A blog by the staff of the Thomas Ford Memorial Library
I saw the soldier standing opposite me step forward resolutely and, swinging his rod with a whistle, give a strong blow to the Tartar’s back. The Tartar jerked forward but the corporals held him, and the same blow fell from the other side, and again from this side, and again from that… I caught a glimpse of the punished man’s back from between the rows. It was something so mottled, wet, red, unnatural, that I could not believe it was a man’s body.
Though told like a personal anecdote, there is a certain cinematic sweep to this 1903 short by Tolstoy. It starts as a philosophical conversation at a party, but quickly flashes back to a posh ball full of youth and romance and dizzying dancing. We follow love-addled Ivan out of the ball and into the early morning streets. We wander with him through the morning mists and melting snow of Russian spring as we watch the city’s early risers get to work. But the air of lovelorn reverie is broken by a shocking, violent act. A sudden blow to Ivan’s happiness, he never really recovers.
Like all of Tolstoy’s best writing, there’s a universal appeal and a depth of character that overcomes the 112 years of distance, the cultural differences, and the difficulties of translation. It’s relatable and moving still. And it’s a good, short introduction to Tolstoy’s later fiction.
Review by Matthew