Monday, November 18, 2013

Boyhood by Leo Tolstoy

A boy’s life, continued
Leo Tolstoy
Boyhood, originally published in 1854, is the second novel by Leo Tolstoy and also the second book in his autobiographical trilogy, which begins with Childhood and ends with Youth. Largely based on Tolstoy’s own early years, the trilogy is the first-person account of a boy’s transition into manhood. This second installment covers the life of Nicolas, the narrator, roughly from the ages of 14 to 18.

Like Childhood, this book reads less like a novel than a memoir. It consists of a series of recollections of life events on the part of the narrator. These isolated scenes aren’t really interconnected enough to comprise a satisfying plot; the book succeeds more as a psychological study than as a novel. Any forward movement in the narrative is derived from the growing awareness of the boy as his thought processes mature. Through Nicolas we experience the universal daily dramas so important to a child, such as the development of an attraction towards the opposite sex, the making of a new friend, the growing apart of brothers, and the struggle to be taken seriously and earn the respect of one’s elders. These events are covered with great insight and sensitivity by Tostoy, but en masse they feel like a collection of observations in a notebook and never really coalesce into a novel.

That said, Boyhood is slightly better than its predecessor. What really sets this book above the mediocre is the account of the life story of Karl Ivanitch, the narrator’s boyhood tutor. This side story, which takes up chapters 8 through 10, is a very moving tale of the hardships of working class life during the time of the Russian war against Napoleon. These three chapters succeed as a short story in and of themselves and are clearly the best part of the book. Since Nicolas, like Tolstoy, grew up in a relatively wealthy family, much of the book revolves around master/servant relations. The tale of Karl Ivanitch is only one example of how the servants’ lives, in this book, are often more interesting than those of the master himself.

Though Childhood, Boyhood, and Youth were published as separate novels, they are intended to be read as one body of work. Boyhood ends rather arbitrarily, and really makes little sense without the books that come before and after it. Fans of Tolstoy will no doubt find Boyhood a promising and necessary step in the development of his great masterpieces, but it can’t be counted among them. When judged solely on the basis of its own literary merits, it’s clearly good writing, but nothing exceptional.

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