Thursday, August 18, 2011

#19: The Devil, Leo Tolstoy

The Devil
by Leo Tolstoy
-born in Russia, 1828
-128 Pages
-more about Tolstoy (via Goodreads)

Authorial Tidbits: (via Melville House)
- Leo Tolstoy was born into the upper levels of the Russian aristocracy (his mother was a princess).
- After a licentious youth, he joined the army and published his first novel (Childhood) while serving in an artillery unit.  He eventually quit the military in disgust.
- He traveled throughout Europe but became disillusioned by Western materialism and returned to his family estate, got married, fathered 13 children, and founded a school for young peasants.
- In 1879, Tolstoy underwent a spiritual crisis; his extreme asceticism inspired a widespread, cult-like worship, but also exacerbated tension with his wife.

Synopsis: (via Melville House)
Leo Tolstoy is known for epic novels that brilliantly dissect society, but the novella The Devil may be the most personally revealing—and startling—fiction he ever wrote. He thought it so scandalous, in fact, that he hid the manuscript in the upholstery of a chair in his office so his wife wouldn't find it, and he would never allow it to be published in his lifetime.

Perhaps that's because the gripping tale of an aristocratic landowner slowly overcome with unrelenting sexual desire for one of the peasants on his estate was strikingly similar to an affair Tolstoy himself had. Regardless, the tale—presented here with the two separate endings Tolstoy couldn't decide between—is a scintillating study of sexual attraction and human obsession.

My Impressions:
I briefly mentioned in my last review that The Devil made good companion reading to The Death of Ivan Ilych in that the latter really showcases his writing ability, while the former is more about his storytelling.  The Devil is certainly less polished than The Death of Ivan Ilych, but what do you expect from a manuscript that was hidden inside a chair's upholstery?  There's a reason that Tolstoy felt that this story was scandalous and wouldn't allow it to be published in his lifetime: it has that a-bit-too-personal feeling that can occasionally feel oddly uncomfortable.  I can see Tolstoy having just such a conflict of ideals.
During coffee, as often happened, a peculiarly feminine kind of conversation went on which had no logical sequence but which evidently was connected in some way for it went on uninterruptedly.
Where The Devil went from feeling like a current issue to an extrapolation of wishful thinking was towards the end.  There's a little Choose Your Own Adventure happening with the end, as Tolstoy gives his readers a couple of outcome-options.  They were fun options, but they both wrapped up the story quite quickly and pulled me out of Yevgeny's problem and plopped me right into the middle of Tolstoy's writing room instead.  In all, it was a fun, fascinating story that would have been marvelous to see fleshed out and refined.
The most mentally deranged people are certainly those who see in others indications of insanity they do not notice in themselves.
These two novellas together offer a taste of War & Peace: great story, great writing, interesting history and philosophy.  Only difference is the size/time commitment...these novellas are a nice place to start.


  1. I'm glad he stuck with the first ending! I really wasn't a fan of this, but I'm going to try some different Russian authors and see if I don't do better. Tolstoy just doesn't seem to be doing it for me.

  2. I liked the first ending better--it seemed more fitting. The second one was so dramatic that it seemed a little silly.

    I've been surprised at the variety of styles in the Russian authors. There have been authors in this novella collection that haven't appealed to me that are other people's favorites; sometimes it's hard to explain the appeal (or lack of). I hope you find a Russian author to be fond of. :)


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