extremely popular).” Then again, it might all have been about translating felicitously. Glad to hear it was so enjoyable!

    I can’t believe the only Tolstoy I’ve read is from the latter portion of his career, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, as well as snatches of Anna Karenina and War and Peace which made me wish I had the time or, Merry Xmas(!), that someday I’ll find a way to need to read them for my work. (Not a hint, of course.)

    **Unconsciously is now the preferred academic word, in place of subconscious, in I think all psychological disciplines; it’s no longer reserved for the phallic ones and ones whose adherents have involuntary phallic reactions to mythology and mysticism. The onetime rare term was deemed to have a negative connotation.

    (Psychological bit came to after I’d posted, and I forgot I was on a clock. Steve, if you could work your Hattic Magic — in the holiday spirit, after all — I’d appreciate it.)

  8. the superfluous “(and was extremely popular).”

    Not sure what you mean, since being published in children’s readers does not in any way imply general popularity. In any case, nice to see you around these parts again!

  9. And you’ve already responded. I assumed a book published widely in 19th century Russia would have to be popular or lose the wide publication. Even the end of that sentence shows your parenthetical to be necessary. I’ve been reading a lot about prosody. Also, I forgot I was on the clock — you’ll see — so I’m publishing again. Finally, thanks for the welcome: great to be back in these parts, where I feel as loose as the joint is louche.

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