Being an independent escort in Manchester isn’t all glamour and excitement, you know. Sometimes I just sit around in my underwear waiting for the phone to ring. And while I can fritter away many an hour just fussing with my hair and commenting on the Metal Sucks blog, I do sometimes manage to read the odd book now and then.
Today I started to read The Kreutzer Sonata by Tolstoy. Miranda at Terrorizer Magazine told me it was her favourite book a few weeks back and I put it on my mental to-read list. It’s too early to say what I think of it, but I have high hopes for it. I’ve read Anna Karenina and The Death of Ivan Illych, but I didn’t get more than a hundred or so pages into War and Peace before life interfered and I had to set it down. It’s not the sort of book you can just pick up and leave off casually, and I’m going to have to set aside some real quality time before I start it, again. I’m not really in any hurry because I have the feeling that once I’ve read War and Peace, there’s never going to be another book as good and that will make me sad.
I would say that Anna Karenina is the best book I’ve ever read. I am not a great judge of literature and I’m not widely read, so my opinion probably doesn’t mean much. But I am in awe of Tolstoy’s writing. He writes like God. I am not even sure if there is a God, but reading Tolstoy makes me think there must be. He somehow knows things that he couldn’t possibly know. Like what it’s like to die, or what it’s like to nurse an infant. And he writes very simply. There are no fancy flourishes of writerly showmanship. Everything is very clear and very straightforward. He just seems to reflect an objective truth about life in every passage.
I’ve read some of his non-fiction as well. His Confession, which is an explanation of his life-long spiritual quest for religious truth, mirrored very closely that which is experienced by Levin in Anna Karenina. And I really enjoyed his book What is Art? He starts out attempting to define the word “art” and arrives at something along the lines of “art is the means by which a person uses sound, movement, words, shapes, colours or lines to transmit an emotion to another person.” I really should look up exactly what he wrote, but that book is downstairs and my bed is too cozy. I was just impressed at his ability to come up with a definition of “art” that seemed more satisfactory than any other attempt I’d ever read. And his description of an evening he spent watching an opera by Wagner had me laughing out loud. I am not entirely sure that I agreed with his entire argument, as it ends up saying that about the only worthwhile art is folk art, but I really enjoyed reading what he had to say.
Probably my favourite thing Tolstoy ever wrote, however, was an essay on Shakespeare. Until I read it, I thought that I was somehow fundamentally missing something because I just don’t see what the big deal about Shakespeare is. I thought that I must be somehow very stupid. But Tolstoy is clearly not stupid and this is what he had to say:
I remember the astonishment I felt when I first read Shakespeare. I expected to receive a powerful esthetic pleasure, but having read, one after the other, works regarded as his best: “King Lear,” “Romeo and Juliet,” “Hamlet” and “Macbeth,” not only did I feel no delight, but I felt an irresistible repulsion and tedium, and doubted as to whether I was senseless in feeling works regarded as the summit of perfection by the whole of the civilized world to be trivial and positively bad, or whether the significance which this civilized world attributes to the works of Shakespeare was itself senseless. My consternation was increased by the fact that I always keenly felt the beauties of poetry in every form; then why should artistic works recognized by the whole world as those of a genius,—the works of Shakespeare,—not only fail to please me, but be disagreeable to me? For a long time I could not believe in myself, and during fifty years, in order to test myself, I several times recommenced reading Shakespeare in every possible form, in Russian, in English, in German and in Schlegel’s translation, as I was advised. Several times I read the dramas and the comedies and historical plays, and I invariably underwent the same feelings: repulsion, weariness, and bewilderment. At the present time, before writing this preface, being desirous once more to test myself, I have, as an old man of seventy-five, again read the whole of Shakespeare, including the historical plays, the “Henrys,” “Troilus and Cressida,” the “Tempest,” “Cymbeline,” and I have felt, with even greater force, the same feelings,—this time, however, not of bewilderment, but of firm, indubitable conviction that the unquestionable glory of a great genius which Shakespeare enjoys, and which compels writers of our time to imitate him and readers and spectators to discover in him non-existent merits,—thereby distorting their esthetic and ethical understanding,—is a great evil, as is every untruth.
Wow! Bold words!
He then goes on to use King Lear as an example in order to point out what he considers ridiculous about Shakespeare’s plays. In short, he finds the characters and their actions too illogical to be even remotely believable. I suffered through King Lear at university and, while I wasn’t clever enough to recognise what I hated about it at the time (probably because I was too busy trying to figure out what the archaic language meant), I think I was underwhelmed because the entire story just seemed ridiculous and hysterical.
As is so often the case, I need someone far smarter than myself to tell me why I liked or didn’t like something. I will like or dislike according to my own tastes, but I cannot always identify what is making the impression upon me. I am not very good at analysing literature at all. Even the most profoundly affecting books have to slowly percolate through me over months and even years until I come across something or someone in my life that mirrors what I have gleaned from reading. Then I will think “Oh! He is just like that old preacher in Light in August!” and I will then understand both that person and the book where before I did not.