Friday, 31 August 2012

The Joy of Tolstoy, or At the Sign of Hadji Murat's Head

Me with Vanya the driver on the Tolstoy bus
The International Tolstoy Conference at Yasnaya Polyana is a jewel among scholarly events. Its location is idyllic, its organisation heroic, and its participants are among the friendliest academics you could hope to meet - at least for the five charmed days of the workshop. This year's conference was enhanced by benevolent weather, making strolls in Tolstoy's usad'ba (the parkland around the main house) an enticing prospect. Tolstoy's grounds formally close in the evening, but several delegates knew the location of a gap in the fence. All we had to do was follow a winding path for little over a kilometre from our hotel through trees and shrubs, past farm buildings, over the odd rolling hill, through trees and hayfields, and then - after a small scramble - the entire Tolstoy estate was ours. We climbed the wooden watchtower where Tolstoy's mother, as a child, used to wait vigilantly for her father to ride home; walked through plantations of firs and pines to find a modern copy of the birch seat Tolstoy built with his own hands; and reverently visited Tolstoy's markedly unmarked grave. One American colleague from a hat-friendly Southern university was even tempted by the mild August weather to venture a swim in the same pool where, after reading her husband's inadequate farewell letter, Sofia Andreevna tried to drown herself on October 29, 1910. Apparently the water is quite cold.
An after-hours visit to the Tolstoy estate

The academic side of the conference was almost as exciting: virtually every paper was in Russian, which challenged Western scholars and induced heights of linguistic generosity in the Russians. There were splendid papers on translating Tolstoy - Pevear/Volkhonsky versus Garnett - from Carol Apollonio, on the Don Juan theme in Anna Karenina from Alexander Burry, on the concept of honour in Tolstoy's novels from West Point colonel Rick McPeak, and on Dostoevsky's rigid self-punishment versus Tolstoy's open endings from Eric Naiman. Russian scholars included Olga Slivitskaia (on Tolstoy's use of вдруг! in such narrative moments as unexpected decisions or reversals; her talk ended rather abruptly), Elena Tolstaya (A.N. Tolstoy's granddaughter) on the critic Akim Volynskii, and Tatyana Kravchenko on Tolstoyan motifs in Gazdanov, Nabokov, and Varshavskii. Few aspects of Tolstoy's creativity escaped discussion; on the very last day, I thought I heard a paper about Tolstoy and flying saucers, but perhaps I spent too long on the estate the night before. Nor was intellectual spoiling all we had to enjoy. On the conference's penultimate day, Andrei Bitov somewhat unexpectedly appeared and gave a talk about the importance of literary study in making the world a better place, and of taking a holistic rather than a narrowly scholastic approach. (According to Bitov, the most important word in War and Peace is the letter и (=and); this sounded convincing at the time). A local artist who lives on one of the Tolstoy family's outlying estates, Pirogov, then invited everyone to view a stone commemorating the death of Hadji Murat. He had brought this substantial boulder by truck from Hadji Murat's actual place of death in Dagestan; his dearest wish is to have the warrior's head, apparently still preserved in a St Petersburg medical institution, interred under this rock as a symbol of Russian-Islamic harmony and peace (were this England, as fortunately it isn't, I could foresee a great inn sign). This goal remains unfulfilled for now, but those who went to Pirogov were able to view a descendant of the original thistle that inspired Tolstoy's Hadji Murat.
Making friends with Andrei Bitov

On the conference's final day, we took the bus back to Moscow (although some delegates have covered the distance in more traditional ways) for a visit to Tolstoy's townhouse in Khamovniki; I was most charmed by the few belongings of the Tolstoys' last son, Vanya, whom the writer considered the most gifted and 'Tolstoyan' of all his children but who died tragically young, and by the skin of the bear that happened on Lev Nikolaevich during a hunting expedition in 1858. (Impossible to tell who was more startled, the bear or Tolstoy). I seized an opportunity to pump the conference's Russian co-organizer about Elif Batuman, whose infamous article in Harper's (reprinted in her book The Possessed) poked fun at this same conference and its regulars. "Oh, I remember Elif," she said. "A nice girl. A little strange." I had to admire such a Tolstoyan attitude - Hadji Murat would not have been so forgiving.
Hard as it seems to wait two years for the next conference, at least I'll have time to come up with some truly original ideas for my paper. "Tolstoy and the Later Palaeozoic.... Jurassic Tolstoy... The Symbolism of Reptiles in Anna Karenina". It needs a little work. But so did War and Peace.

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