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Begun in 1851, when Tolstoy was twenty-three and serving as a cadet in the Russian army, Childhood, the first part of Tolstoy’s first novel, won immediate praise from Turgenev and others, and marked Tolstoy’s emergence as a major writer. Its originality was striking, as Tolstoy sought to communicate with great immediacy the “poetry” of childhood—the intense emotions, confusions, and fears attendant upon a young boy, Nikolenka, as he grows up. In the years following, Boyhood and Youth appeared (a fourth volume was...
Begun in 1851, when Tolstoy was twenty-three and serving as a cadet in the Russian army, Childhood, the first part of Tolstoy’s first novel, won immediate praise from Turgenev and others, and marked Tolstoy’s emergence as a major writer. Its originality was striking, as Tolstoy sought to communicate with great immediacy the “poetry” of childhood—the intense emotions, confusions, and fears attendant upon a young boy, Nikolenka, as he grows up. In the years following, Boyhood and Youth appeared (a fourth volume was planned but never executed), each replete with psychological and philosophical subtleties hitherto unknown in Russian literature. In Scammell’s resplendent translation, Childhood, Boyhood, and Youth remains one of Tolstoy’s major works.
Karl Ivanich, the Tutor
At 7 a.m. on August 12, 18, on exactly the third day after my tenth birthday, when I had received such wonderful presents, Karl Ivanich woke me up with a fly swatter made of wrapping paper on the end of a stick with which he was swatting a fly immediately over my head. He did this so awkwardly that he jogged the picture of my guardian angel which was hanging on the oaken headboard of my bed, and the dead fly fell directly on my head. I thrust my nose out from under the quilt, steadied the still-swaying picture with my hand, brushed the dead fly onto the floor, and cast a sleepy but irate glance at Karl Ivanich. But he, dressed in his brightly colored, quilted dressing gown, which was gathered at the waist with a belt of the same material, and wearing a red knitted skullcap with a tassel, and soft goatskin slippers on his feet, continued to patrol the walls, taking aim at the flies and swatting them.
"Just because I'm small," I thought, "why does he have to bother me? Why doesn't he swat the flies by Volodya's bed? There are heaps of them there! No, Volodya's older than me; and I'm the youngest of all: that's why he tortures the life out of me. All he thinks about the whole time," I whispered to myself, "is how to be unpleasant to me. He knows very well that he woke me up and frightened me, but he makes out he didn't notice . . . what a nasty man! And his dressing gown and cap and tassel-they're all nasty!"
While I was thus mentally expressing my displeasure with Karl Ivanich, he went to his bed, looked at the watch hanging over it in a beaded and embroidered leather slipper, hung the fly swatter on a nail and turned to us in what was clearly an excellent frame of mind.
"Auf, Kinder, auf! . . . s'ist Zeit. Die Mutter ist schon im Saal," he cried in his kind, German voice; then he came to me, sat at the foot of the bed, and took a snuffbox from his pocket. I pretended to be sleeping. First Karl Ivanich took a pinch of snuff, wiped his nose and snapped his fingers, and only then did he turn his attention to me. Smilingly he began to tickle my heels. "Nun, nun, Faulenzer!" he said.
Afraid as I was of the tickling, I nonetheless refrained from jumping up in bed and did not answer him, merely thrusting my head farther under the pillows, kicking my legs as hard as I could and making every effort not to laugh.
How kind he is and how he loves us, and yet I was able to think so badly of him!
I was annoyed both with myself and with Karl Ivanich; I felt like laughing and crying at the same time. My nerves were on edge.
"Ach, lassen Sie, Karl Ivanich!" I cried with tears in my eyes, thrusting my head out from under the pillows.
Karl Ivanich was taken aback. He left my feet alone and began asking me what the matter was and had I perhaps had a bad dream. . . . His kind, German face and the concern with which he tried to divine the reason for my tears caused them to flow even faster: I felt ashamed and could not understand how a moment before I had been capable of not loving Karl Ivanich and of finding his dressing gown, cap, and tassel nasty. Now, on the contrary, they all seemed extraordinarily nice to me and even the tassel seemed clear proof of his kindness. I told him I was crying because I had had a bad dream-to the effect that maman had died and was being taken away to be buried. All this I invented because I had not the slightest recollection of what I had dreamed that night; but when Karl Ivanich, touched by my story, began to comfort me and soothe me, I began to feel that I really had dreamed that terrible dream and my tears now flowed for an entirely different reason.
When Karl Ivanich had left me and I sat up in bed and started pulling my socks onto my little legs, my tears abated a bit, but I was still plagued by gloomy thoughts about the dream I had invented. Our manservant Nikolai came in. He was a tiny tidy little man, always serious, proper and deferential and a great friend of Karl Ivanich. He was carrying our clothes and footwear: boots for Volodya, while I still had to wear those hateful shoes with ribbons on them. I would have been ashamed to cry in his presence. Furthermore, morning sunshine was pouring merrily in through the windows and Volodya, making fun of Marya Ivanovna (our sister's governess), laughed so merrily and heartily as he stood over the washstand that even the serious Nikolai, standing there with a towel over his shoulder, soap in one hand and basin in the other, said with a smile:
"That'll do, Vladimir Petrovich; please get on with your washing."
I cheered up completely.
"Sind Sie bald fertig?" came Karl Ivanich's voice from the classroom.
His voice was stern and no longer held that kindness that had moved me to tears. Karl Ivanich was a completely different man in the classroom: he was a schoolmaster. I washed and dressed myself promptly and with hairbrush still in hand, smoothing my wet hair as I went, answered his summons.
Karl Ivanich, glasses on nose, book in hand, was sitting in his usual place between the door and the window. To the left of the door were two shelves: one was ours, the children's; the other was Karl Ivanich's own. Ours contained all sorts of books-school and nonschool: some were standing, others lay flat. Only two large volumes, Histoire des voyages, in red bindings, were leaning sedately against the wall; then came long ones, fat ones, big ones, small ones-covers without books and books without covers; everything got squeezed and pushed in there just before playtime, when we were told to straighten out the library, as the shelf was loudly termed by Karl Ivanich. The collection of books on his own shelf, though not as large as ours, was even more heterogeneous. I can remember three of them: a German brochure on the manuring of cabbage without a binding; one volume of a history of the Seven Years' War-in parchment that was burned at one corner; and a complete course of hydrostatics. Karl Ivanich used to spend the greater part of his time reading and even ruined his eyes with it; but he never read anything apart from these books and the magazine Northern Bee.
Among the objects lying on Karl Ivanich's shelf there was one that reminds me of him most of all. This was a cardboard disk mounted on a wooden column in which the disk moved by means of little pegs. The disk had a picture pasted on it representing a caricature of some lady or other and a barber. Karl Ivanich was very good at pasting things and had invented this disk himself, in order to protect his eyes from strong light.
I can see his long figure before me now in his quilted dressing gown and red cap, his thin gray hair peeping out from underneath. He sits beside a small table on which stands the disk with the barber on it, casting a shadow on his face; in one hand he is holding a book, while the other rests on the arm of his chair; beside him are his watch, with a picture of a hunter on the dial, his checked handkerchief, his round black snuff box, a green eyeglass case, and snuffers on a tray. All this lies so sedately and neatly in its place that from this good order alone one may conclude that Karl Ivanich has a clear conscience and a heart at rest.
Sometimes, when you were tired of running about downstairs in the salon, you would creep upstairs on tiptoe and into the classroom and look-and there would be Karl Ivanich, sitting all alone in his chair and reading one of his favorite books, with an expression of calm gravity on his face. Sometimes I would catch him at moments when he was not reading: his glasses would have slipped down his big aquiline nose, his blue half-closed eyes would have some special expression in them, and his lips would be sadly smiling. It would be quiet in the room; all you could hear would be his regular breathing and the ticking of the hunter watch.
Sometimes he did not notice me and I would stand at the door and think. Poor, poor old man! There are lots of us, we can play and it's fun for us, but he he's all alone and nobody is nice to him. He's telling the truth when he says he's an orphan. And his life has been so terrible! I remember him telling it to Nikolai-it's terrible to be in his position! And you felt so sorry for him that sometimes you went up to him, took his hand, and said: "Lieber Karl Ivanich!" He used to like it when I said that to him. He would always caress me and you could see he was touched.
Maps used to hang on another wall; they were all almost in pieces, but they had been skillfully stuck together by Karl Ivanich. In the middle of the third wall was the door that led downstairs, to one side of which hung two rulers: one, all scored, was ours; the other, newish-looking, was his own, used more for encouragement than for drawing lines. On the other side of the door was a blackboard on which a series of circles indicated our major misdemeanors, while our minor ones were marked by little crosses. To the left of the blackboard was the corner in which we were made to kneel down.
How well I remember that corner! I remember the flap on the stove and the airhole in the flap, and also the noise it used to make when you lifted it up. Sometimes you would kneel and kneel there in the corner, so that your knees and back would ache and you thought: Karl Ivanich has forgotten about me. It must be quite nice for him to sit there in that soft armchair and read about hydrostatics-but what about me??and in order to remind him of your presence you would begin gently to open and close the flap or would start picking plaster from the wall; but if a piece that was too big suddenly fell on the floor with a bang, truly the fright alone was worse than any punishment. But when you looked round at Karl Ivanich, he would be sitting there, book in hand, as though noticing nothing at all.
There was a table standing in the middle of the room, covered with torn black oilcloth through which, in many places, one could see the edges, all cut about with penknives. Around the table were several stools, unpainted but polished by long use. The fourth wall contained three windows. The view from them was as follows: directly below the window was a road whose every pothole, every pebble, and every rut were long familiar and dear to me; beyond the road was an avenue of pollarded lime trees through which, in places, could be glimpsed a wicket fence; across the avenue one could see the meadow, with a barn on one side of it and woods on the other; deep in the woods could be seen the gamekeeper's hut. From the window on the right one could see part of the terrace where the grown-ups normally sat before dinner. Sometimes, while Karl Ivanich was correcting your dictation, when you looked out there, you could see Mama's dark head and somebody else's back and you would hear the distant sounds of talking and laughter. Then you would feel so discontented not to be able to be there that you would think: When will I ever be grown up and have no more lessons and be able to spend all my time sitting with my loved ones and not over these exercises? Discontent would change to sadness and you grew so preoccupied, God knows why or wherefore, that you did not even hear when Karl Ivanich grumbled about your mistakes.
Karl Ivanich took off his dressing gown, put on a blue frock coat with padded pleated shoulders, straightened his tie before the mirror, and led us downstairs-to say good morning to Mama.
Mama was sitting in the drawing room pouring tea; with one hand she held the teapot, with the other the tap of the samovar-from which water was flowing over the top of the teapot and onto the tray. But although she was staring straight at it, she did not notice it, nor the fact that we had entered.
So many memories of the past start up when your imagination endeavors to resurrect the features of a beloved one that through these memories, as through tears, you see them only vaguely. These are memory's tears. When I try to recollect Mama, the way she was at that time, I can see only her nut-brown eyes, always with that same expression of kindness and love in them, the birthmark on her neck a fraction below the spot where there were some tiny curly hairs, her white embroidered collar, and the thin tender hand that had so often caressed me and that I had so often kissed; but her general appearance eludes me.
An English piano stood to the left of the couch; my dark-skinned little sister, Lyubochka, sat at the piano, her pink little fingers, just washed in cold water, running with noticeable difficulty over some études by Clementi. She was clever. She used to go about in a short little unbleached linen dress and white lace-edged knickers, and she could manage the octaves only in arpeggio. Beside her and half turned away sat Marya Ivanovna, wearing a bonnet with pink ribbons on it and a blue fur-trimmed jacket, and her red angry face took on an even sterner expression at the appearance of Karl Ivanich. She gave him a ferocious look, without answering his greeting, and went on tapping her foot and counting: "Un, deux, trois; un, deux, trois" even louder and more imperiously than before.
Posted October 5, 2002
Collaborated from his own life experiences written in a daily journal he started at age 17, Tolstoy approached the writing of his first novel when he was only 22 years old. He states that most of the book relates to his own life, his struggles as a boy who never had much of a normal childhood after the early death of his mother and seperation from her at an early age, and we do see the young writer and his cultivating genius that would start the creation of War and Peace. If one is to read this novel only for a compelling allegory, they may be disappointed. But if one is to read this story to understand Leo Tolstoi's early life and how he became the novelist we know him today, I would highly recommend reading this book. We see the Tolstoi, early in the process of his maturity as a writer. We see his mastery at detail and the dedication he puts in his round characters. We see a master in the making.
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Posted April 3, 2000
This is the first of Tolstoy's novels, and it is OK compared to his great works. The story is kind of dull, but the writing is great. Read it to know how he began, or to read all he has written, but not for a compelling story that touches your heart.
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