Reading Troyat’s biography of Tolstoy can be trying, although it’s very well written and illuminating, simply because Tolstoy was such a jerk. A common phenomenon, of course, but still, it’s a relief when I run across something that makes me feel closer to him, like this passage (on p. 323) about Tolstoy’s sudden decision to learn Greek:

He sent for a theological student from Moscow to teach him the rudiments of the language. From the first day, the forty-two-year-old pupil threw himself into Greek grammar with a passion, pored over dictionaries, drew up vocabularies, tackled the great authors. In spite of his headaches, he learned quickly. In a few weeks he had outdistanced his teacher. He sight-translated Xenophon, reveled in Homer, discovered Plato and said the originals were like “spring-water that sets the teeth on edge, full of sunlight and impurities and dust-motes that make it seem even more pure and fresh,” while translations of the same texts were as tasteless as “boiled, distilled water.” Sometimes he dreamed in Greek at night. He imagined himself living in Athens; as he tramped through the snow of Yasnaya Polyana, sinking in up to his calves, his head was filled with sun, marble and geometry. Watching him changing overnight into a Greek, his wife was torn between admiration and alarm. “There is clearly nothing in the world that interests him more or gives him greater pleasure than to learn a new Greek word or puzzle out some expression he has not met before,” she complained. “I have questioned several people, some of whom have taken their degree at the university. To hear them talk, Lyovochka has made unbelievable progress in Greek.” He himself felt rejuvenated by this diet of ancient wisdom. “Now I firmly believe,” he said to Fet, “that I shall write no more gossipy twaddle of the War and Peace type.”

And in reading the gossipy twaddle itself, I’ve come across another puzzle (like the покой-ер-п one discussed here), which I hope my Russian-speaking readers may be able to solve. In Book One, Part III, Chapter 3, cranky old Prince Bolkonsky, noticing that his timid daughter Marya is looking terrified of his mood as usual, says: “— Др… или дура!…” Which is to say: “— Dr… or fool!…” I’m wondering what that first “Dr” might be; it looks like he’s starting to say something and then substituting “fool,” and my guess is дрянь [dryan’] ‘trash; good-for-nothing person,’ but I’d be curious to know how Russian readers interpret it. (Ann Dunnigan simply translates “Fool!”)


  1. “Reading Troyat’s biography of Tolstoy can be trying, although it’s very well written and illuminating, simply because Tolstoy was such a jerk.”
    I’d repunctuate, personally:
    “Reading Troyat’s biography of Tolstoy can be trying–although it’s very well written and illuminating–simply because Tolstoy was such a jerk.”

  2. Yep, I’d go with “дрянь”.

  3. Ah, sweet confirmation in only six minutes! Thanks, Dmitry!

  4. I know no Russian. But I interpret “Dr” as the abbreviation for “Doctor”, which is almost certainly not what Tolstoy intended.

  5. Isabel – maybe “Dr. Zhivago”?…

  6. Since when does the likeability factor of an historical figure presume a difficult reading? Have you never been engrossed by the biography of a detestable historical character, pick your poisoner?

  7. Of course, but there’s a huge difference between bios of authors and those of generals, presidents, and other movers and shakers. It’s fun to read about lives filled with action, even when it’s evil, but authors essentially have no lives worth reading about: they write, dun their publishers, bum off their friends, neglect their families, and write some more. The thing about Tolstoy is that we think of him as a giant moral exemplar (he was one of my inspirations when I became a conscientious objector), so to read about his petty egotism and utter hypocrisy is disheartening and makes it hard to take his prophetic stature as seriously as one would like to (and certainly as seriously as he would want one to). He was a self-righteous blowhard who happened to be a great novelist.

  8. “but authors essentially have no lives worth reading about” – wouldn’t expect someone in the language business to think otherwise!

  9. Well, of course there are exceptions, like Richard Burton.

  10. Crown, A. J.P. says

    There are a few people who wouldn’t mind knowing a little more about Shakespeare.

  11. I’d definitely go with “дрянь,” although it seems a bit mild to be bleeped out like that.
    Are you familiar with the classic 1970s faux-Kharms stories about Tolstoy? They’re great.

    Лев Толстой очень любил детей. Однажды он играл с ними весь день и проголодался. «Сонечка, — говорит, — ангельчик, сделай мне тюрьку». Она возражает: «Левушка, ты не видишь, я «Войну и мир» переписываю». «А-а! — возопил он, — я так и знал, что тебе мой литературный фимиам дороже моего Я». И костыль задрожал в его судорожной руке.
    Leo Tolstoy loved children very much. One day he was playing with them all day and got hungry. “Sonya,” he said, “my angel, make me some soup.” She objected: “Don’t you see, Levushka, I’m copying War and Peace.” “Aaah!,” he roared, “I knew that my literary laurels were dearer to you than my self.” And the cane trembled in his spasmodic hand.

  12. it seems a bit mild to be bleeped out like that
    Well, sure, nowadays, when everything’s блядь this and на хуй that, but I figure in the 1860s people were a little more finicky.
    I didn’t know the faux-Kharms stories, so thanks!

  13. There are a few people who wouldn’t mind knowing a little more about Shakespeare.
    That’s only because we don’t know. I suspect if we did know all about his life we would find it a dreary subject.
    Besides, I subscribe to the “Marlowe wrote Shakespeare” theory so I would be much more interested to learn about Marlowe’s life after his supposed death. From what I know of his life and what I can speculate, I think that would be a life worth reading about. But I digress.

  14. Arthur Marlowe says

    …think that would be a life worth reading about.
    This is bonkers. Even if he had written the plays why would Marlowe’s be worth reading about, but Shakespeare’s not?
    (By the way, Marlowe sometimes writes my posts.)

  15. I like Marlowe Thomas myself.

  16. Crown, A. J.P. says

    She’s the one who’s supposed to have written all Dylan Thomas’s stuff, or so they say.

  17. Kári Tulinius says

    Personally I believe Lampedusa wrote Shakespeare. It’s the only explanation that makes sense for why Lampedusa never published anything in his lifetime… just like Shakespeare!!!

  18. @Arthur A.J.P. “Marlowe” Crown
    Just going by the logic of my crackpot theory which I don’t expect anyone else to believe…
    If it were true that Marlowe wrote them all then there would be not much more reason to write about Shakespeare than any other actor in his troupe. The only thing that would make him interesting at all would be his involvement in the duplicity.
    Mmmm…Marlowe Thomas, now That Girl would have a life worth writing about.

  19. Crown, A. J.P. says

    But, Bob Helling, since he’s started writing some of my comments, does that mean my life isn’t worth writing about? Be careful how you answer.
    Ok, who’s writing this one? Is it Arthur Crown, or is it Christopher Marlowe?

  20. Trick question. An intensive analysis of the style proves that comment was written by the Earl of Oxford.

  21. Why yes! Arthur Crown’s life is certainly worth writing about! In fact it is one of the most dazzling, fascinating lives ever to grace the planet.
    (By the way Arthur Crown sometimes writes my posts.)

  22. Crown, A. J.P. says


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