My Favorite Authors: Leo Tolstoy


“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
–opening line to Anna Karenina, as translated by Joel Carmichael, Bantam Classic

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.

War and Peace (1865-69)
Anna Karenina (1877)
“The Death of Ivan Ilyich” (1887)
“The Kreutzner Sonata” (1889)

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.


Author: Greg Salvatore

Writer. Voice Actor. Humanist. Feminist.

5 thoughts on “My Favorite Authors: Leo Tolstoy”

  1. Me too, Brutus. AK has been called the most spiritual of novels. That single paragraph describing the leap towards death is matchless prose, not to say an eloquent argument against self-murder. The suicde is beautifully depicted <A HREF=">HERE </A> in the 1935 Greta Garbo version of the novel.Ivan Ilyich has always been a favourite, a late life insight of Tolstoi. I have missed War and Peace.Incidently there was a correspondence between Gandhi and Tolstoi, and an experimental farm which MKG set up in SA was called Tolstoi information.You are welcome in advance to aforesaid deluge of information.

  2. Well-timed. I just started a Dostoevsky odyssey which I have promised to myself will last all his 'greats'. I just finished Notes from Underground and think that it might be the most beautiful book I've ever read.Also, I love Russian short stories. The only ones I like as much are Rabindranath Tagore's and Roald Dahl's. Serious English and American ones tend to get quite monotonous.

  3. S.M.Thanks for the clip (and the "deluge of information"). I heard about the correspondence between Tolstoy and Gandhi while taking a Russian literature class (which gave me an excuse to read Anna Karenina, though I had to finish it over the summer). As good as the suicide scene is, my favorite scene in the book is when Levin and Kitty court each other by writing out sentences to each other using only the first letter of each word (the best courting scene I have ever read, and one of the sweetest scenes in all of literature).RonakI also enjoyed Notes from Underground, which I read in the same Russian literature class mentioned above (I should mention that we read the works in translation). Like Tolstoy, though, I have yet to read Dostoevsky's masterpiece, The Brothers Karamazov. Also, I agree with you about most English and American short stories. Most of them tend to be too serious, or they are written by novelists who are better novelists than short story writers. Exceptions are Nathaniel Hawthorne (in my opinion, a better short story writer than novelist), Edgar Allan Poe, Stephen King's Night Shift collection (his later stories aren't as good), James Joyce ("The Dead" is the best short story I've ever read), Mark Twain (though he also wrote some godawful ones), and Joseph Conrad ("Heart of Darkness"), to name a few. John Cheever and John Updike also wrote short stories that I enjoyed. Let me know what you think of J.D. Salinger's Nine Stories.

  4. Russian writers are fantastic.And now for some Gogol because I love this passage from Dead Souls:" And you, Russia of mine–are not you also speeding like a troika which nought can overtake? Is not the road smoking beneath your wheels, and the bridges thundering as you cross them, and everything being left in the rear, and the spectators, struck with the portent, halting to wonder whether you be not a thunderbolt launched from heaven? What does that awe-inspiring progress of yours foretell? What is the unknown force which lies within your mysterious steeds? Surely the winds themselves must abide in their manes, and every vein in their bodies be an ear stretched to catch the celestial message which bids them, with iron-girded breasts, and hooves which barely touch the earth as they gallop, fly forward on a mission of God? Whither, then, are you speeding, O Russia of mine? Whither? Answer me! But no answer comes–only the weird sound of your collar-bells. Rent into a thousand shreds, the air roars past you, for you are overtaking the whole world, and shall one day force all nations, all empires to stand aside, to give you way!

  5. Gogol's on this list, too. No one is better at describing fantastical events in great and wondrous detail. Not sure when I'll include him on here (maybe after I read Dead Souls), but he will be included, trust me. And thanks for wetting my appetite.

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