The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘Leo Tolstoy’

Still Flaming After All These Years, and Other News

June 12, 2015 | by


Frederic Lord Leighton, Flaming June, 1830–1896.

  • Everyone holds up Anna Karenina as a milestone for realism—“We are not to take Anna Karénine as a work of art; we are to take it as a piece of life,” Matthew Arnold wrote—but Janet Malcolm raises an eyebrow at all that. “The book’s ‘astonishing immediacy’ is nothing if not an object of the exaggeration, distortion, and dissimulation through which each scene is rendered … If the dream is father to imaginative literature, Tolstoy may be the novelist who most closely hews to its deep structures.”
  • Now at the Frick Collection: Frederic Leighton’s Flaming June, an iconic Victorian painting whose subject’s well-developed right thigh set the world on fire. “The beautiful woman asleep in some archaic past was a recurrent motif in Victorian art … The figure of the languid woman is more than just an object of erotic desire. She’s the opposite of the rationalist, ever-striving, murderously competitive spirit—once conventionally thought of as distinctively masculine. She embodies a yearning to relax, to retire from the fray and take pleasure in just being alive.”
  • Jenny Diski is dying of lung cancer, and facing the illness the only way she knows how: in prose. “A marvel of steady and dispassionate self-revelation, Diski’s cancer essays are bracingly devoid of sententiousness, sentimentality or any kind of spiritual urge or twitch … they also testify to an inner life of undiminished hyperactivity.”
  • Nesh, gloaming, cochineal, swamm, clart: writers pick their favorite words. “The chosen words are mostly regional, often monosyllabic, and frequently richly onomatopoeic: the natural poetry of the heterogeneous English-speaking tongue.”
  • In which Orson Welles dabbles in pornography: in a pro-bono gig for the picture 3 A. M., the filmmaker “wound up editing a hard-core lesbian shower scene that he couldn’t resist cutting in Wellesian fashion with low camera angles and other trademark flair.”

Bright Lights, Big City

February 2, 2015 | by


From the giveaway table.

I’ve mentioned my building’s giveaway table in this space before. If you’re clearing your bookshelves, you can leave just about any volume on the table and find it snapped up with gratifying alacrity. I’ve scavenged treasures aplenty there, and marveled at all manner of curiosities: The Kosher Cajun CookbookCelebrity Vineyards, Who’s Who in Dogs, a CD of music for kids called Oy Baby!, and The Winds of Fortune: the Memoirs of Guy de Rothschild. (Incidentally, if anyone is studying macroeconomics, there’s a pretty good line in used textbooks.) 

But over the weekend, I picked up something different. It’s an old Modern Library hardcover of War and Peace, the Constance Garnett translation. And there, on the flyleaf, is an inscription: Read More »

Tolstoy’s Insufficient Firmness, and Other News

January 16, 2015 | by


Tolstoy in 1851, when he just couldn’t seem to do a single damn thing right.

  • Here’s a self-effacing diary entry from March 1851 in which Tolstoy chronicles his flaws, hour by hour—part of a larger project in which he evaluates his own ethics. How many of these peccadilloes have you committed today? “Koloshin (Sergei) came to drink vodka, I did not escort him out (cowardice). At Ozerov’s argued about nothing (habit of arguing) and did not talk about what I should have talked about (cowardice). Did not go to Beklemishev’s (weakness of energy). During gymnastics did not walk the rope (cowardice), and did not do one thing because it hurt (sissiness).—At Gorchakov’s lied (lying). Went to the Novotroitsk tavern (lack of fierté). At home did not study English (insufficient firmness).”
  • Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life has become an unlikely hit for its publisher, Tyrant Books—but success can come with its own problems. “When the Times review appeared, Ms. Urban [Lish’s agent] asked Mr. DiTrapano [his publisher] how many books were in print. ‘He said 3,500,’ Ms. Urban recalled. ‘I wanted to kill myself.’ ”
  • Art critics—prepare to give notice by the dozens. Now there’s Novice Art Blogger, an algorithm that reviews art and is not altogether terrible at it. “The bot is simply articulating what it interprets; there is something very noble about that, that it is not passing judgment.”
  • Is science fiction our new religion? “We gather in our millions in the darkened cathedrals of multiplex cinemas to silently venerate our superhero gods. All religions have their holy stories, and the immense respect given to SF novels like 1984 and I, Robot by their fans is very close to an act of faith … Let’s not think about L Ron Hubbard.”
  • Paperbacks give publishers a second chance to find an eye-catching cover design, but the results are often confounding. “After spending so much time, effort and money on getting the dust jacket just right, most publishers go back to the drawing board to design the paperback version. That always seems to me like a waste of hard-won brand awareness, but I’m told most books don’t sell well enough to establish any brand awareness.”


No Object

January 8, 2015 | by


War and Peace’s Natasha Rostova in a postcard by Elizaveta Bem, 1914.

Yesterday, amid the headlines and hashtags, the footage and pictures from Paris, came an e-mail. It was from a publicist. It reminded us that this month marks the 150th anniversary of the publication of War and Peace

Well, sort of: the first installment of what was then titled 1805 was indeed published in the January 1865 issue of Russkiy Vestnik. It ran in serial form for the next two years. However, Tolstoy wasn’t happy with this version and reworked much of the book—which he called “not a novel, even less is it a poem, and still less a historical chronicle”—before publishing it as War and Peace in 1869. 

Arguably, a sesquicentennial is a tenuous peg in any case (it doesn’t even have an honorific, like gold or diamond). But in dark times, you don't need an excuse; they are reason enough. I’m not suggesting that whenever there is tragedy in the world you drop everything and pick up a fourteen-hundred-page novel; there is life to lead and news to read and, yes, social media to follow, too. Besides, you’d be reading all the time. But it’s like Mr. Rogers said: when the world is frightening and violent, look for the helpersRead More »

What We See When We Read

August 14, 2014 | by

If I said to you, “Describe Anna Karenina,” perhaps you’d mention her beauty. If you were reading closely you’d mention her “thick lashes,” her weight, or maybe even her little downy mustache (yes—it’s there). Matthew Arnold remarks upon “Anna’s shoulders, and masses of hair, and half-shut eyes … ”

But what does Anna Karenina look like? You may feel intimately acquainted with a character (people like to say, of a brilliantly described character, It’s like I know her), but this doesn’t mean you are actually picturing a person. Nothing so fixed—nothing so choate.



Most authors (wittingly, unwittingly) provide their fictional characters with more behavioral than physical description. Even if an author excels at physical description, we are left with shambling concoctions of stray body parts and random detail (authors can’t tell us everything). We fill in gaps. We shade them in. We gloss over them. We elide. Anna: her hair, her weight—these are only facets, and do not make up a true image of a person. They make up a body type, a hair color … What does Anna look like? We don’t know—our mental sketches of characters are worse than police composites.

Visualizing seems to require will …

… though at times it may also seem as though an image of a sort appears to us unbidden.

(It is tenuous, and withdraws shyly upon scrutiny.) Read More »


The Perils of Value Judgment, and Other News

August 13, 2014 | by


Preference: it’s a good thing.

  • RIP, Lauren Bacall. “Her simplest remark sounded like a jungle mating call, one critic said.” (He meant it as a compliment—I think … )
  • Michel Gondry’s new film, Mood Indigo, is based on L’Écume des Jours, a 1946 novel by Boris Vian whose title “literally means either ‘The Foam of the Days’ or ‘The Scum of the Days’ but has been translated as ‘Froth on the Daydream,’ ‘Foam of the Daze,’ and—after the Duke Ellington song—‘Mood Indigo.’ The problem of translating Vian doesn’t end with titles. His books are crawling with wordplay: puns, mixed metaphors, neologisms, you name it.”
  • Speaking of translational difficulties, here’s how to give yourself an anxiety dream: just before bed, imagine being the first translator to attempt War and Peace or Anna Karenina. “Not only was the sheer prolixity of Tolstoy’s great novels a deterrent to all but the most determined of translators, but after the urbane Turgenev, whose measured prose slipped so easily into English, Tolstoy was also far more unpolished, more uncompromising and, well, altogether more Russian.”
  • How to give yourself an anxiety dream, part two: like everything on Facebook and watch as your hyper-personalized world crumbles around you. “Literally everything Facebook sent my way, I liked—even if I hated it. I decided to embark on a campaign of conscious liking, to see how it would affect what Facebook showed me … I began dreading going to Facebook. It had become a temple of provocation … By liking everything, I turned Facebook into a place where there was nothing I liked.”
  • Is the science-fiction writer R. A. Lafferty due for a comeback? “Lafferty’s most accessible and widely read novel, Space Chantey, is a psychedelic, Homeric odyssey in which space captain Roadstrum leads an expedition to the pleasure planet Lotophage, where the immortal houri Margaret tells him, very wisely, that ‘there are worse places to live than in tall stories.’ ”