Thursday, February 9, 2012

Tolstoy & Dostoevsky

Every time I mention either of those names an entire saga comes to mind that I feel compelled to tell. I never do, though. Tolstoy and Dostoevsky are both Russian authors who had almost as huge an influence on my writing as Shakespeare, and that's not mentioning how they influenced my life. Their writing is absolutely incredible, if a little dark. It reflects Christianity perfectly, without being preachy. Even the preaching is intensely dramatic.

But first let me tell you how either name came first to be mentioned in my father's house. It was a stranger who moved into our area one day, and did a little fencing for my father. He became very interested in the local Mennonite community, but against my father's advice. He was smarter than most who were beguiled by their pretense at righteousness, but he couldn't resist their spell, either. He refused to accept their money or their aid, disdaining to be beholden to them, choosing rather a life of poverty for himself and his family.

Nothing in the bible is pointless, he told my father. Every last word is there for a reason.

He took the blind man by the hand, and led him out of the town; and when he had spit on his eyes, and put his hands upon him, he asked him if he saw ought. And he looked up, and said, I see men as trees, walking. - Matthew 8: 23-24
Even the reference to trees has significance, he said, if you know what to look for. It's not a random description. It has meaning.

He gave us a book, a marvelous book. It was purple and bore the title "Walk in the Light and Twenty Three Tales. By Leo Tolstoy." My father was captivated. Later I would be too. Amazed he looked up the publishing house, and discovered it was put out by a community known as the Bruderhof. Impressed he ordered a copy of the book for himself, and another: "The Gospel in Dostoevsky: Selections from his Works."

Tolstoy was impressive and endearing. Dostoyevsky has no equal. When my father later bought "Brothers Karamazov" I read it, all 800 pages. He found it boring and gave up half way through, but I was riveted, and forced him to finish it. He wouldn't let me read ahead of him, so we raced through the second half of the book, with me catching up on everything he read during the day, and waiting impatiently for more.

Fyodor Dostoevsky
Brothers Karamazov was good, but what I really wanted was "The Idiot." I stalked the library until I found it, a tiny trade paperback that was almost impossible to read with it's small print and huge page count. I read it anyway, caught in the pathos of the tale and marveling at the character of Myshkin; still one of the most sympathetic characters I know.

That was my introduction to Russian literature, and it marked a major change in my life. The Grand Inquisitor is an excerpt from Brothers Karamazov that I quote at every possible occasion, and was the main inspiration for my science fiction novel: "City of Lies." Both Tolstoy and Dostoevsky writing stories that I can go back and reread for ages, nevermind how long or short the tale.

What became of the remarkable man who brought this name into my life? He was baptized into the Mennonite church, and scarcely a month later he bitterly regretted his mistake. He attempted to leave then, but they brainwashed his wife and daughter into staying behind, and he would not leave them. The compromise he made was costly; he took his family half way across the country, promising to arrive in another Mennonite community, but never planning to arrive at his destination. He left abruptly, without fanfare, and we do not know for sure where he is today.

Two copies of Tolstoy sit on our library shelves. One is our own, and one is borrowed, still waiting to be returned to its owner. Every time I go in search of a book I see them there, side by side, identical, and it reminds me of this story, of that strange time in my life, and of how a little bit of Russian first crept into my writing.

1 comment: