Monday, January 31, 2011

book review: Master and Man and Other Stories by Leo Tolstoy




And he remembered about his money, his shop, his house, his purchases and sales and the Mironov's millions; it was hard for him to understand why this man they had called Vasilii Brekhunov had concerned himself with the things he had.


Where Tolstoy is in a league of his own is describing the life of peasants toiling in the hard Russian landscape and writing historical stories set against a landscape of events he describes with great accuracy.

In this collection of three stories, two short and one the length of a novella, his ability to paint a world that is so vivid despite being distant in the past and for me geographically is testament to his writing.

The longest story, Hadji Murat, is set against the background of Russian campaigns to quash local rebellions in the Caucasus. In a battle that sounds oddly familiar the Russian army is fighting against the Chechen rebels and manages to achieve a coup with the defection of Hadji Murat. As the second in command the defection is a useful one. But as Tolstoy reveals, sometimes at a length that is perhaps unwarranted, the political consequences of the defection prevent the Russians ever really using their latest ally usefully. The way that Tolstoy shows both sides of the story with an explanation of why the Chechens have acted with such hostility is fairly well done and one that presumably could have been fairly awkward for a Russian writer to achieve even when it was penned in 1904.

Added to that historical work are two stories that focus more on the idea of self improvement and spirituality. Father Sergius and Master and Man put up two men who are guilty of pride and greed and then details how a humbling of their situation changes their attitude. It was presumably written with the intention of showing other Russians that there was not just a more spiritual path that could be followed but if people put their minds to it change was possible.

As a reading experience this collection works well with the stories flowing well between each other giving the impression they were written in a similar frame of mind at a similar time in Tolstoy's career.

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