I love Russian writers. Pushkin, Lermontov, Gogol, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Babel, Bulgakov, Zamyatin, Pasternak, and–above all–Tolstoy. And that’s without tackling his greatest novel, War and Peace. To think that after he wrote that masterpiece, he wrote another, Anna Karenina, followed by the wonderful novella “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” both of which I read and loved, despite Joel Carmichael–in the former–committing the unpardonable sin of “Americanizing” the last names. To explain: Fyodor Dostoevsky’s wife’s last name would be Dostoevskaya in Russian, just as “Karenina” is the female form of “Karenin,” her husband’s last name. Carmichael keeps “Karenina”–because who ever heard of a novel called Anna Karenin?–but uses only the masculine form of the last names in the novel when referring to other women. So, for example, Stephen Oblonsky’s wife is called Dolly Oblonsky, instead of Dolly Oblonskaya. Not a huge sin, I admit, but just as annoying to me as when translators of Japanese add an unnecessary “the” before place names, which 1.) sounds stupid in English, and 2.) doesn’t exist in Japanese.
But I digress. So, why do I love Leo Tolstoy’s writing so much? Simple: he excels in every facet of writing. Interesting characters? Check. Believable world? Check. Prose to die for? Even in translation, you get the sense that he is a very good writer. Humor and pathos? Check. Pacing? Check (in fact, Part One of Anna Karenina is considered to be perfectly paced-you’ll see what I mean when you read it). Plus, he is able to tie multiple plot threads together in Anna Karenina (and, I’ve heard, to an even greater extent in War and Peace) without any of the threads becoming tangled or frayed along the way.
And the man knew so much. In Anna Karenina, he writes not only about doomed love affairs, but also about great marriages. Life in the city and life in the countryside. Farming. Politics. Commoners. Nobility. All with a sense of thoroughly knowing his material, just as he thoroughly knows the characters in his books. Rare is it to encounter an author whom one feels could write about anything and write about it with authority. Tolstoy is that type of writer. He is also one of the few writers to have belonged to the nobility, and to have been wealthy, while he wrote his best and most famous work.
One of the greatest writers to never have won a Nobel Prize (possibly THE greatest, but I have several more contenders to wade through before I make that assessment), the greatest thing about Tolstoy, especially for those people who look at the length of his novels in despair, is that they are such good reads. This is not like an average person trying to read Ulysses, but more like an average person trying to read Charles Dickens.
And, for those of you who don’t want to tackle such long novels, there’s always “The Death of Ivan Ilyich.” But really, isn’t that like not watching foreign films because you don’t like reading subtitles?
Below is a list of Tolstoy’s best known works. I am not sure which translations of the novellas are considered the best, but I have added links to the two best reviewed translations of Tolstoy’s masterpieces. As for personal recommendations, I can only recommend Anna Karenina and “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” at the moment, because I have not read the other two. I also wish to read the translation of Anna Karenina that I have linked to here, as Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky keep the Russian names intact, and also strive to keep Tolstoy’s writing style as intact as possible. Plus, their translations of Gogol’s short stories–which I did read–were quite good.
Note: I have just discovered that this year is the centenary of Tolstoy’s death, as it is with Twain’s. Tolstoy died on November 20, 1910.