Monday, October 7, 2013

Childhood by Leo Tolstoy

Tolstoy’s semi-autobiographical debut
Leo Tolstoy
Childhood is the first novel by Russian author Leo Tolstoy. It was originally published in 1852, and is the first in a trilogy of three short novels, of which the second and third volumes are entitled Boyhood and Youth. Childhood relates events in the life of a ten-year-old boy, Nicolas Petrovitch. Although the narration is in the first-person, the story is not told from a child’s point of view, but rather in the voice of a grown man looking back on his youth. Thus there is often a dual perspective between the observations and emotions of the young boy and the intelligent reflections of the adult.

Nicolas is the child of an aristocratic family with an estate in Petrovskoe. Under the feudalistic system that existed in Russia at the time, his father governs over a large retinue of servants and serfs. The book begins by depicting the boy’s idyllic life on this country estate. It is hinted, however, that the family’s financial situation is not entirely secure, and soon it is revealed that Nicolas and his brother Woloda are to be sent to live in Moscow with their grandmother. From that point the book switches focus to more urban matters, such as the social scene among the nobility. In keeping with the time, place, and aristocratic milieu in which the story takes place, the book depicts a hunting party, a society ball, and meetings with princes and princesses. The novel’s real strength, however, lies in its depiction of universal childhood experiences like the comfort and security of home life, the rise and fall of friendships, a first taste of love, or the death of a family member.

Although this is a work of fiction, Tolstoy obviously based some of it on his own experiences. The book does not read like a debut novel at all, but rather like the memoirs of an aged, successful writer who feels sure that his every anecdote will fascinate the reader. Unfortunately that’s not necessarily true for today’s audience. Though Tolstoy’s debut caused a sensation when it was published, and reputedly revolutionized Russian literature, to the 21st-century reader it does not stand out as a remarkable work. Tolstoy does a fine job of depicting the experience and psychology of a child, but for much of the book the plot is not particularly compelling. It’s simply a series of recollections and character sketches that bear little relation to each other, until far into the book’s latter half when events finally start to coalesce into a satisfying narrative. To its credit, Childhood ends on a high note. The final three or four chapters are very powerful. If only the first half of the book were as effective.

Tolstoy’s debut definitely shows the promise of great things to come, but this book is not in the same literary league with later masterworks like Anna Karenina. It’s quite possible that the rather clunky translation by C.J. Hogarth, which is far from a poetic read, may not be doing Tolstoy’s prose any favors either. All the same, Childhood’s strong finish definitely makes me want to move on to Boyhood and see how the trilogy develops. Perhaps after reading Nicolas’s life in its entirety I will gain a new appreciation for this first installment. As it stands, however, Childhood’s primary value lies not so much in its literary merits as in the autobiographical insights it offers on its illustrious author.

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