My son, Nick, who is 26, is finally reading War and Peace and discovering what I have always told him: it's like something you live more than read, something like a river that just carries you away.
Talking with him about Tolstoy made me dig into the bookshelves for something I had never read by him before. This led to The Cossacks, perhaps the earliest version of a Tolstoyan tale in which a young, robust hero grows disgusted with his city-self and goes on a quest in either the countryside or war, or both, looking for renewal.
In this case we have Dmitri Onenin, and a tale that even in translation captures the majesty of what we might call Chechnya today, or more broadly, the Caucusus. Back then (1840 or so), the Russians were doing the same thing as now--repressing native folk in the interest of empire.
Onenin doesn't really take this political dimension into consideration as he joins a Russian unit that occasionally makes raids into Muslim lands but basically finds time to fall in love with an old hunter, skilled in nature, and a young maid, skilled in the basic facts of life: he is no fit suitor for her, a peasant. This is something that "can't be."
Tolstoy's early mastery of naturalistic detail and his eye for core elements of character--Maryanka's haughty defensiveness, Yeroskha's self-deprecating wisdom, Onenin's introspective confusion--flow beautifully through this novella. There are dozens of scenes in which "nothing happens" except the universe ticking along in the form of clouds, rivers, stars traveling the skies and horsemen sneaking up on enemy encampments.
The ending is abrupt, chastening, realistic...
Onenin will have to find self-mastery in himself, not in Maryanka. She sends him packing.
Causes Robert Earle Supports
World Wildlife Fund