War and Sleaze: Eileen Learns Russian and Still Can’t Understand Tolstoy

Apr 20th, 2006 | By | Category: Columns

“If I were told that what I shall write will be read in twenty years by the children of today and that they will weep and smile over it and will fall in love with life, I should devote all my life and all my strengths to it.”-Leo Tolstoy on Leo Tolstoy

“All good writers are alike. Unhappy, starving, proselytizing, misogynist, ham-handed, symbolism-choked writers are assholes in their own way.”–Genevieve on Leo Tolstoy on Leo Tolstoy

Tolstoy, Tolstoi. No matter how you say the name, it promises to suck all the air out of the room. Leo Tolstoy is perhaps as full of fictionalized crap as Herodotus.

Supposedly, Tolstoy/Tolstoi is “the greatest Russian writer who ever lived” and his books, such as War and Peace are believed to be able to account for, “the infinite complexity of human behavior”, which I guess translates to “bloated” and “boring as hell.”

Tolstoy, sitting with a young child before he devours her with his prose.

But despite my personal opinion, which is amazing and perfect, Tolstoy is still a popular topic. Take the website www.lstolstoy.com, which is dedicated to Tolstoy’s writings and life. Well, a quarter of his life-they haven’t finished his biography, “When complete this section will contain a detailed account of Tolstoy’s life.” Man, even his biographers find him boring.

One can learn quickly that Tolstoy’s time on earth was full of suffering, sadness and death. Tolstoy’s parents both passed away when he was young, as well as his grandmother. These deaths supposedly had a great impact on Tolstoy’s writing. But not in a good way. If it was a good way he would have been like Edgar Allan Poe and his short stories would have focused on things like being buried alive (in walls, catacombs, floors. Poe was all about the burying alive. Also murderous orangutans. Now there’s a classic author!).

But before Tolstoy could make people feel awkward when reading his prose, he himself had to grow into an awkward youth.

“Tolstoy’s years at the University were difficult. It took months for his aunt to convince him to take the entrance exam only to fail the first time. Having passed the test the second go around and with time Tolstoy became more interested in the University for its social aspects, not academia. Yet his social life turned out to be just as bad as his grades.

His large nose, bushy eyebrows, and big lips made an already quite Tolstoy self conscious about his looks. Other than his brothers he had few close friends and most of the girls found him boring. It was however, at this time that Tolstoy lost his innocence of women. He tells the story of being taken to a brothel by his brothers only to weep at the side of her bed ‘after the act’.”

If Tolstoy was of my generation, he’d be one hell of a Dungeon Master. Also, you only weep at the side of a prostitute’s bed if she’s packing something a little extra, if you know what I mean.

After leaving university, traveling and collecting a hefty amount of gambling debts, Tolstoy married Sofia Bers and together they had sixteen children and enough marital misery to make Edith Wharton jealous.

While Russian critics were quick to pan Tolstoy’s works (such as Anna Karenina), other authors like Dostoevsky and Chekhov gushed over his brilliance. Writers such as Faulkner mention Tolstoy as a great influence. (Finally everyone who has ever read “The Bear” knows who to blame.)

But what of the literature? Anna Karenina, War and Peace , The Death of Ivan Illyich, these stories are supposedly so great they’ve lead to a dozen of awful movie adaptations. What makes them so classic? So ideal for Cliffs Notes? Lets find out:

Anna Karenina

Anna Karenina is beautiful and therefore unhappy. She’s married to some old dude who seems to be an okay guy but Anna doesn’t love him so he must be a bastard. In the beginning of the novel, Anna is comforting her sister-in-law Dolly as Anna’s brother cheated on her because he’s a bastard. The reader meets Dolly’s younger sister, the beautiful Kitty who is being courted by two bastards-I mean, men. Alexi Vronsky, a handsome military man who is dashing and everything not related to a cliche about a military man in period literature, and Levin who is awkward, owns land and is boring as stone. But in the end he wins over Dolly and they end up getting married. Also there’s about three chapters in the book dedicated to describing him as he plows the fields with his workers. I had a college professor who did a lot of drugs and had a theory that the scene was actually an example of meditation and how Levin reached a Zen like state. What I took away from that was my college professor did a lot of drugs.

Levin is great. Not because he’s interesting or profound or actually does anything. He’s great because he’s the First Mary Sue of Great Literature. I can see Tolstoy now, sitting with pen and paper, pressing his big lips together and pondering with his furry, polar bear brow. Finally he realizes, “Damn it! If I can’t have a hot chick in real life I’m going to have one in fiction!” Genius, Tolstoy. Pure Genius.

Oh and Anna Karenina has an affair with Vronsky, is ousted from high society and dies a horrible death. But who cares? Levin scored a hot chick!

War and Peace

Boasted as one of the “Greatest novels of all time” and why not with such complex storylines and dialogue like this:

“First of all, dear friend, tell me how you are. Set your friend’s mind at rest,” said he without altering his tone, beneath the politeness and affected sympathy of which indifference and even irony could be discerned.”

Let me translate that previous paragraph for you:

“First of all, dear friend, tell me how you are. Set your friend’s mind at rest. Me, your friend, the man who you are acquainted with and to whom you doth speak with as a friendly friend,” said he, the man, the man with the voice of one who did not alter his voice, his voice with that would not alter above the normal speaking level but which also had inflection that could not be deciphered, even though there was inflection because I just said ‘had inflection;.”

There are only nine characters that are of any real importance in this book, and yet it weighs ninety tons. If I want to read a good war book I’ll just re-read Johnny Tremain . You might just think that I’m a weird old woman who can’t enjoy books beyond the reading level of fourteen, but I assure you it’s just because I have a thing for hot adolescent boys with deformed hands.

“But Eileen,” says you, “This is just one of the many examples of what is lost when another language is translated into English.” Oh? So Tolstoy doesn’t write in redundant adverb laden paragraphs, accosting a reader like mines in a battlefield? It’s all just lost in translation? That answers everything! In fact, from now on, I’m going to use that as a reason for why things don’t work out in my favor. So when the creditors start to call about my late credit card payments, I’ll just say the check was “lost in translation.” When I get pulled over for going 65 mph in a 15 mph zone and the officer asks why I was pulled over, I’ll just say it was because I was “lost in translation.” Thanks, Tolstoy!

The Death of Ivan Illyich

Ivan Illych Golovin is a high court judge in St. Petersburg . He has a great life until he falls from some hanging curtains because he decided that the paisley just wasn’t making the room look fierce enough. He goes to the doctor because his tummy hurts and he finds out he’s dying from a terminal disease. I get confused because for me “terminal disease” equals a sub-plot in a sassy romance novel. So I kept waiting for the shirtless sweaty man to appear and sweep Ivan off his feet, but it never happened because Russians are total prudes. Instead Ivan cries and cries and cries because he’s going to die and realizes that his awesome life was total crap and seriously those paisley curtains are still ugly. But then he sees a light and finds out that there is promise after death. I think he just hallucinated when the physician shone a penlight in his eyes. I suggest picking up Sartre’s “The Wall” instead; it’s a better story when it comes to ideas about mortality. Also there’s guns!

In conclusion, my reasons for being dissatisfied with Tolstoy are quite simple. Tolstoy’s problem is he takes so long to get to the meat of his story, he focuses too much on the crust-which is slightly molding. His writing is not elegant like Pushkin’s, his dialogue doesn’t resonate like Dostoevsky and his Christian philosophies are as weak as my chin. It is, allegedly, the message and meaning Tolstoy instills in his stories that are supposed to resonate. But what really resonates after reading Tolstoy is the urge to drink. And really, what’s more Russian then that?

Mail order brides, that’s what.


If coerced by sensitive drag queens, Eileen will admit to enjoying “How Much Land Does a Man Need?”

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