ACROSS THE STEPPES WITH TARAS AND HIS MEN
Way back in 2007 (September 21, Writer Working devotees), I had a grand time with Gogol’s Dead Souls. Thanks to my commentary on Cortright McMeel’s first-rate financial thriller Short (See Writer Working, Feb 15, ’11), writer and mentor Les Edgerton put me in touch with McMeel and directed me to his blog, which contains a great compare-and-contrast piece on Gogol and Tolstoy called the “Cossack Novel Smackdown.” I decided to create a Writer Working version of McMeel’s event, And here it is:
The used copy of Taras Bulba, (a “modern translation” 1962) I got from Amazon is painted as luridly as any Max Brand or Luke Short western, and the tale does have that aspect to it. But it’s oh, so much more..
The Cossacks (in their 16th century manifestation, according to Gogol, writing in 1842), you see, are restless warriors. Born and bred for war, they’ve been chafing under a peace agreement that’s kept them from fighting the Turks, Tartars and Poles for far too long. They consider themselves the bearers of the true religion (Russian Orthodox), duty-bound to destroy such unbelievers as Roman Catholics and Muslims. So away they go to find someone who deserves to die. Taras, with his two sons at his side, dashes off at the head of his warrior group/clan. As the scattered militias gather their forces for the expedition, they trade stories of battles and hear the fates of comrades past (flayed, beheaded, burned alive, etc.) Savage, and meant to be.
We’ve heard the legendary Indian saying “a good day to die.” So, too, these warriors:
I thank god, my comrades, that I die before your eyes. May those who live after us be better men than we, and may our Russian land, beloved of Christ, be ever beautiful.
Taras is full of such extravagant speeches semi-Homeric transports:
In the evening a great change came over the steppe. All its many-hued expanse caught the sun’s last flaming reflection and darkened gradually, so that dusk could be seen closing over it, painting it dark-green; the vapours thickened: every flower, every herb breathed forth its scene, and the whole steppe was redolent.
Pretty romantic for a writer famed as a realist. If such passages don’t convince you that Gogol intended Taras Bulba as a parallel to Homer’s epic of ancient wars, behold this oft-repeated formulaic call-and-response battle chant:
How now, brothers! … There is yet powder in the powder horns? Your sabers are not yet blunt? Cossack strength is not yet wearied? The Cossacks do not give way?
And the answer: There is still powder enough, Batko! Our sabers are still sharp! Cossack strength is not yet wearied! The Cossacks do not give way!
Homeric, too, are the themes. Family strife and betrayal. Family strife morphing into national, international, and religious strife. Truly epic.
And so different from Dead Souls, the story of an urbane and witty con man. Absolutely urban compared to these wild men of the plains. Same writer, though. Truly deserving of Whitman’s salute to himself: “I contain multitudes.” Hemingway reputedly called Taras Bulba one of the ten greatest books ever written. Excessive praise, of course, but high praise is due, and I lament how unappreciated and undervalued this towering master has become in our time.
AND WHAT ABOUT LEO?
Imagine you’re lonely in a strange town. You walk by a house where a party’s going on. You look in the windows and see lots of good times–music, dancing, drinking, laughing. You go in. You wander around, talk to some people, even dance a little. Everyone is nice, but they don’t know you. A few words with you, and they’re back with their friends. You’re inside the house, but really no closer to the good times than you were outside the window. After a while, you leave, walk on, lonely as ever. Moreso.
That’s pretty much the story of the Russian nobleman Olenin during his stay with the primitives in Tolstoy’s The Cossacks. He’s an outsider struggling to find a way in to the simple country life that is the antithesis of the Moscow society he yearns to flee. Or thinks he does.
Probably the prime difference between The Cossacks and Taras Bulba is that Tolstoy’s protagonist is an observer and an intellectual of Cossack life. In Gogol’s work, we’re inside the hero’s world, inside his head and heart every galloping, slashing, cursing, stabbing step of the way. Too, The Cossacks, is a world writ small, almost on an Austen-like scale compared to Mr. T’s later blockbusters. Except for a few hunting excursions and some low-key (though important to the story) military action, we’re pretty much confined to one village, a few huts, and a tepid frustrated romance.
All of this is appropriate and proper to the task Tolstoy set himself –showing a pathetic youth trying to turn himself into a spontaneous soul by thinking hard about what it means to be spontaneous. Oxymoronic. I’m reminded of Hawthorne’s sojourn at the Brook Farm commune where he discovered that all the bucolic life had to offer the writer was a chance to bury his soul in manure. Tolstoy is said to have had similar experiences in his abortive attempts to give up his status as a feudal lord and merge with his peasants. Hard to do in any case, but made much harder when your wife likes her crystal and linen so much. But I digress. Unfortunately, Olenin never has as much of an epiphany as Hawthorne. He takes a whining kind of exit from his village, and we get the feeling that the Cossack will little note nor long remember his stay in their midst. and that Olenin will never really understand why.
I have to agree with Cort McMeel. The Cossacks is a fine piece of writing, but it’s the kind of work I can admire and appreciate. Positive feelings, but not passionate ones. Taras Bulba has juice. Despite its occasional excursions into excess and melodrama, the book is inundated with the hot fluids of life. I don’t recall a moment of reading it when I wasn’t excited. I recall very few of those moments during my reading of The Cossacks. So, if Mr. Gogol will come up on stage, we’ll be glad to present him with the Writer Working Oscar of the Steppes.
AND WHAT ABOUT LEO?
AND NOW, TO OPEN THE ENVELOPE