Leo Tolstoy: Collected Shorter Fiction, Vol. 1. Everyman Library’s (2001). 759 pp.
Though I didn’t realize it when I purchased this book, it is only the first of two volumes of Tolstoy’s shorter fiction published by Everyman’s Library—and several of the stories I’d been most looking forward to are in the second volume, which I can tell because this book includes the tables of contents for both volumes. It also includes a 12-page introductory essay which I did not find terribly useful, but a person who brings no knowledge of Tolstoy to the book may find it helpful.
This volume contains 22 of Tolstoy’s shorter works, only some of them qualifying as short stories, others weighing in as novellas; one, Family Happiness, is called “a novel” and another, A Landlord’s Morning, was apparently part of an unfinished novel, but is a complete work in itself.
My favorite item in the book is the short story “Lucerne” (available online here). It is told in the first person by a wealthy man staying at a resort in Lucerne, Switzerland. He sees a mendicant musician perform for a crowd of wealthy patrons there who then refuse to give him any money and, indeed, laugh at him. The narrator speaks with the musician and shows him kindness, while observing how shabbily the hotel staff and patrons treat the man. This is all told, basically, to lead up to the final third of the work, in which the narrator confronts and denounces the wealthy patrons and their attendants for their shallowness, lack of compassion, and self-absorbsion. This portion of the story has no plot or characters, it’s basically a speech by the narrator, and seems to convey Tolstoy’s own sentiments, which are clearly filled with a lot of passion and righteous anger. An passage:
“Who is the greater man, and who the greater barbarian,—that lord, who, seeing the minstrel’s well-worn clothes, angrily left the table, who gave him not the millionth part of his possessions in payment of his labor, and now lazily sitting in his brilliant, comfortable room, calmly expresses his opinion about the events that are happening in China, and justifies the massacres that have been done there; or the little minstrel, who, risking imprisonment, with a franc in his pocket, and doing no harm to any one, has been going about for a score of years, up hill and down dale, rejoicing men’s hearts with his songs, though they have jeered at him, and almost cast him out of the pale of humanity; and who, in weariness and cold and shame, has gone off to sleep, no one knows where, on his filthy straw?”
Also earning an underline from me is “God Sees the Truth, But Waits,” one of the shortest items in the collection at just nine pages; it deals almost exclusively with the theme of forgiveness.
“A Prisoner in the Caucasus” is a good adventure story, detailing the capture and escape of a Russian soldier. Like several other works in this volume, this story is based on Tolstoy’s own experience serving in the Russian army.
Like any collection of short stories written over four decades, the quality and interest of these works varies a good bit. Some are written in first person, others in third person limited. Tolstoy doesn’t use (at least in this collection) the omniscient point of view that would inform the reader of the thoughts and feelings of the characters, except insofar as they are manifested outwardly. His descriptions of things is also very matter-of-fact, he doesn’t put a lot of poetry or soaring language into his descriptions of settings or actions; there is no purple prose here.
While I recommend with reservations the volume as a whole there are several items in it that I would highly recommend. Perhaps more importantly, I am now interested in getting the second volume of Tolstoy’s short works.