Winter Reading: Tolstoy and Mann

Mark Richardson —

When I was seventeen years old, I set as a goal for myself the reading of all of the works of a certain group of authors. This group included all of the Nobel Prize in Literature laureates, a large group of classic authors whose writing lives preceded the awarding of the Prize, a large collection of modern and contemporary authors who have not won the award but whose works stand above the norm, and  certain historians, biographers, philosophers and social scientists.

The list has grown and grown, of course. With each passing year, another Nobel laureate is crowned (I still haven’t determined how I am going to handle the works of the most recent recipient, songwriter Bob Dylan!), which adds many more books to my to-read list (some of these writers are very prolific; sometimes adding a new author means adding 100 books or more). Long ago I came to the realization that my ability to read all of the works of these authors is far too limited ever to be realized. But I keep trying.

In addition, it is not unusual for me to stumble upon a heretofore unread author who I find deserving of a place in my collection. I keep an eye on the winners of the Pulitzer in fiction, in history and so on, the National Book Award winners, and other such awards, and add many of these writers, too. I buy and buy and buy books, adding them to the unread piles which only grow larger as I read more. I generally read between 100 and 200 books per year, depending upon a number of different variables. I begin each year by composing a syllabus of sorts, grouping the books I intend to read that year into some kind of sensible assembly. I then pile those books into groups of ten, and stack them up on a table. These chosen works will then constitute that year’s reading. Also included are any number of light reading books, mostly the sports books that I crave and that I have written about on Wise Guys. After a string of classics and histories, it is always a pleasure to tune the seriousness down a notch with a few baseball, hockey, football, boxing, golf, basketball and NASCAR books. So my piles of books are somewhat eclectic, encompassing many different genres.

* * *

Portrait of Leo Tolstoy
Leo Tolstoy

As the past year neared its conclusion, I approached the end of one of my book piles and found myself face to face with Leo Tolstoy and Thomas Mann. Tolstoy’s War and Peace stared me in the face. Needless to say, I was intimidated. So, I substituted War and Peace with another Tolstoy book, Resurrection. I have done this from time to time in the past, as the sense of dread that overtakes me as I think of delving into War and Peace seizes me, and I convince myself that deviating from the syllabus might not hurt anything. So Resurrection it was. This was Tolstoy’s final novel. He had by this time grown old, and he questioned the validity of his earlier works. He had developed a great disregard for those things he had previously written, and he was growing less and less fond of his profession. He called both War and Peace and Anna Karenina trash, and said that he regretted ever writing them. Critics, of course, would beg to differ. But Tolstoy, as he aged, was driven more and more to the abandonment of all that had come before in his life.  Upon finishing Resurrection, he made the decision to write no more, and even the exhortations of his good friend Ivan Turgenev could not sway him to change his mind.

Resurrection is the story of a wealthy landowner, Nekhludov, who undergoes a crisis of conscience over the life he has led. The story was suggested to Tolstoy by a newspaper article he had read. The factual story involved a man who was chosen as a juror in a criminal case. Upon being seated in the courtroom, he discovered that the accused woman was one whom he had wronged and then abandoned when both were young. Tolstoy took this story and ran with it. The accused woman and two others have been brought to trial for the robbery and murder of a man. The woman, a prostitute named Katusha, was duped by the others into helping them. She had been told that a robbery was planned, but not that a murder would also take place. She was asked to administer a drink containing a drug which would render the victim unconscious, after which her accomplices would commit the robbery. She did as she was asked, and then left the room, after which the other two robbed and killed the man.

All three were charged with murder. After hearing all of the evidence, the jury intended to find Katusha guilty of the robbery but not guilty of the murder. However, an error in the delivery of the verdict to the judge led to a guilty verdict for murder being entered for all three. Nekhludov, feeling that it was his misuse of the woman when she was younger that had set her upon her downward path in life, begins what turns out to be an impossible attempt to right the wrong of the verdict, as well as that of his early treatment of Katusha. He decides that he must accompany her to her place of punishment, Siberia.

Family members were allowed to serve the sentences along with the convicted if they wished, in order to keep the family all together. To do this, Nekhludov must marry Katusha. Katusha, however, upon remembering the man she had loved as a youth, has come to hate him and wants no part of marrying him. Nekhludov now has a two-fold task before him. He must work to overturn the inadvertent guilty verdict, while at the same time convincing Katusha to forgive him and marry him.

The task first involves a Kafkaesque runaround between one branch of government after another, as each tells him that they have no authority to overturn the verdict but that if he will only go to this other agency they will be able to help him. The second revolves around his efforts to persuade Katusha to hear him out as he explains what she clearly has no interest in hearing. In the process of the self-examination which accompanies his efforts, he decides that the only way his own guilt can be assuaged is to give up all of his land holdings. He devises a plan to turn all of his land over to the peasants who work it for him. The peasants, though, feeling that the master who they have always known to feel so far superior to themselves, want no part of his mad scheme to give them his land. They can’t decide whether he has taken leave of his senses or if this is some kind if elaborate swindle, but they do not trust him to ever do anything that is more in their interest than in his own. So his plans, which began with the simple quest to do right by Katusha, have now become so entangled that everyone who knows him has begun to think that he has gone insane.

It is a wonderful story, the resolution of which I will leave untold. I can only recommend this book. It is a Tolstoy greatly evolved beyond that of his early shorter works (The Cossacks, The Raid, The Death of Ivan Illych) and every bit as intriguing as the Tolstoy of Anna Karenina. It is a magnificent wintertime read.

* * *

Thomas Mann

I had previously read quite a bit of Thomas Mann. I read Death In Venice, Stories of Three Decades, The Holy Sinner, Felix Krull, and Lotte In Weimar: The Beloved Returns, but I had put off reading his two masterpieces—the books that were cited by the Nobel committee in awarding Mann the Nobel Prize in 1929: Buddenbrooks and The Magic Mountain. So after finishing Tolstoy, I thought I’d crack open Buddenbrooks and see what all the fuss was about. I had thoroughly enjoyed Mann’s stories I had read earlier, and I was astounded by the novel The Holy Sinner, so I was expecting great things. But I don’t think I was prepared for greatness encountered in Buddenbrooks. What a truly amazing book!

Buddenbrooks is a large, sprawling saga of four generations of the Buddenbrook family, a wealthy merchant family of early- to late-nineteenth century Germany. The family business is that of grain merchants, and they are among the more prominent of German families. They supply the country with grains and the political establishment with Senators and Representatives. They are the movers and shakers of German society. And with each passing generation, they are a family in decline.

As the novel opens, old Johann Buddenbrook is feuding with his eldest son, Gotthold, who he feels is too selfish and unconcerned with the family business to succeed him as head of the company. Cutting Gotthold out of the business, his will, and his life, Consul Johann arranges for second son Thomas to take over when Johann decides to retire. A third son, Christian, another ne’er-do-well, a young daughter, Antoine (called Tonie by friends and family), and Clothilde, the daughter of Johann’s nephew who has come to live with the family, along with Johann’s wife, Frau Consul Buddenbrook (nee Kroger, of the very prominent Kroger family) and Tonie’s nanny, Ida Jungmann, round out the household.

This family group changes frequently as the years progress, with marriages, deaths, births, divorces and the normal run of life occurs. The family and the business experience great successes, disastrous failures, deep loves, equally deep hatreds, scandals, and the erosion that must inevitably come as each generation gets a little further away from the beliefs and ideals of old Johann. The novel is replete with picture-painting imagery and symbolism, and each page is a new discovery in what great literature can be. If you have never read Mann, you have missed one of the great writers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

* * *

Together, these two novels by Mann and Tolstoy have made for a great many days of wonderful winter reading. The reason they will live forever on the shelf of great classics is the universality of their themes and the splendor of the writing, the mastery of the written word that allows their translation into English to maintain the beauty and integrity of the authors’ works. I can think of no better way to spend a cold day than to pick up these books and experience life as it is seen through the eyes of two great writers.

3 thoughts on “Winter Reading: Tolstoy and Mann

  1. I am quite amazed at your reading schedule, and as well, your ability to embrace so many authors and different disciplines. My reading schedule is much slower due to some unexpected challenges, but still, I am quite impressed with your ability to read. I wish you could inspire young students to begin that life long journey, as many are quite disinterested in reading. Hope to read about your adventures soon in Wiseguys.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you DeWitt. My love of reading is another of the many gifts given me by my mother. She taught me the alphabet and how to read before I began school as a child. She encouraged me to read every day, bought me books and magazines from the time I can first remember, and shared her love for the written word me. I owe everything to her…everything.


  2. Connecting your last two postings, Mark, advise me if I’m correct here:
    Lefty pitches to Mann, who loops one over Scooter, but Hankus Pankus in a sliding stab appears to snag the spheroid, but Umpire Tolstoy in short left says No, then Well Maybe, then throws up his hands, indicating Too Close to Call!


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