Saturday, July 19, 2008

book review - The Cossacks

There are so many reviews that I have not got round to posting that this blog is failing in one of its original aims - which was to help remind me about the books I had read. After finding myself buying the same book twice it became clear there was some sort of memory problem. Recalling characters and plot lines is getting harder as the weeks go by. For some reason names are always just beyond reach and so you end up referring to the main character etc. Still this one falls into the category of classic so in some sense stands out because unlike most of the other stuff in the review pipeline is 19th century.

The Cossacks are a symbolic people in this story as they are elsewhere in Russian literature. Leo Tolstoy writes with real affection about those that live a life far removed from the splendour and riches of Petersburg.

Although this is a book housing three stories it is the title tale about the Cossacks that sticks in the mind.

The Death of Ivan Ilyich is about a man dying not just physically but also emotionally as he realises his ambitions to become a success have been at the expense of real happiness. As he ebbs away on the couch he realises that his wife and daughter have already moved on thinking about a life without him. In some senses it is about the pressure to conform to a certain pattern of success but it is also about the hollowness of a marriage and family that is built on ambition and greed rather than love.

There is the potential for a similar type of feeling with Happy Ever After where a young girl falls in love with an older man and it is her ambition that almost kills the relationship. Leaving the quiet of the country for the bright lights of Petersburg the relationship is put under the twin strains of his jealousy and her ambition to make something of herself. The marriage falls into a state of mutual indifference but then when she confronts her husband back in the country she realises that the relationship on offer is now different and includes a love for their children and an adult love that has grown beyond the youthful heady romance of their first days in the country.

It is putting the first two stories together that the theme of this collection emerges, with Tolstoy looking at the many different sides of relationships. The final story also touches on that area. But The Cossacks is also saying something about the value of nature, the corruption of Russian high society and the wealth that those who live simply have that cannot be bought by unhappy wealthy aristocrats.

There is a love triangle between the wealthy Olenin, who takes up residence in the home of the bare footed peasant girl Marianka's family. The girl is engaged to the young and confident Luka who manages to shoot a Chechen warrior and get the attention of the men and the women for his bravery and swagger. But after a friendship where Olenin goes from falling in love with nature - the real Russia - he also decides that he needs a real Russian wife and after Luka is shot in a battle with revenging Chechens he mistakenly feels that he will be able to take her hand in marriage, but he angrily tells him that he can do nothing for her and he decides to quit the village.

Knowing how Tolstoy viewed the peasantry and the way that real Russia came through contact with the earth and the people who worked with that earth this is more than just a tangled love story. It is more than just a tale about the divide between rich and poor and the barriers love can face. It is also a warning that those sitting in the cities without much idea or care about how the rest of the population work and live will find themselves in the wrong when put alongside their better counterparts.

An interesting collection of stories and one to keep the contact with Tolstoy going but things are still better paced when he can get the whole family relationships and contextualisation that is so much a feature of the 19th century style and then still have 600 pages left to carve out a cracking story.

Version read - Penguin hardback

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