Today is the centenary of Tolstoy’s death. There has been a lot of recognition of the great man’s anniversary in the west. A chunk of the commentary has highlighted how little attention has been paid to the event in Russia, despite the synonymity of writer and country in the eyes of many foreigners. Rosamund Bartlett, who has translated Chekov and written widely on Russian culture, writes brilliantly about this in her blog. I cannot begin to comment knowledgeably on her insights into the ambivalent relationship of the later Communist and post-Communist regimes to Tolstoy.
Equally interesting is James Meek’s long article in today’s Guardian. He writes about attending the conference being held at Tolstoy’s estate Yasnaya Polyana. This is where Tolstoy wrote War and Peace and Anna Karenina. He suggests that in the west, we tend to think of Tolstoy first as a writer, and only secondarily as a radical philosopher and humanitarian, still less as an active presence in the complex politics of late 19th century Russia. Russians, on the other hand, give the work of the last decades much greater prominence. Bartlett points out, for example, that for many years Russian children were given Lenin’s 1908 panygeric of Tolstoy, entitled Tolstoy as the Mirror of the Russian Revolution as compulsory reading, way ahead of his fiction. (The Leninist praise followed by Stalin’s exile of Tolstoyans is of course its own saga.)
Meek talks about a friend of his, Russian writer Vladimir Berezins, who tell us that the classical novel, the kind of book that Tolstoy wrote, that’s finished. I found it very depressing. I like reading big books. Berezins seems to base this both on the cost structures of publishing, and on the shortened attention span of his children, but of course this fits with many other gloomy prognostications of the death of the novel. He allows the continued production of genre novels, decrying them as ‘written to order’.
This gave me a cheering clue. After all, War and Peace was first published in its entirety 53 years after the 1812 invasion it portrays. That nearly classifies it as historical fiction. And Anna Karenina is a stunning weepy romance. They are, of course, so many other things. It seems to me that great writing comes in many forms, one of which remains the long, fictional, prose narrative. All the new technologies offer new forms and opportunities, but they don’t lay waste to the old ones.