Monday, July 18, 2011

The Cossacks - book

The Cossacks, Leo Tolstoy, (originally completed in 1862).

How is it, you might wonder, that I have just read The Cossacks, a book so old and out of date as to be virtually forgotten even by fans of Tolstoy? This might be doubly puzzling since I admittedly do little reading during the summer. Well, it’s like this, the weather was rainy and cold most of the time this year until recently. It has now turned uncomfortably warm so if you wish to work outside in the garden or elsewhere you must do so early in the day and then retire into the relative coolness of the house. I have concluded after many years of complaining about it that television is not worth watching. The commercials are basically insulting, the regular programming on the major networks is perhaps even more insulting, and I do not have the attention span to keep me on the internet for very long. I do not like parlor games and would have no one to play them with anyway, other than my wife who is far too busy to engage in such frittering away of time. I have no hobby other than collecting sex advice for women as it appears on women’s magazine covers (that I have been neglecting now for some time), and my correspondence is now down to only one person who still uses the old-fashioned U.S. mail. I am completely uninterested in either Facebook or Twitter that I regard as probably the worst communication devices ever devised. I do, however, look forward in the future to the publication of volumes of “The collected twitters of so-and-so Twit.” Happily, there are still books. At loose ends one afternoon I turned to our personal library and discovered a Modern Library edition of The Cossacks. Of course I have read Tolstoy before, I’m not entirely illiterate. But I read War and Peace and Anna Karenina so long ago I had more or less forgotten the experiences. I had not previously read The Cossacks and was, in fact, not previously even aware of it.

What a joy and a pleasure to read such a fine book, if even to escape for a short time the never ending lies and hypocrisy of our current political scene. The Cossacks is a short work, especially when compared with Tolstoy’s other more famous works, scarcely more than a novella. It is a simple story (very complicated as all serious simple stories are) about a young man born into privilege in Russia who, disenchanted with his life in society, and in debt from his gambling and life-style, enlists as a cadet in the Russian military and is sent for duty to the Caucasus where he lives in a Cossack village and begins to contrast life there with his former life. He hunts and drinks with the villagers and comes to love the place, the mountains and rivers, the pace of life, and eventually one of the most beautiful of the Cossack young women. She is engaged to the finest of the young Cossack men, a handsome, romantic character that spends his time stealing horses and becoming famous by killing Chechens. In short, the very epitome of an independent Cossack man, hunter and fighter. Of course the young Russian eventually becomes obsessed with the girl, professes his love, and asks her to marry him, a virtually unthinkable marriage as wealthy Russians did not ordinarily marry Cossacks. As he is wealthy, and as her fiancĂ© is absent, she appears to be considering the proposal. Just as the triangle appears to be heading for a collision her fiancĂ© is shot in the stomach by the brother of a Chechen he previously killed and may be dying. The girl is obviously upset and when pressed to marry the Russian turns on him and makes it clear she would never consider such a thing. He learns that however much he loves her, however much he loves the village and the people, the mountains, steppes, and the river, and however much he thinks he might aspire to becoming a Cossack, it is fundamentally out of the question, he would never be accepted as a Cossack. He requests a transfer and sadly leaves the village, realizing that he will be forgotten before he even disappears from sight.

Tolstoy was only thirty when he completed The Cossacks. There is no doubt the feelings and emotions described of the Russian cadet, his confusion over his life and what life should truly be about, reflect Tolstoy’s own disaffection with his own status in life, his growing identification with his serfs and the inequalities involved in Russian life, his developing pacifism and interest in non-violent protest that had such an influence on Gandhi. What makes the book such a wonderful reading experience, however, is Tolstoy’s wonderful ability to write prose. The book is quite ethnographic and describes in considerable detail the Cossack culture of that time, but ethnography is not the goal of the story, but just emerges naturally from Tolstoy’s marvelous descriptive passages and even through his characters. He was, of course, a “realist,” and his writings reflect his interest in that form of writing (he was such a realist he did not describe War and Peace as a novel). His prose is simple and straightforward, there are no pretensions, no convoluted sentences, no esoteric words, no nonsense, and yet it is so flowing and readable it is, to me at least, almost magical. I have always regretted not being able to read Tolstoy in the original Russian as it must be an even more magical experience. Alas, I have always been too lazy and too undisciplined to even attempt to learn Russian.

Of course the book is dated. Modern day Cossacks I am sure are very different. There are a few things I confess to not fully understanding about their lives and material goods, but the story itself is not dated, it could be told over and over again in any language. I enjoyed learning about the Cossacks and their lives so long ago, and having now a much better understanding of their place in Russian society. If you find yourself too cold, or too hot, or with time on your hands, enjoy one of the truly great writers of all time.

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