Leo Tolstoy
Leo Tolstoy

“Those who have experienced what shyness is know that it is a feeling which grows in direct proportion to delay, while one’s resolve decreases in inverse proportion. In other words, the longer the condition lasts, the more invincible does it become…”

— Leo Tolstoy, Childhood

Leo Tolstoy
Leo Tolstoy

“I always write in the morning. […] In the morning one’s head is particularly fresh. The best thoughts most often come in the morning after waking while still in bed or during the walk.”

— Leo Tolstoy, qtd. in The Guardian

“As prompts for the actors, Malick shared representative works of art and literature. For [Ben] Affleck, he suggested Fitzgerald, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky. (Affleck read Martin Heidegger on his own, having known that Malick had translated one of the German philosopher’s works as a grad student.) For [Olga] Kurylenko, he also recommended Tolstoy and Dostoevsky — specifically, Anna Karenina, The Brothers Karamazov, and The Idiot. ‘Those books were, in a way, his script,’ she says. But he did more than give the actors the books; he suggested ways to approach the texts and characters to focus on. So, for example, he recommended that Kurylenko read The Idiot with a particular eye on two characters: the young and prideful Aglaya Yepanchin, and the fallen, tragic Nastassya Filippovna. ‘He wanted me to combine their influences — the romantic and innocent side, with the insolent and daring side. ‘For some reason, you only ever see that combination in Russian characters,’ he said to me.'”

— Bilge Ebiri, Vulture

“Was Mahatma Gandhi a philosopher? He would not have thought so himself. But I want to show that he was a model for philosophy in the philosophical subtlety of his accounts of non-violence and in his thinking on a vital kind of freedom. Gandhi was full of surprises: in his defence of concrete particularity in ethics when exceptionless rules cannot guide conduct; in his openness to views from other cultures; and in his exemplary response to criticism, which was welcomed, promulgated without being distorted, treated with disconcerting wit, and used to lead to a radical re-thinking of his own views.

Of course, Gandhi (1869-1948) is known for his belief in non-violence, which included, but was by no means confined to, non-violent resistance to the British rulers of India. But it is less well-known that he rejected the non-violence he had heard of in India. Although the most important influence in his life was the Jain faith, on non-violence, he preferred the second most important influence – Leo Tolstoy. He thought, rightly or wrongly, that the Indian view he knew did not sufficiently mind someone else treading on a beetle, so long as one kept oneself pure by not treading on it oneself. Gandhi saw his early self as a votary of violence. It was the Russian Christian writer, Tolstoy, who converted Gandhi to non-violence, a fact that shows his openness to views from other cultures.”

— Richard Sorabji, Aeon

After reading R.F. Christian‘s edition of Leo Tolstoy‘s letters, Alexandra of Russian Literature and Biography notes the writer’s advice to aspiring authors:

“His suggestions to authors were paradoxical: Tolstoy advised them not to write, unless they felt it was absolutely necessary, and never to write with an eye to publication. In 1887, replying to an obscure writer, Tolstoy suggested: ‘The main thing is not to be in a hurry to write, not to grudge correcting and revising the same thing 10 or 20 times, not to write a lot and not, for heaven’s sake, to make of writing a means of livelihood or of winning importance in people’s eyes.'”

— Russian Literature and Biography

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“For a sixteen-year-old, it is an ambitious and serious library, comprising poetry, philosophy and translated classics, mostly affordable Everyman, Oxford and Penguin editions, those early-twentieth-century projects in the democratization of knowledge. The photograph is not well lit, but the large numbers on the spines of the Everyman volumes allow the identification of several of them. The key writings of Plato, St Augustine, Hobbes, Spinoza, Rousseau, Locke, Kant and Descartes are represented, as are Russian classics such as Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and Tolstoy’s War and Peace. There are no English novels, nor is there any Shakespeare, but there are collected works of poetry by T. S. Eliot, Wordsworth, Tennyson and Keats. Books such as Euclid’s Elements point to Coetzee’s ambition to become a mathematician, though Marx’s Das Kapital may have been less influential. Several of these books would leave their mark on the later fictions, although important future influences such as Pound, Beckett and Kafka are not as yet present.”

— Hermann Wittenberg, Times Literary Supplement

“We measure the earth, sun, stars, and ocean depths. We burrow into the depths of the earth for gold. We search for rivers and mountains on the moon. We discover new stars and know their magnitudes. We sound the depths of gorges and build clever machines. Each day brings a new invention. What don’t we think of! What can’t we do! But there is something else, the most important thing of all, that we are missing. We do not know exactly what it is. We are like a small child who knows he does not feel well but cannot explain why. We are uneasy, because we know a lot of superfluous facts; but we do not know what is really important—ourselves.”

— Leo Tolstoy, Path of Life (trans. M. Cote)

An excerpt from Andrei Tarkovsky's Diaries, dated 30 April 1970
An excerpt from Andrei Tarkovsky’s diaries, dated 30 April 1970

I am beginning to take an interest in the work of the Soviet filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky. I am particularly interested in his preoccupation with the work of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. In a 1970 entry in his diaries, Tarkovsky outlines his ambition to film a biopic of Dostoevsky, which could become “the whole point of what I want to do in cinema”: (more…)

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Hotel BildungsZentrum, Basel, Switzerland.

I am staying at the Hotel BildungsZentrum in Basel, Switzerland. It is thirty-four degrees centigrade. I’m sustaining myself with delicious fresh fruit and cold green tea. Having finished my work late this morning I picked up Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, and it would appear that Levin is beginning his transformation. (more…)

Leo Tolstoy
Leo Tolstoy

I have a new routine. Since finishing my duties at the university where I work, I have been dividing my time between applying for full-time academic posts and working on a manuscript for Ibidem’s Samuel Beckett in Company series.

I rise early and prepare myself a light breakfast with a cup of green tea. I check the news headlines with a sense of stoic resignation. And then I spend some time reading and writing. After finishing Stephen King‘s The Stand a week or two ago I moved on to William Peter Blatty‘s notorious novel, The Exorcist, and then found myself completing Georges Bernanos‘ excellent Diary of a Country Priest.

Yesterday morning, I restlessly searched among my books for another novel to read. Something that might pique my interest. As someone with a tendency to collect books, there is never a shortage of titles to choose from. Among the contenders were Émile Zola‘s Germinal, and both of Gustave Flaubert‘s novels, Madame Bovary and Sentimental Education. But I stopped on Leo Tolstoy‘s Anna Karenina. I am an avid reader of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, but have never read Anna Karenina before. Somewhat ridiculously, I own two translations of the novel: the recent Pevear and Volokhonsky edition that drew critical attention and acclaim, and a 1912 translation by Louise and Aylmer Maude. According to my Everyman’s Library edition, the latter were a Quaker couple that befriended Tolstoy while living in Russia, and helped him organise the Doukhobor migration to Canada in 1893. I also find in their short biography that they “share[d] many of Tolstoy’s views on spiritual life, moral obligation, and passive resistance to violence”. I picked up the Louise and Aylmer Maude translation and began reading. (more…)

George Monbiot
George Monbiot

I spent some time this morning preparing a lecture on William Gibson‘s Burning Chrome, a collection of short stories that ushered in the science-fiction aesthetic we now think of as ‘cyberpunk’. Since Prime Minister May began the process of the UK leaving the European Union, I have reinvested in these sticky postmodern narratives of chance and possibility. I have also been distracting myself with rarely-seen photographs of filmmakers and literary figures. Among today’s treasures was an image of Leo Tolstoy emerging from a lake on his estate, and a candid photograph of Sofia Coppola and Bill Murray on the set of Lost in Translation c. 2003. I read that Patti Smith has purchased the home of French poet Arthur Rimbaud, located in the “sleep French town of Roche”. And, finally, I enjoyed looking over George Monbiot‘s career advice for those seeking to pursue life as a journalist. Among his tips? Live as cheaply as possible: “This is a good discipline for any freelancer, however well you’re doing.”

Victor Brombert discusses how literature reflects changing ideas about life, death, and the condition of mortality
Victor Brombert, Musings on Mortality: From Tolstoy to Primo Levi (University of Chicago Press, 2016)
Victor Brombert, Musings on Mortality: From Tolstoy to Primo Levi (University of Chicago Press, 2016)

What motivated you to write the book?

Probably it was an early childhood and adolescent awareness of our mortal condition, of human vulnerability in general: the death in infancy of my younger sister (I was seven years old), the assault on human life and dignity by totalitarian regimes that forced families like mine into multiple exiles, and later the experience of war and the Nazi occupation of France, our escape to the United States on an overcrowded freighter zigzagging for six weeks across the Atlantic to elude German U-boats, my joining the American army and surviving the Omaha Beach landing and the Battle of the Bulge — perhaps above all the growing belief that all valuable human achievements, especially in literature and the arts, were a defiance of death.

Your subtitle traces a history between Leo Tolstoy and Primo Levi. What is significant about these two writers?

It is a long trajectory between Tolstoy and Primo Levi. The distance and the contrast tell a story. Whereas Tolstoy in The Death of Ivan Ilych is concerned with an exemplary individual, his morally and spiritually empty life, and his ultimate salvational epiphany at the hour of death, Primo Levi by contrast is dealing with a collective moral and political context in which private salvation is no longer thinkable. The trajectory as well as the authors along the way tell the story of the 20th century as that of a growing awareness of a collective tragedy. (more…)

Source: The New Yorker.

“The recent screening of BBC’s War and Peace has inspired many a TV viewer to dust off their old copy of Tolstoy’s masterpiece and give it another go. Daring ones, seduced perhaps by the radiance of Natasha Rostova, might be persuaded to dig into the vast world of Russian literature in search of other memorable female characters. Where to begin? Look no further. Here is your guide to the VIPs of Russian literary heroines.”

— Source: Literary Hub

Worth a look for those interested in Russian literature. Although, of course, it’s important to remember that each and every character was written by a man.

Alberto Comparini (LARB) reviews a new study of the novel-essay and its place in modernity
“Hybrid genres,” and the questionable orthodoxy of traditional genres, are subjects that continue to vex literary theory. Consider Joris-Karl Huysmans’s Against Nature, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain and Doctor Faustus, Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea, or Robert Musil’s The Man without Qualities: What do these novels share? What kind of novels are they? Are these books truly novels, or are they another form altogether?

(more…)