Monday, May 16

How to approach Lev Tolstoy, the great humanist of Russian literature

There are few novels with an opening sentence as powerful as that of Anna Karenina: “All happy families look alike, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” One proof is that it has become almost a mantra that is shared relentlessly on social networks, is sold in sticker format on the internet and it is rare that it has not yet been printed on best-selling t-shirts. But it is quite likely that a percentage of those who identify with it have not read the work it comes from or even know what it is. Neither that nor any other author, who is none other than Lev Tolstóy (also known as León in Spain).

A look at Mariupol in the 20th century, the city surrounded and destroyed by Putin

Know more

It is not a personal matter with the Russian count, rather it is a prejudice that affects the classics. On the one hand, it is difficult to compete with the enormous editorial production, even if they are key works in the history of universal literature. On the other hand, books considered ‘high literature’ are sometimes perceived as too difficult. William Shakespeare or Fernando de Rojas wrote for the general public, but many people have approached them as objects of study and not for reading pleasure, which makes them rather unattractive.

In the case of Count Tolstoy, the length of his two best-known novels –the aforementioned Anna Karenina around a thousand pages and War and peace two thousand – can also be a brake. However, this is a fear of those who have not yet been introduced to the reading of the Slavic writer. That is the opinion of Selma Ancira, responsible for the conversion into Spanish of the Russian’s works published by the Acantilado publishing house. She replies that not all of her titles are long and that the key is for the reader to start with the right book. Her recommendation is always marital bliss. “It is a short book, which contains the seed of Tolstoy’s later work, his sermons on good, family, love and respect” and an apostille that reads quickly “and deliciously”.

Ancira is a translator of modern Greek literature and Russian literature. She is responsible for Spanish editions of authors such as Seferis, Kampanelis, María Iordanidu, Dostoevsky, Bulgákov and the discoverer for Spanish-speaking readers of Marina Tsvetáieva. Likewise, she is the editor and translator of Tolstoy’s correspondence and diaries published in the aforementioned Cliff, a work to which she devoted a decade of her life.

He considers that he used those years well thanks to the response of the public. She is not very ambitious: once a person has received the count’s message, she is satisfied. “I have received letters from readers, such as one who told me that he was 60 years old and when reading Tolstoy he had realized that he had not lived correctly but that he still had time to amend his life. This is fascinating and has remained one of the key moments in my life”, she maintains.

How to read and understand Tolstoy

This is not a treatise or a literary travel guide. For the author expert, reading Tolstoy well is a matter of open-mindedness and attitude. “I think you have to read it with the eyes of the soul more than with the eyes,” says Ancira. She also recommends the new reader to open up to his teaching, to his humanism and realize the efforts that the author made so that each person “better day after day.”

Reading Tolstoy’s works can start from an early age, from eight or ten years old. In fact, the Russian has several stories for children that he wrote for his grandchildren as The wolf either The cherry seed. Ancira, who translated these books for a Mexican edition that was not distributed in Spain, affirms that they are a great entry key since the reader becomes familiar with his writing from an early age and as the years go by he can reach his adult works of natural way. From adolescence it is already possible to read titles like marital bliss, the story of a horse either The snowstorm and understand and enjoy them without problems.

The theme of Tolstoy’s books is very broad and is divided into many sub-themes, but for Ancira they can be brought together in a general concept that is humanism. “Respect and love between human beings and towards animals. In fact, in the last stretch of his life, Tolstoy became a vegetarian out of respect for life in general”, develops the expert, who also points out his predicament of doing good as fundamental.

Tolstoy makes you think but at the same time he is not scolding you for being bad, he makes you reflect simply on why you are in this world and above all why you are in it

selma ancira

“Reading Tolstoy is not only to pass the time but little by little it enters you. Let’s say that he begins to circulate through your veins, to be part of you. In my experience, you start to see the world in a different way, with different eyes,” he says. “Your reading of him is not only enjoyment, it is also learning. You rethink many questions that you have probably asked yourself and for which you have not found an answer. Well, you will find many of them reading Tolstoy.”

For her, a book that serves as a clear example of this effect is a short novel entitled the story of a horse. In it, the writer moves society to a stable where horses are prototypes of human beings. And that macrocosm of human society transferred to the microcosm of the stable “is truly fascinating.” The key is that “Tolstoy makes you think but at the same time he is not scolding you for being bad, he makes you reflect simply on why you are in this world and above all why you are in it. He is not going to tell you how you have to live life but by reading him you will understand if you are doing well or if there are things that you have to improve”.

Can reading Tolstoy help to better understand the context in which the war in Ukraine is taking place? The social universe of the Slavic countries is far from Spanish, which can generate a gap of misunderstanding. But despite the fact that the writer was born in Russia just like his characters, according to Ancira’s perception, the humanism that prevails in his works goes beyond the borders between countries. The protagonists of it are, without more, human beings. “It is what Tolstoy emphasizes: what is a human being in this world and how to be better in this violent, corrupt, disrespectful world. Because if not, what are we doing here?

The third great work

Tolstoy was born an aristocrat and died a pilgrim on the roads of Russia. During his youth he was a soldier and defended the war but over the years he became a pacifist who even influenced another great name of that movement such as Gandhi. Throughout his life he collected his experiences in diaries and letters that serve to complete his work because, in addition to War and peace Y Anna Kareninait is considered that he left a third great peak novel in the history of literature: his own biography.

The day I met Tolstoy I was seized with panic and strong discomfort in front of him. It seemed to me that this great connoisseur of the human heart would discover at a single glance all the secrets of my soul.

Russian musician (1840 – 1893)

Cliff has published this material –Correspondence, diaries (1847-1894) and diaries (1895-1910)– as well as a series of notebooks entitled This was Lev Tolstoy, all translated and edited by Ancira. In the aforementioned notebooks, the person in charge collects testimonies from people who knew him and who left their perception in writing. Like, for example, that of Piotr Ilich Tchaikovsky. In an excerpt from the book Diaries of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. 1873-1891, that the publisher recovered for This was Lev Tolstoy (I), you can read a detailed description that the composer makes of the writer: “The day I met Tolstoy I was seized with panic and strong discomfort in front of him. It seemed to me that this great connoisseur of the human heart would discover at a single glance all the secrets of my soul. I believed that in front of him it would be impossible for me to hide the garbage accumulated in the depths of the soul to show only the most attractive part of it (…) A profound connoisseur of the soul in his writings, in his dealings with people he turned out to be a simple man , irreproachable, sincere, that externalized very little of that omniscience that I feared so much”.

In addition to the musician, this collection talks about the writer Stanislavski, Ilya Repin, Alexandr Borisovich, Maxim Gorky, his wife, Sofia Andréyevna Tolstáya, and their son, Sergei Lvóvich Tolstói. The third installment of these choral notebooks has been published this same 2022. “With these little books I am making a portrait of him through the voice of his contemporaries. Tolstoy seen through other eyes, for which portrait and self-portrait complement each other and the reader in Spanish has the possibility of following and getting to know that figure from various points of view”. Leo Tolstoy’s is one of those cases in which separating the author from his work is not very feasible, so starting with the vision that others had of him is not unreasonable.