marginalia || Excerpted from “What Is Art?” [from Last Steps: The Late Writings of Leo Tolstoy]

I have read Leo Tolstoy. Granted, I only read a snippet of his — and, granted, the initial elation eventually shattered upon learning that the What Is Art? that I read was a mere excerpt — but I’ve read Leo Tolstoy. More disclaimers, I suppose: It’s not his fiction, and am I not “supposed to” read his fiction first? [Plus, I’m reading Tolstoy for The Classics Circuit, and I admit flaking out. For one, I don’t have a copy of his novels, though his short stories look appealing.] But — although I enjoyed what I’ve read of Tolstoy, snippets they might be — I’m wondering whether I really do want to read Tolstoy, a Tolstoy not as, well, not as priggish as he came to be. The Tolstoy I was witness to.

From Last Steps: The Late Writings of Leo Tolstoy, edited by Jay Parini, I read Work, Death and Sickness, Three Questions, and an excerpt [augh] from What Is Art?, the bulk of which I’ll talk about in this post. Some quick impressions on the first two — they’re rather pedantic, in the format of “legends” or “fables”, incredibly moralistic, and I was rather tolerant with Tolstoy the Preacher. I don’t know why I bore it — maybe because, well, I had an inkling of the track Tolstoy’s life took in his final years. I was tolerant, yes, but I didn’t like them.

And that leads us to What Is Art?, which I liked. A lot. Too bad it’s not the whole text. [Rest assured, I was crushed upon learning this.] I wasn’t able to take notes on my notebook, but I was scribbling on the margins, some of which I’ve taken pictures of. [I apologize in advance for the crappy photos. I was freaking out re creasing the spine, haha.] Where was I? Oh yeah. I liked this one, I liked it a lot.

Towards a definition of Art

Perhaps it’s today’s whole “Art is whatever art is for everybody” that makes a lot of people reticent about proclaiming something about the nature of art. And when someone does pose a definition, most look upon them with scorn, think them arrogant, at times laughable. How dare you? we tend to say. It’s not so much cowardice, I think, on the part of people who want to define. But it could be indifference, in that Hey, everyone else has a definition, why bother? It could be pragmatism, in that, Hey, everyone else has a definition, why bother? It could be, I don’t know, it could be the humility of knowing that everyone else has a definition. Plus, more often than not, people who have risked defining art these days, well, most do it to just ruffle some feathers.

And Tolstoy, well, he’s got guts. I guess that’s what hit me first with this — The audacity to define what art is, and to do it so skillfully, so artfully. Although a part of me still rebels against the idea that someone dares define art — doesn’t that take away a piece of the art? but that’s just me — I liked how Tolstoy said it, I liked that he said his piece. Then again, he’s Tolstoy — I could forgive him many things.

What makes Art? -- 3 criteria
A recurring theme -- Art must infect!

I suppose what struck me most about Tolstoy’s treatise — and I nodded several times throughout the text — was 1] how earnest the man was, 2] how sincere he seemed, 3] how he himself defined his very standards. A conscious effort, perhaps, or maybe simply effortless. . . . The receiver of a true artistic impression is so united to the artist that he feels as if the work were his own and not someone else’s — as if what it expresses were just what he had long been wishing to express. That’s what Art is, Tolstoy tells us: An infection, a total permeation, a seamless union.

A thousand times, yes, Count Tolstoy

I am the first to admit that I read him as I would read assigned text for school. The scribbles and markings are not so much marginalia as they were notes, even weapons, haha. I wish I had a scanner, then I could show you how I argued with Tolstoy at times, posed questions to the text and myself, seemed like I was preparing for a graded recitation for the next day. Though some may point out that this is not “the right way” to read literature, this was the very way I enjoyed Tolstoy. He who struck fear into many a heart with just the sight of his name printed on the cover of a book.


Reading begets reading:

  1. Of course I want to read the whole thing. Of course, not a single copy can be found in this country.
  2. Jay Parini, who edited this Penguin Classics collection, has written a novel: The Last Station: A Novel of Tolstoy’s Last Year, and the novel is threaded with snippets from the collection, be it letters or essays, or just reflections. As of posting this, I’m halfway through the novel. And can I just whine about how many names I have to keep track of? One person has seventy-eight nicknames, it confuzzles me.
  3. This means I have to read Anna Karenina, no? Gulp. To those who have read it, seriously now: Is my brain going to melt? Are my bones going to buckle by lugging the book around? [Although I am partial to getting this edition.] Or maybe I just want to read Anna Karenina because of, well, peer pressure? Should I just stop at this collection? I’m leaning towards Yeah, let it go.

22 thoughts on “marginalia || Excerpted from “What Is Art?” [from Last Steps: The Late Writings of Leo Tolstoy]

  1. I loved these photos you posted! I don’t write in my books – I rarely feel compelled to do so, for whatever reason – but I find your scribbles oddly beautiful! It makes me wonder why I never seem to engage with texts the way you do!

    As for Anna Karenina, I read it a for a course I took on Tolstoy in university and it’s a really good read and despite the size, not intimidating or inaccessible. Honest! I admit, the parts about peasant rights can drag a bit, but it’s a wonderful read regardless. And I read the version you linked to and it’s beautifully done! You absolutely should give it a try – I think you’ll be surprised.

    1. Thank you, Steph. It took a while for me to “loosen up” and write in books. But Literature classes in college was good training, haha. Nowadays, I seesaw from just scribbling on the book, or running to my notebook. I’ve got a method that would be very odd to anyone else, haha. I’ve learned to make it jive though. With Tolstoy, well, his work seemed to demand hands-on, direct responses. And so I introduced it to my red pen. :)

      One of the reasons why I’m curious as to see what Anna Karenina is like’s, well, it seems like the one I would most like. The drama, and the romance, and all that. And the cover in that edition is just gorgeous. :) One of these days, I am sure. Once I have decently whittled down the TBR? [Oh, when will that be?]

  2. I’m reading “Anna Karenina” right now and I’ve recently passed the half-way mark (around the 400 page mark). The length is a bit intimidating since the content is so rich with characters, debates, and anecdotes, but it definitely won’t melt your brain. It’s intellectually stimulating, but not impenetrable.

    Also, “Anna Karenina” is mostly about love and infidelity–and since there’s not a person on the planet that isn’t even a little interested in love and the infidelities of others, it’s an engaging story. And because the book is gigantic and Tolstoy loves character development, you get to know all its characters as if they were real, which is very rewarding.

    Yeesh, I’m already a convert and I haven’t even finished it yet!

    1. Thanks so much, Jordan. Your input’s added to the “Go Ahead, Dammit, and Read It, You Know You Want To!” side of the Anna Karenina argument in my head, haha. Thanks for the insight, definitely inviting. :) As I said in another comment, I’m partial to, er, attacking AK because it seemed like the Tolstoy I’d enjoy most. Or, whose premise I’m inclined to like immediately.

      Good luck with the rest of the book!

  3. Haha I love the photos! I am wary of getting into “Anna Karenina” too. My brain just doesn’t really digest stuff well sometimes. We shall see. Haha.

    Great post, bb :)

    1. Thanks, Carina. I see AK in the bookstores and I have to stop myself from buying it for the shmexeh cover. Fat books intimidate me, though. Especially fat books by long-dead Russian authors called Leo Tolstoy. [Psst, I miss you.]

  4. Sasha! Your Silverfysh posts come to me via email and it really makes my day to read what you write about the stuff we love best! Thank you, again. Your work is precious. I desperately hope that one day someone will pay you to do this. More people should read you so that more people will read! :)

    Let’s reading date this week?

    1. Nash! I am back from the depths of, well, employment. But I am jobless again. I want to see you at the soonest — a lot of stories to tell you, a lot of hugs to give. Thank you, thank you! At text-text, haha.

  5. Love that you write on your books. I’ve always wanted to, but because I’m so OC I’m afraid that if I did and made a bad line or an ugly scribble or mistake that I’d obsess about correcting it or getting a new copy, lol.

    1. I am O.C. too. That makes it difficult when I need to write something on the book, but the spine is in danger of being creased, haha. It took a lot of training; nowadays I desperately try not to think about it. But some books just make me want to react now, without need to run to a handy-dandy notebook. :)

  6. I tried Anna Karenina and failed. I think it’s impossible to read Tolstoy and not read it like something you would read for school. It’s just impossible. And the only reason I even tried to read Anna Karenina is because I thought I should. Well fuck should, just fuck it.

    1. I think “analytical & academic” is my default mode for Classics [with very few exceptions], and I’ve been trying to change that. But I do realize that if I really want to read AK, then I’ll read it in anyway I can. A part of me feels that I “should” read AK, and I suppose I’m fishing for insight right now because I want to convince myself that, well, Fuck it, I’ll read it because I really really want to.

  7. Should you read Anna Karenina, definitely get your hands on the edition linked above, translated by Peaver and Volokhonsky. They also recently published their translation of War and Peace, which is very good.

    You’ll never get away from Tolstoy’s pedantic and “absolute” writing, but it may comfort you to know that Tolstoy himself was haunted by his own pedantic nature. He disowned both War and Peace and Anna Karenina for not living up to his standards of art.

    1. I actually never felt curious about AK until this edition, this translation, came out. Have heard very good things about the duo, plus I am in love with the cover.

      One of the books in my “Currently Reading” pile is Jay Parini’s The Last Station: A Novel of Tolstoy’s Final Year. A rather winding but vaguely enjoyable [weird phrasing, yes, haha] detailing of what could’ve been in Tolstoy’s head, and what was historically around him. Funny thing is, most people would read his novels than anything else by him. He’s generally more known for his fiction. At least, that’s how I know him.

  8. “And can I just whine about how many names I have to keep track of? One person has seventy-eight nicknames, it confuzzles me.”

    Yeah, its the Russian way. If i’m not mistaken, nicknames depend on what kind of relationship a person has with someone. And there are many forms with a particular meaning. A, basta, mahirap ang Russian. :P

    1. Tanginang mga pangalan, kalokohan. Gumawa ako ng sarili kong diagram nung binasa ko yung One Hundred Years of Solitude dahil sa pare-parehong pangalan. Pero mas hassle yung sobrang dami. Kalokohan na, haha. I Google-d pa yung “rules” ng naming. Pocha, trabaho, hahaha.

  9. Ugh, I dislike the “infectious art” wording! Although it’s not intentional, it implies art should be avoided as if it is an disease.

    I read “Anna Karenina” years ago when Oprah picked it as a book club read. I’d like to get to his other works, but have less time now than I did then!

    1. Although that line of thought did cross my mind, I was more keen on reading the phrase as, say, the way people say a smile, or laughter, or some joyful is infectious? Though Tolstoy did ramble about the whole “absorbing” and “infection” analogies, haha.

  10. I hate it when something I was reading suddenly turns out to have been an abridgement! ARGH!

    I don’t think you should be scared of Tolstoy. I remember really like Anna Karennina. Although I liked Dostoevsky more, I think. That said, I’m still intimidated by War and Peace just because I hear it’s more history than AK was….

    1. And the bigger problem is, the unabridged version is not that easy to find in these here parts.

      I’m more inclined to read AK than W&P. I think the initial impression the titles alone give off is enough to convince me that AK is for me if I had to choose.


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