Tolstoy in the Park

Unless I’m riding my bike or spending time with friends, you can bet that I’d rather be reading a novel. Especially Russian novels, which I studied in college to earn a degree in Russian literature.

Reading in the Park

My attachment to Russian literature began as quickly and simply as my attachment to bicycling. During my junior year of high school, I randomly grabbed a book off the library shelf – The Death of Ivan Ilych and Other Stories by Leo Tolstoy. This Tolstoy guy was like nothing I’d read before. His direct approach to life’s most important questions through perfectly executed plot and vivid characters swept me away. This Tolstoy guy wasn’t fucking around.

The Death of Ivan Ilych and Other Stories

My first semester of college, I enrolled in a Russian language course and almost immediately decided to major in Russian literature, instead of my vague plan for American literature.

Now I’m a lawyer, but I fill my free time as much as possible with reading novels. That is, when I’m not riding my bike, taking pictures or blogging. Sometimes, like today, I combine all four activities.

Bike, book, camera

Recently I finished reading War and Peace for the first time.

Voina i Mir- Po Russki

No, not in Russian! In English.

War and Peace: Epilogue, Part II

There is a reason War and Peace is called the greatest novel ever written: it is the greatest novel ever written.

War and Peace: Best. Novel. Ever.

Now I am reading – for the fourth time – Anna Karenina. I decided to leave behind my much-marked-up copy from college (how I marked my books up! instead of relaxing and letting the words flow over me) for the new translation by husband-wife duo Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.

Anna Karenina - New Translation

My Old Marked Copy: Anna's Decision

Pevear and Volokhonsky are the masters of Russian translation (I’ve also read their versions of W&P and Dostoevsky’s Demons and The Adolescent). Take this pivotal passage from Anna Karenina.

The Norton Critical Edition translation by Gibian:

That for which nearly a year had been Vronsky’s sole and exclusive desire, supplanting all his former desires: that which for Anna had been an impossible, dreadful, but all the more bewitching dream of happiness, had come to pass. Pale with trembling lower jaw, he stood over her, entreating her to be calm, himself not knowing why or how.

The Pevear and Volokhonsky translation:

That which for almost a year had constituted the one exclusive desire of Vronsky’s life, replacing all former desires; that which for Anna had been an impossible, horrible, but all the more enchanting dream of happiness – this desire had been satisfied. Pale, his lower jaw trembling, he stood over her and pleaded with her to be calm, himself not knowing why or how.

A Perfect Afternoon

So what are you waiting for? Get your paws on some Tolstoy!

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35 thoughts on “Tolstoy in the Park

  1. Anne Wong says:

    Not a huge fan of Russian Lit. I took Intro to Russian Lit my first quarter of college because it was supposed to be the most amazing course ever at my school and while the prof was absolutely amazing, I could not stand Anna Karenina. Brothers Karamazov was great, but was not a fan at all of Tolstoy.

    Beautiful pics though!

  2. Margo says:

    I love that edition of Anna Karenina, so much so that when an ex-boyfriend absconded with mine, I had to go buy myself another copy. And Anna Karenina is one of my favorite books– it’s kind of about *everything*, isn’t it? Also one of the best arguments for the necessity of communication within relationships ever! :-)

  3. Dave says:

    That reminds me, I still haven’t found a good copy of Anna Karenina since last time you mentioned you had read it :) I really need to do so and give it another try. I love Death of Ivan Illych – it was the first thing I read of Tolstoy’s as well, it’s a great story.

    Have you read The Master and Margarita by Bulgakov, or Tolstoy’s Resurrection?

    If you have any suggestions of other Russian authors to delve into as well, I’d love to try some more (besides Tolstoy, Bulgakov and Dostoyevsky).

    It’s also been far too long since I’ve laid in a park and read… though I have to say, we’ve hardly had a day at a time without rain this spring so far… hopefully that’ll let up soon, for my health and our tomatoes and peppers! :)

  4. dottie, i’m just dying over this post! bicycling, reading, and norton editions all in one post–stop, it’s too much! my girl crush is getting out of control!!

  5. limadean says:

    Great post – I love your hat!

  6. Your pictures are marvelous! Have to admit that I am a Dostoyevsky fan and am not as crazy about Tolstoy. I have not read either in English and wonder how the translated versions compare.

    • Dave says:

      If it helps at all – I’m a bigger fan of Dostoyevsky as well, after reading them only in English… Of course, that can have a lot to do with the specific translation as well – I’ve read two different translations of Master and Margarita, for instance, and while the strict content is pretty similar, the language used is quite different, and I definitely prefer one over the other.

      • Dottie says:

        I preferred Dostoevsky in college and chose his Demon’s as the subject of my honor’s thesis. The chaos and madness of his books attracted me, while I found Tolstoy a bit stodgy and didactic. That’s one reason The Brothers Karamazov was my least favorite of Dostoevsky’s – he made his point too clearly. Now I can get annoyed with D’s run-away narrators and agree more and more with T’s ideas of happiness.

        • That’s interesting. “Making his point too clearly” is precisely why I’ve never loved Tolstoy (and also DH Lawrence, whose writing style gives me a similar feeling).

          But I did re-read Anna Karenina last year and liked it better than I had 10 years previously.

  7. mtblawgirl says:

    Tolstoy and Bicycles. Be still my beating heart. I absolutely adore Tolstoy. His work just grabs you especially Anna Karenina. I also really enjoyed Resurrection. I have yet to read War and Peace but it has resided in my bookshelf for about 10 years now. Your post has reminded me that it needs to be up higher on my list. And you make an excellent point about rereading your favorites at different points in your life. Books that grabbed you at 18 may not at 30 and vice versa.

  8. Judy says:

    Dottie, what dreamy photos! Is that a Basil Mirte? I like the pattern on it.
    I minored in Russian Language and Lit. ages ago. I enjoyed Brothers Karamazov when we studied it back in the day. My favorite Russian writer is Pushkin, I enjoy his romantic stories,lol.
    Great post!

    • Dottie says:

      Cool. I haven’t read a huge amount of Pushkin, but I still have some of his poems memorized in Russian from back in the day and I’ve seen the opera for Eugene Onegin twice.

      Yes, that’s a Basil Mirte and it holds a lot. Highly recommended.

  9. Jacqui says:

    Somewhat OT: What camera is it that I can see in a couple of your pictures?

    • Dottie says:

      The camera in the pictures is a Minolta XG1 from 1979. It was my mother-in-law’s family camera back when my husband was a kid.

  10. Maria says:

    I assume you saw The Last Station. It was fantabulous!

  11. Tinker says:

    I HATED Dostoevsky, I read 5 Russian novels in High School, all by him, BARF. I really like Nabokov, however as much because Nabokov didn’t try to hide his dislike for Dostoevsky. Since Nabokov mostly wrote his novels in English that makes a good bit of difference.

    And I could never keep the names straight, Everyone had a different name for everyone else! Makes Lolita a walk in the PARK, though I did have to wash my mind out on a 30 minute Heavy Dirt Cycle, with fabric softener and bleach, afterward.

    The sheer level of wordplay was fascinating, I usually read a novel and do my own wordplay based on different names and such, his novels provided their own.

    But. I wanted to ask if you had read Lord Of The Rings, since I went to the Used Book Store (UBS) 2 weeks back and bought a very nice used 50th Anniversary edition, and the miarginal notes look very much in your style but are mostly accompanied by Yellow highlighter. No, I don’t mind, I paid $24 for a set of books that cost $66, new.

    I sit and imagine someone (like you?) reading thru this in college with their Cliff’s Notes open in their lap, scribbling away, at their expensive edition, and HATING EVERY MINUTE of it, so, later, she can sell her books and let them get into the hands of a booklover, such as myself. (I had a set of Ballantine Paperbacks, cover price $1, I read for years.) Just finishing up my 7th or 8th read through, into the 6th ‘book”.

  12. Doug says:

    In the early 90’s I read everything by Tolstoy and Dostoevsky…Tolstoy being my favorite of the two. Thanks for the reminder of how great of a writer he was. I need to re-read his works. Since I have a very poor memory, it will be like reading them for the first time.

    Another beautiful post!

  13. Frits B says:

    You might wish to change the caption to the 4th pic, after looking at the 6th pic … :-)

  14. Kari Pederson says:

    I love this post! I read both Anna Karenina and War and Peace in HS, and I’ve since re-read both of them a couple times… it’s so nice to hear from other people who have read them! Dottie– War and Peace is the greatest novel of all time. :) Thanks so much– my work day was off to a crappy beginning (broken printer, didn’t sleep well last night) but this post has cheered me up considerably. I think I’m going to go home and read either W&P or Anna Karenina over again!

  15. Kari Pederson says:

    oh– and if you haven’t read The Master and Margarita yet, read it! It’s fantastic. :)

  16. MarkA says:

    Great post! It’s great to get off the topic of bikes sometimes (but then, actually, it IS about bikes after all, isn’t it?)

    I tried Dostoevsky, Homer and Kafka just after High School and hated the first two and loved and read everything ever done by Kafka. Just recently (fast forward 10 years) I thought I’d give the 3 of them a go again and find I can barely stomach Kafka now, Homer is great (so blood thirsty! so homer-erotic haha!) and I’ve been really pleasantly surprised how much my tastes have changed. Your post has convinced me to give the old Russians a try again too. Will let you know how I get on!

  17. ian says:

    Thanks for this beautifully written blog.I’ve often wondered,what percentage of the feel of a book is the translator’s and what percentage the author’s? Your post certainly helps. regards,Ian

  18. Academichic says:

    Anna Karenina is one of my favorite novels of all time! But I’ve yet to read War and Peace. I think it might have to make it onto my summer’s reading list. Thanks for the translators’ tip and for such a beautiful post on the simple joys in life :)


    • John Nelson says:

      I just saw this post. You’ve probably already read this but if not, I think you’ll like it: The Possessed: Adventures with Russian books and the people who read them by Elif Batuman. Very funny. Here’s the review in the NYT:

      • Robert says:

        Hello! I just discovered your blog and, as a fellow bike commuter and Russian lit. major, I love it! Great writing and great photos.

        I just thought I’d mention, though, that George Gibian *edited* the Norton Critical of “Anna Karenina” but the translation is by Louise and Aylmer Maude. That just stuck out for me because George was my thesis adviser at Cornell, way back when…

        Thanks again and keep writing!

  19. Gina says:

    I just finished reading Anna Karenina for the first time last month. I enjoyed it! I’m thinking I may try to tackle War and Peace at some point.

  20. kristin says:

    i love Tolstoy, but i am ashamed to say i’ve stuck to his shorter works (The Kreutzer Sonata, The Cossacks, Resurrection, Hadji Murad, The Devil, Notes on Civil Disobedience and Nonviolence) i must get to W&P and AK. preferably during a rainy month with lots of strong black tea :-)

  21. neighbourtease says:

    I like Gogol. And Nabokov, though ok, yeah, emigré and 20th c is not the same. I would like to reread Anna Karenina. I have not read since passing a very, very snowy winter in boarding school during which it seemed we read only freezing cold snowy books. Every book was like: There was once a man with a sled. He died. I literally was going crazy — finally read Wide Sargasso Sea and started to thaw. . .

  22. Dottie says:

    Best photo ever – thanks for sharing!

  23. […] first I thought it was an actual shapka, not a helmet.  These are very on trend right now (and I do love my Anna Karenina). […]

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