09 May 2011

Monday Book Review

I can't believe it's been three weeks since I posted.  The hiatus is over so I'm back and running the blog again.  As usual, I am beginning the week with a book review.

The book being reviewed today is Tolstoy's short story, How Much Land Does A Man Need.  This was another Calypso book that was generously offered to me.  This was the first published book by Calypso and it received rave reviews.  When I was originally contacted, I browsed the reviews linked from their website.  I became curious about this mysterious short story by Tolstoy.  I was a late blooming lover of Russian literature.  It was not until I had read four novels between Tolstoy and Dostoevsky that I appreciated the meticulous layering of the main characters and the novel's inwardly piercing trajectory.  As I had mentioned in another book review post, the concept of "dusha" very clearly explained the plot development of every novel I had read.  The outward events and background were set very carefully and almost excruciatingly in the first and largest portion of the book, but then rapidly zoomed into the interior of the character, where the story exploded with velocity.

Now forget all of that.  "How Much Land Does A Man Need" was written in the skaz tradition, a Russian style of oral storytelling.  The style was informal and there was a defined distance between the narrator and the author.  I did not know anything about this tradition, but Calypso Editions did a wonderful job outlining the definition and how it was used in the story.  The comparison between previous translations and those of Dralyuk was the portion of the introduction that an unlearned reader (such as myself) should pay attention to.  Reading the story without the introduction would have given no clues as to what makes skaz.  Stiff, formal dialogue was the antithesis to the skaz tradition and comparisons of passages made this obvious.  After reading and pondering the points of skaz in the story, I would have to say it reminded me of The Life of High Countess Gritta von Ratsinourhouse (Das Leben der Hochgräfin Gritta von Rattenzuhausbeiuns) by Bettine von Arnim.  Skaz was akin to the fairy tale style that German Romantics took a shining to in the latter 19th century; the style was slightly informal and there was a distance between narrator and author.  Furthermore, it had an improvisational quality to it because the story does not feel planned out.  Tolstoy was famous for his meticulously laid out books, but this short story was completely different.

The story was simple in execution and even reminiscent of fairy tale simplicity.  There was a moral to the story and it was fairly straightforward––the narrator did not spend half the book developing Pakhom's character.  Simply, in a contest of pride between Pakhom's wife and her sister, his wife proclaimed that God-fearing peasants lead the noblest of lives.  Pakhom, overhearing this conversation, tempted the devil (who's hiding behind a stove) by saying that if he had enough land, he wouldn't fear the devil himself.  The devil, always one to follow through on boastful bets, began tempting him with more land.  To make a shorter story even shorter, Pakhom's thirst for land never slaked and, in a twist of dark humor, he died as a result.

This book was a great insight into a cultural tradition I was not aware of and an author well known for works of length and fortitude.  Considering the story's length, a reader will spend more time considering the merits of the story and understanding the style.  Though the story was simple and straightforward, there was depth to the plot.  What I found fascinating was the subtle development of Pakhom's pride over his land.  His quibbles were understandable and valid, but what began as an attempt to protect what was his became a ruthless quest to confine and isolate his neighbors.  His greed for land did not simply evolve out of wanting more of it, but extracting the most he could out of the land, even by suing his neighbors.  The descent into the devil's trap was a slow one and the story was a beautiful example of how simplicity and complexity are not diametrically opposed.  Though the story was markedly different from Tolstoy's more famous works, it still retains the master's touch.  Such a short story in other hands would not have fared as well.