Friday, April 25, 2008

Tolstoy III: Invisible Larks

Spring was a long time unfolding. During the last weeks of Lent the weather was clear and frosty. In the daytime it thawed in the sun, but at night it went down to seven below; there was such a crust that carts could go over it where there was no road. There was still snow at Easter. Then suddenly, on Easter Monday, a warm wind began to blow, dark clouds gathered, and for three days and three nights warm, heavy rain poured down. On Thursday the wind dropped, and a thick grey mist gathered, as if concealing the mysteries of the changes taking place in nature. Under the mists the water flowed, ice blocks cracked and moved off, the muddy, foaming streams ran quicker, and on the eve of Krasnaya Gorka the mist scattered, the dark clouds broke up into fleecy white ones, the sky cleared, and real spring unfolded. In the morning the bright sun rose and quickly ate up the thin ice covering the water, and the warm air was all atremble, filled with the vapors of the reviving earth. The old grass and the sprouting needles of new grass greened, the buds on the guelder-rose, the buds and the sticky, spirituous birches swelled, and on the willow, all sprinkled with golden catkins, the flitting, newly-hatched bee buzzed. Invisible larks poured trills over the velvety green fields and the ice-covered stubble, the peewit wept over the hollows and marshes still filled with brown water; high up the cranes and geese flew with their spring honking. Cattle, patchy, moulted in all but a few places, lowed in the meadows, bow-legged lambs played around their bleating, shedding mothers, fleet-footed children ran over the drying paths covered with the prints of bare feet, the merry voices of women with their linen chattered by the pond, and from the yards came the knock of the peasants’ axes, repairing ploughs and harrows. The real spring had come. (153)

This passage occurs fairly early in Anna Karenina. Levin, a bachelor who feels himself to be something of a country bumpkin when in the presence of the Russian nobility in Moscow, has recently returned to his country estate after being rejected by the woman he had hoped to make his bride. He is trying to hold himself together, trying to be philosophical about the fact that his dreams have been smashed. More or less by way of distracting himself from his sorrow, he turns his attention to the management of his estate and to the writing of a book on farming.

The placement of this passage at this moment in the story allows the seasonal description, which works perfectly well at the literal level—giving us a very rich, imagistic rendition of time and place, the external world in which Levin operates—to suggest obliquely something of the turmoil going on within Levin as well. The change of the season suggests that that which has been frozen within him, his ability to find joy in his surroundings, is at last thawing, as he turns his attention outward.

What I note here from a technical point of view is first of all the careful attention that Tolstoy pays as a writer to the physical world around him, and his patience in the construction of each sentence individually. Look at the sequences within the last three sentences especially, after spring has arrived in earnest. First he describes the grass, the buds, the birches, the bees. Then the birds: larks, peewits, cranes, geese. Then the living creatures: the cattle, the lambs, the children, the women, the men. The description is precise without being obsessive, and carefully sequenced without feeling forced. And, characteristically, Tolstoy is able to construct the passage in such a way as to get double duty out of the description, as I've hypothesized. And yet the passage reads smoothly, and Tolstoy’s artfulness is anything but ostentatious.

Side Note: Translator Richard Pevear, in his introduction to the book, argues that “Levin is [Tolstoy’s] most complete self-portrait. He has the same position as his creator, the same “wild” nature, the same ideas and opinions, the same passion for hunting, the same almost physical love of the Russian peasant… Levin’s estate reproduces Tolstoy’s Yasnaya Polyana, and his [eventual] marriage to Kitty duplicates Tolstoy’s marriage to Sophia Andreevna in the minutest details.”

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