(E-)Book Read! CHILDHOOD by Leo Tolstoy

Leo Tolstoy, Childhood (1852).

First sentence: “On the 12th of August 18_ (just three days after my tenth birthday, when I had been given wonderful presents), I was awakened at seven o’clock in the morning by Karl Ivanitch slapping the wall close to my head with a fly-flap made of sugar paper and a stick.”

P. 99: “Yet the dance was over before I had succeeded in saying THOU, even though I kept conning over phrases in which the pronoun could be employed – and employed more than once.”

Last sentence: “Did Providence unite me to those two beings solely in order to make me regret them my life long?”

Short Biography:

Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy was born on 28 August 1828 into a long line of Russian nobility. He was the fourth child of Countess Maria Volkonsky (who Tolstoy does not remember, as she died after giving birth to his sister Mariya in 1830) and Count Nicolay Ilyich Tolstoy (1797-1837) a Lieutenant Colonel who was awarded the order of St. Vladimir for his service. At the age of sixteen he had fathered a son with a servant girl, Leo’s half-brother Mishenka. When Count Tolstoy resigned from his last post with the Military Orphanage, a marriage was arranged between him and Maria Volkonsky. After her death the Count’s distant cousin Tatyana Aleksandrovna Yergolskaya ‘Aunt Tatyana’, who already lived with them helped him in running the household, raising the children and overseeing their tutoring. Leo’s paternal grandfather Count Ilya Andreyevich Tolstoy (d.1820) had been an overly generous and trusting man; by the time Leo was born the Tolstoy fortunes had dwindled and the newlyweds settled at the Volkonsky family estate ‘Yasnaya Polyana’ (meaning ‘Clear Glade’) located in Tula Region, Shchekino District of central Russia. Leo’s maternal great grandfather Prince Nikolas Sergeyevich Volkonsky had established it in the early 1800s; upon his death his daughter Countess Volkonsky inherited it. It is now preserved as a State Memorial and National Preserve.

Leo greatly admired his oldest brother Nikolay ‘Koko’ (1823-1860). In recollecting their childhood Leo revered him, along with his mother, as saintly in their modesty, humility, and unwillingness to condemn or judge others. His other siblings were Sergey (b.1826), Dmitriy (1827-1855) and Mariya (b1830). The Tolstoy House was a bustling household, often with extended family members and friends visiting for dinner or staying for days at a time. The children and adults played Patience, the piano, put on plays, sang Russian and Gypsy folk songs and read stories and poetry aloud. A voracious reader, Leo would visit his father in his study as he read and smoked his pipe. Sometimes the Count would have young Leo recite memorised passages from Alexander Pushkin. The family home still contains the library of over twenty thousand books in over thirty languages. When not indoors, there was no shortage of outdoor activities for the children: tobogganing in winter, horseback riding, playing in the orchards, forests, formal gardens, greenhouses and bathing in the large pond which Leo loved to do all his life.

Days in the country however were to come to an end when, in 1836, the Tolstoys moved to Moscow so that the boys could attend school. The following summer Count Tolstoy died suddenly. He was buried at Tula. Leo had a hard time accepting this inevitability of life; the loss of his father was a profound experience to such a young boy and as he watched his beloved grandmother Pelageya (who died two years later) suffer through her grief, he had his first spiritual questionings. His father’s sister, Countess Aleksandra Osten Saken ‘Aunt Aline’ became the children’s guardian and Nikolay and Sergey stayed with her in Moscow while Leo and his sister Mariya and Dmitriy moved back to Yasnaya Polyana to live with Aunt Tatyana.

Because I loved Anna Karenina (I have already read it three times), I was a bit curious about the author of this book… so when I had the opportunity to read his  autobiography, a mixture of fact and fiction, I took it.  There seem to be four works that together tell his life-story from youth to death, but I will only read two of them (Childhood, Youth; I won’t read Boyhood).  I thought Childhood was really told from a boy’s perspective, a boy about 10 years old.  He was rather egocentric and was desperately looking  for a role-model, and of course, he always chose the wrong ones.   The book ends with the death of his mother and the following death of her servant (hence the last sentence of the book).

I liked this book, but didn’t really love it.


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