Russian literature is something I’m completely unfamiliar with. So when The Classic Circuit announced Tour on Imperial Russian Literature, I knew I had to partake in some way. I wouldn’t have enough time to read a full-length novel (what with Russian novels all look so freakin thick), so I was looking for short stories. I went for the names I recognized. Since I’ve read a Chekhov’s story before, it was either a Tolstoy’s or a Dovtoyevsky’s for me (only after a few searches did I start to spell his name properly). A quick search on Stanza brought me to Best Russian Short Stories on Project Gutenberg, compiled by Thomas Seltzer, which looks promising. This collection features The Christmas Tree and The Wedding by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, God Sees the Truth, But Waits by Leo Tolstoy, and many others. The introduction by Seltzer struck me:
When the Englishman Dickens wrote with his profound pity and understanding of the poor, there was yet a bit; of remoteness, perhaps, even, a bit of caricature, in his treatment of them. He showed their sufferings to the rest of the world with a “Behold how the other half lives!” The Russian writes of the poor, as it were, from within, as one of them, with no eye to theatrical effect upon the well-to-do. There is no insistence upon peculiar virtues or vices. The poor are portrayed just as they are, as human beings like the rest of us.
However at the end I settled on the story in DailyLit’s Classic Shorts: Eight Stories for the Summer because it came at a great timing and I love their format more. The Russian shorts featured in the collection are A Doctor’s Visit by Anton Chekhov and Ivan the Fool by Leo Tolstoy. So Tolstoy it is. I’m thinking it’s also good to dip my toe in the water before reading Anna Karenina next year.
Ivan the Fool is surprisingly simple story. It reads almost like a children folktale/fairy tale. Three brothers with different ideals go their own separate ways. One with an ambition to conquer, one to be wealthy, and the last one–the Fool–pursues nothing but happiness in simple life. The devils try their hardest to create troubles for the brothers as they’re not happy to see peace.
Curious about what was behind the story, I quickly googled it, to find University of Adelaide website (which looks great) that has the story available online. According to the unknown translator’s preface:
The story of “Ivan the Fool” portrays Tolstoi’s communistic ideas, involving the abolition of military forces, middlemen, despotism, and money. Instead of these he would establish on earth a kingdom in which each and every person would become a worker and producer. The author describes the various struggles through which three brothers passed, beset as they were by devils large and small, until they reached the ideal state of existence which he believes to be the only happy one attainable in this world.
Well that makes so much sense! Thank you Mr Unknown Translator.
If Anna Karenina is as easily readable as Ivan the Fool, I’d nothing to worry about!