The Bearded Russian

REFLECTIONS It is a hundred years since Leo Tolstoy died, but what strikes us most is the modernity of his prose

If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need, said Cicero. We have a garden much larger than we really need, and a library that is inevitably too small. In any season, but especially in the rains, one likes to be surrounded by piles of unexplored volumes.

But the damp here in Kerala is an enemy of books. A crisp new book has a curly cover by the time it has sat half a day on the coffee table. I check anxiously on our few prized leather-bound or cloth-covered books, when I can bear to think about them. Last monsoon, finding a fur of white fungus on my cloth-bound Everyman edition of Anna Karenina, with cleansing sunshine several weeks away, I did the unthinkable. I sold the book with the old newspapers. I still owned a fungus-free paperback edition of the book, which is my only excuse.

A month later, after talking over Tolstoy with a friend, I reread Anna Karenina for the first time in decades. I had long been irritated with the author for no fault of his, simply because superficial critics often compared this bearded Russian in a baggy smock with the incomparable George Eliot, my lifelong favourite. It was apparently considered complimentary to say that Eliot's work had a “near Tolstoyan” breadth.

They say you cannot step into the same river twice. In the case of books, the reader is the river. When I was in my teens, I found the lovers Anna and Vronsky to be the core of the novel. Now, in my forties, I was more interested, like my friend, in Tolstoy's observations on the customs and morality of 19 {+t} {+h} Century Russia. With half my mind on the coming harvest, I paid more attention to Levin's farm work than to his insipid romance with Kitty. It happened that he was scything grass just as I was scything grass. He lamented the lack of intelligent labourers to work his land just as I lamented the lack of any labourers at all. Most resonant of all was the way he despaired at his urban visitors, who marvelled and exclaimed at the freshness of the countryside without understanding how to live in it, or with it.

This year is the centenary of Leo Tolstoy's death. There will be articles and star-studded films to remind us what a giant he was. But when I read this hefty novel, I am struck most by the modernity of Tolstoy prose. In Anna Karenina, he cuts right to the meat in his first scene, a fight between husband and wife over the little matter of adultery. He knits much more loosely as the novel gets on, wandering into the politics and intellectual ideas of the time. But his observations are sharp. Perhaps he even understands women.

Now that I have read my paperback again, and in my post-monsoon remorse, I hope the pages of my Everyman edition are not wrapping peanuts on the beach, and that someone, somewhere, has picked up my Anna Karenina for a song.

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