Showing posts from February, 2015

The sad story of Tolstoy’s favorite daughter

When you know the life story of Tolstoy's second daughter, Maria, you are particularly touched by her father’s words about her in a letter to his aunt, Alexandra Andreyevna: “The fifth, Masha is two years old, the one whose birth nearly cost Sonya her life. A weak and sickly child. Body white as milk, curly white hair; big, queer blue eyes, queer by reason of their deep, serious expression. Very intelligent and ugly. She will be one of the riddles; she will suffer, she will seek and find nothing, will always be seeking what is least attainable.” [Translated by George Calderon for the book “Reminiscences of Tolstoy”]
The birth of Maria Lvovna Tolstaya (1871-1906) was the cause of the first serious conflict between Leo Tolstoy and Sofia Tolstaya. While breastfeeding one-year-old Lyovushka, Tolstoy's wife realized she was pregnant again, which she was not pleased about. She was tired of giving birth and breastfeeding; she was tired of feeling like a breeding animal rather than a wo…

Victor Serge: Midnight in the Century

About halfway through this novel, we find ourselves at the head of a queue for cigarettes in the no-horse town of Chernaya (or “black-waters”). It’s , essentially a penal colony. There are two other queues, for bread and kerosene, but, as the novel puts it: “Right now the third queue, for cigarettes, is the most interesting since the cigarettes are there.” Anyway, Rodion – a young, self-educated man who’s ended up in Chernaya for innocently making the Communist party look ridiculous by, among other things, quoting from a year-old issue of Pravda – hands over his money, which the clerk just sweeps up and says “Next” without handing over the goods. And why should he? “The counter-revolution,” as someone else in the queue explains, “has no right to them.” Elsewhere, a friend tries to look on the bright side; the sun is shining. “Remember the sunshine of this moment. The greatest joy on earth, love apart, is sunshine in your veins.”
“And thought?” asked Rodion. “Thought?”
“Ah! Right now it’s …

The Other Tolstoy and the Book of Night

It seemed like sensational news to me. I’m not sure why it hasn’t become more of a high-profile issue in literary circles. I found it to be—in the words of Mary McCarthy’s awestruck review of Nabokov’s Pale Fire—“A bolt from the blue.”

After all, this is a revelation about the mind of Lev Nikolaevitch Tolstoy. That Tolstoy, you know, the Russian novelist? Conventionally credited with being the greatest illuminator of the human experience in literature? The same one who—and fewer readers are aware of this—late in his life turned into a sex-hating crank who (seriously) argued that the extinction of the human species would be a small price to pay for the immediate cessation of all sexual intercourse. Everyone, everywhere. You there, hiding in the shadows: Stop fucking now!

And fewer still are aware of Tolstoy’s devastating “consolatory” response when it was pointed out to him that cessation of all sex would mean the rapid extinction of the human species.

He replied with what might be the s…

Vladimir Mayakovsky - Biography

'When I woke up Mayakovsky/ he was a lot more prompt,” complains the sun to the American poet Frank O’Hara in his poem “A True Account of Talking to the Sun on Fire Island”. The less-than-prompt O’Hara draws an ironic contrast between his own poetic persona – a Fifties New York aesthete who dashed out verse during his lunch breaks – and Mayakovsky, the whirlwind Russian who composed grandiose, sprawling poems about revolution, romantic love, the Soviet Union and himself. The 1920 poem in which Mayakovsky “gossiped” with the sun is described by Bengt Jangfeldt, his Swedish biographer, as “a much-needed break from the poetic emergency service he had devoted himself to since the outbreak of the First World War”. Mayakovsky contained at least two poets. One was the intensely individual, avant-garde visionary who burst into genius with the early poem “A Cloud in Trousers”. The other was the patriotic, Left-wing agitator who willingly put his talent for rhyme and wordplay to the service …