The Cossacks

The Cossacks

Have you ever noticed that every major writer has some kind of essay collection detailing their musings on life and art? I had not noticed that until I read this bomb review of Orhan Pamuk’s collection.

I have read and enjoyed many of these collections.

The one I enjoyed most was Tolstoy’s What Is Art? Well, it’s not really an essay collection. It’s a pretty unified work. But still, I think it counts. I also liked Nabokov’s Lectures on Russian Literature. I’m going to read D.H. Lawrence’s Studies In American Literature soon and Coleridge’s essays on Shakespeare are on tap, eventually. And I also have one by Octavio Paz floating around.

Reading What Is Art is what made me love Tolstoy. I mean, sure, Anna Karenina was great. It was a masterpiece. But something about the over-the-top, wild-eyed craziness of What is Art? made me very excited. I think that excitement – the ability to feel that excited about something I was reading – affected me more than any of the notions within the book.

I’ve probably mentioned before that I generally don’t make it a point to seek out the minor works of major authors. These works just don’t excite me, somehow. But with Tolstoy, I have.

I just finished reading The Cossacks. Like all of Tolstoy’s novels (seemingly), it is about a man going through a series of spiritual revelations. And also some other stuff.

I get the impression that Tolstoy went through many spiritual revelations in his life. But I only get this impression because I have read many of his novels. In each novel, the man-in-search-of seems to have forgotten about all the other times he found some sort of truth. The man-in-search-of always seems to be some kind of spiritual degenerate, who is uplifted in one cosmic flash of insight one hundred pages before the end of the book.

The strangest thing about The Cossacks is that Tolstoy makes fun of the young man’s spiritual insights. And by the time the book ends, the insight has already begun to fade, and the man has already come down to earth.

Something that is less strange but kind of offputting is that the novel is not a masterpiece. In it, one can see flashes of Tolstoy’s great talents. The main character is very well drawn, and so is the aged Cossack who becomes his friend. That is unsurprising. It is almost expected.

What is strange is that there are characters who are not well-drawn.

There are situations that are not vivid.

There are boring parts.

It is kind of shocking. The Cossacks was published in 1863. In only six years, Tolstoy would write War and Peace, which is (literally) twelve times longer than the Cossacks, but which did not, at least for me, contain any boring parts.

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