Monday, December 16, 2013

Youth by Leo Tolstoy

An inconclusive conclusion
Leo Tolstoy
Youth, originally published in 1856, is the final novel in Leo Tolstoy’s autobiographical trilogy of Childhood, Boyhood, and Youth. It continues the life story of Nicolas Petrovitch Irtenieff, beginning about the age of 16 and covering roughly a year of his life. I was hoping that the finale of this trilogy would really bring the events of Nicolas’s life together into a cohesive narrative, but I found this volume to be, much like its predecessors, a series of observations that never really amounts to much of a story.

Youth shows some promise in the beginning, as Nicolas has reached an age where he begins to question the manner in which he will live his life as a man. He attempts to set down a code of ethics which will guide the future course of his behavior and his life. This leads the reader to believe that the novel will start to delve into the development of Tolstoy’s personal philosophy, which would make for a fascinating book, but unfortunately this thread is soon abandoned. The story then moves on to Nicolas’s college entrance exams, which is interesting for its historical insight into the Russian educational system, but not particularly moving. Next, the book moves to a series of social situations in which Nicolas interacts with various friends and family. These scenes are not really very engaging at all, and at times lapse into pointless description for description’s sake. Along the way, Nicolas starts to gain an awareness of class and to determine his position in the social hierarchy. He also begins to question that very hierarchy, but these inklings are merely faint stirrings that never add up to much. Tolstoy treats Nicolas’s social adventures with a fair degree of self-deprecating humor as he chronicles his surrogate’s foolish notions, shallow vanities, and awkward faux pas. Unfortunately, the book never reaches the point where Nicolas learns the errors of his youthful foibles and moves beyond them. The book doesn’t have so much an ending as it does a truncation. The entire trilogy feels like an introduction to some as yet unwritten work. It’s all a bit of tease, a promise of things to come.

The value of Tolstoy’s autobiographical trilogy lies mostly in its importance as an autobiographical document, not in its literary merits. The more you know about Tolstoy and the more you love his work, the more you will enjoy the trilogy for what it tells you about Tolstoy. In and of itself, however, it’s not a great work of literature and is in fact even a little frustrating for the reader. The most moving episode in the overall story is the death of Nicolas’s mother, which occurs back in the first book. Nothing in the two subsequent volumes even approaches the emotional power of that event. The rest of the trilogy reads like a series of skillfully told yet only mildly amusing anecdotes which would have faded into obscurity had their author not gone on to become one of the greatest writers of all time. Lucky for us he moved on to bigger and better things.

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