CHILDHOOD, BOYHOOD, AND YOUTH

Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910)

He was born in the familial manor of the Tolstoys near the village of Petrovskoe.  He had a tutor, Karl Ivanitch, a German professor who tickled Leo’s toes in the morning to get him up and had a penchant for making things out of cardboard.  Karl’s book collection was eclectic:  a History of Voyages, Manuring Cabbages in Kitchen Gardens, a History of the Seven Years’ War, and a Course of Hydrostatics.  Torn maps hung on the little schoolroom wall along with a blackboard and a stove.  Karl was not a tyrannical pedagogue;  he was kind and fond of his pupils, and sympathetic to their learning idiosyncracies, which included yelling, running around and occasional practical jokes.

Another intermittent occupant of the house was Grisha, a semi-moronic peasant who loaded himself with chains and spent his nights in the attic moaning to himself.  When Leo was ten, he and his brother Woloda traveled to Moscow with their father to stay with their grandmother and to become a bit more civilized.  But before they left the family went on a picnic.  The weather was hot, the butterflies fluttered about, birds celebrated life, the local river proffered fish and swimming, and there was a sort of hunt.  Leo was told to catch a rabbit but he became distracted with a colony of ants and some butterflies.  When the two carriages left the next day, crowds of serfs saw them off together with the mother in tears and various housemaids and servants waving pieces of white linen.

Arriving at grandmother’s house, there were more servants to sort them out and visitors came frequently to entertain the two boys while their father went out to earn money.  He was a professional gambler.  Being short, stout and rather ugly, Leo had some unfortunate social experiences which left him disconsolate and eremitic.  Once he forgot his gloves and had to wear an old dirty one at a dance;  this appeared to be a traumatic experience for him.  In the interim, Leo’s mother died and they returned to Petrovskoe.

Tolstoy considered that the second part of his history, Boyhood, began with his mother’s death.  After a period of mourning the family returned to grandmother’s house in Moscow, leaving the country place in the hands of servants.  A new tutor was hired, Monsieur St. Jerome, a young person with ambitions.  The immediate friction between St. Jerome and Leo resulted from the somewhat corporeal habit of the former’s teaching philosophy.  Leo became unmanageable, breaking glasses and mirrors and spending a lot of time hiding in closets.  He became aware of mathematics and much preferred that subject to history, which he tried to ignore.  By the age of fourteen, though, Leo, through observing servants, became cognizant of love, gradually achieved some scholastic kudos and actually became friends with St. Jerome.  During this period he learned the importance of social behavior and grew to be picky about his habiliments and his comportment in social venues.

His search for “moral improvement” came to occupy much of his time and interest.  He developed a few generalizations about behavior:  that the past could be eliminated by turning over a new leaf and that superior, upperclass demeanor was imperative if he desired the admiration of others.  He wrote a list of Rules for himself regarding his connection with the outside world and attempted to associate with the noble elements of society only.  This included some of his elder brother’s friends who drank a lot and conducted themselves in cynical fashion and never seemed to study.  Throughout this interval (which Leo labeled his “Youth” autobiographical segment) he became anxious over his upcoming university entrance exams and began studying more intensively.  As a result, he passed the exams in history, math and Latin and was admitted.  His father gave him money a carriage of his own, horses, and a uniform (he needed one to attend classes).

Leo didn’t study.  He made friends, visited other members of the nobility, went to a lot of parties, debated philosophy and politics with various sorts of advocate, and spent money.  As a result when the finals arrived an academic year later, he was “plucked” (British slang for flunking out).  It was only at this juncture that Leo began to suspect that there was more to life than behaving cynically, attending parties, and dressing well.  He writes a new set of “Rules” and at this point the book ends.

This was rather an eye-opener for me.  I’d never thought of Tolstoy as a real person with faults and characteristics, but just as a sort of mystical guru living in the countryside and writing novels.  But he was quite different than that.  He was one of those people who are terrific observers, and he possessed the  mathematical ability to arrange what what he perceived in logical order:  probably one of the traits that made him a world-class author.  Nevertheless he lacked a certain kind of perception:  the kind that might have enabled him to see beneath the surface of the upperclass society that he lived in.  I think he might have developed it later, but there’s no more autobiography to read, so the question remains unanswered.  The prose in this work is occasionally remarkable:  unlike the best Nature writers, he hadn’t the gift of reeling out pages of lucid and dramatic description, but he had the ability, in just a few sentences, to make a vista, a rainstorm, a sunlit meadow, explode into the reader’s brainpan.  It was quite surprising when it happened and the made the book scintillate briefly, like a bursting coal in the late ashes of a wood fire.  I enjoyed it.

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20 thoughts on “CHILDHOOD, BOYHOOD, AND YOUTH”

  1. I can see how you enjoyed it, Mudpuddle. I’ve always thought biographies much more appealing if their subjects were authentic humans. That means faults and foibles as well as strengths and even triumphs. It all makes for much more interesting reading.

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  2. i think so too, Margot… there was much more in the book than what i cited, of course… i wish he would have written more on his later years to see how he turned out; maybe i’ll look for a biography, of which there must be many…

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    1. it is indeed, Pat… at that time the country was run by the nobility and the serfs were like slaves: they couldn’t even marry without the lord’s permission, and they couldn’t leave and weren’t paid anything… reading this made me grateful to be alive now and not then, in spite of all the dire current events…

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  3. Your fine posting reminds me of a puzzle that often pesters me: shall I read authors’ works, biographies, or both … what advantages and disadvantages lurk in the choices? Some people never care about authors but only the works. I’ve encountered authors’ lives that have poisoned my attitude toward the works. So, the puzzle persists!

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    1. it can be difficult that’s for sure… my solution is to pick up a book and if it seems loaded or illogical, to quit reading it… but every reader has their own formula, i think…

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  4. Fascinating post. I knew almost nothing about Tolstoy himself. It is interesting how we create images of artists based upon thier work. Learning about their real lives has also been an eye opener for me in many cases. I just read Anna Karenina. Tolstoy really has a fascinating mind.

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    1. i read his two biggies early on and was always curious about him… it was interesting to discover that his early life was just as messed up as anyone else’s haha… lately i’ve also read some of his short stories; they’re quite interesting i thought…

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  5. “I’d never thought of Tolstoy as a real person with faults and characteristics, but just as a sort of mystical guru living in the countryside and writing novels.”
    Surprising that you wrote that, because I’ve always thought Tolstoy the real person was crazy. Tolstoy the author however is the greatest novelist of all time. With some crazy ideas.
    I’ve read this book. And liked it.

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    1. i can’t say i was crazy about it, but i thought it was revealing and surprising… frankly, it’s hard for me to believe that he could remember all that stuff; i guess i question the truth of a lot of it… but i think the part about his gradually learning what was required to lead a satisfactory life was probably legitimate… i think that’s a process we all go through when young… tx for the comment, Di…

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  6. You think Tolstoy didn’t see beneath the surface of the upperclass society even though he lived in it a good amount of his life? Interesting? I thought he was amazingly perceptive in certain cases but perhaps it depended on the time of his life in which he wrote. I think, for him in particular, it would be beneficial to read all of his works in chronological order.

    BTW, I love the metaphor you used at the end of your review. Very Tolstoy-ish! 😉

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    1. i guess i wasn’t very clear about that… what i meant to say was that, as the book indicates, it took him time to understand that what people did in society and how they actually were as beings are two different things. society demands artificial behaviors, adhering to arbitrary standards in order to succeed that may be contrary to how we feel as a private being. A person can’t just mindlessly perform in public to a certain caliber and not have any integrity to back his performance or he/she’ll implode… amoral or unethical behavior leads to a false life don’t you think?

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  7. I love Tolstoy! I think he had a very deep understanding of human nature and its frailties and he still found much to applaud in them. I have not read this biography and it does seem that he moved from this stage in life to better understand mankind and write of them. This brings to mind the character of Levin from Anna Karenina who found the lifestyles of the nobility frivolous and found a lot of happiness and peace in the countryside. I begin to think that Levin was Tolstoy’s evolved conscience. I must read some of biographies of Tolstoy! Thank You for an excellent review!

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    1. you could well be right, Cirtnecce… i am not aware that T wrote any more autobiographical material per se, but certainly the last few pages of this book indicated that he experienced at some point a kind of satori about life and reality… no other way to account for the genius of his later works, i think…

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  8. What an interesting life! I have yet to read anything by or about Tolstoy. He’s like Victor Hugo to me… someone I *ought* to have read but keep putting off. I like to think that when I finally read him, I will be older and wiser and better able to appreciate his writing. 😉

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    1. If you feel intimidated by “Anna Karenina” or “War and Peace”, start with the short stories. Like “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” for example. Or “Master and Man”, “Three Deaths”, “The Forced Coupon”, etc.
      Just stay away from “The Kreutzer Sonata” haha.

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      1. i’ve never read Kreutzer Sonata probably because i’ve never heard anything good said about it… i agree with Di that the short stories, without being world-shaking, are almost always worthwhile reading…

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    2. in some ways he’s a bit dated, i think… mainly he’s a story teller, tho, and he’s good enough at it that his work is almost always readable and sometimes enjoyable…

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      1. I do wonder at your seemingly unenthusiastic comments, haha, like you don’t think very highly of Tolstoy, whereas I see him as the greatest novelist of all time.

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  9. frankly, i think there are better writers… it’s admittedly hard to tell, because he didn’t write in english, but that’s how i feel… good chance it’s because i’m not aware of what makes good lit. i’ve never claimed to be a professional critic or reviewer: i just like to read and share, is all…

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