Thursday, January 21, 2016

Winter Book Review: The Gospel in Tolstoy

The Gospel in Tolstoy: Selections From His Short Stories, Spiritual Writings, and Novels

With all my soul I longed to be good, but I was young, I had passions, and I was alone, utterly alone, whenever I sought what was good.

So writes legendary author Leo Tolstoy in "My Way to Faith," one of many entries in one of the newest anthologies to be released of the Russian writer's copious volumes of fiction and nonfiction alike: "The Gospel in Tolstoy" (Plough Publishing, 2015), which is currently ten bucks in e-book format, and roughly the same price used.

I had had a passing familiarity with Tolstoy from my time in seminary, when I had to read his The Death of Ivan Ilyich for a class on cultural attitudes towards death that I was taking at UC-Berkeley, but it wasn't until years later, when I was already in the field pastoring, that I began to understand the impact that Tolstoy has had on a number of my friends, both religious and nonreligious, who spoke of being influenced by Tolstoy, including a colleague and friend who spoke of Tolstoy's impact on him, even as a nonbeliever, in a podcast we recorded together on how people talk about religion today.

I firmly believe that a good book review does not just summarize the book's contents for you--and the reviewer's impression of them--but that it also tries to place for you the book within the wider context of literature and life.  Anthologies as a genre inherently must make great use of the tools of editing when one is dealing with standalone works, and so an aware reader can glean a great deal of insight about an anthology's purpose based on what is included and where.  To that end, it is important to note that it would be quite easy to compile an anthology of Tolstoy without touching on his overtly religious work, to stick more to excerpts from his famous novels instead.

As you can guess by the title "The Gospel in Tolstoy," as well as by the excerpted quote that begins this review, this is an angle that has not been taken here in favor of plumbing Tolstoy's writings for the many theological themes that inform them--themes of death and resurrection as well as of pacifism, nonviolence, and other progressive ideals he embodied from the influence that Jesus Christ had upon him.

In this, the anthology very much serves its purpose.  It feels a bit disjointed at the outset, as its introductory section entitled "Finding God" really could serve as the theme for the entire anthology rather than just a section of it, and quite a few separate themes of journey, death, and renewal all take place within its confines, but once you settle in, the selections peel off in an accessible, readable manner that can keep an interested reader engaged for hours.

Perhaps most importantly, though, the selections which made the cut do justice to the vivid prose of a man whose faith was informed by this profound depth of passion as well as solitary loneliness that comes through in Tolstoy's reminiscence of his youth.  This is an author who has mastered the need and art of introspection, and that he was able to extract the resulting fruit from those many years of introspection and formulate it into a body of writing that appeals to this day is a testament to the voice he gives to the inner questions and existential angsts that we all at times may feel.  If you seek a companion for your own introspective paths into the soul, you may find a knowing guide in Leo Tolstoy.

Disclaimer: My copy of The Gospel in Tolstoy came at no charge from the publisher; however, all opinions here are entirely my own.

Image of Leo Tolstoy courtesy of Wikipedia

1 comment:

  1. In his "calendar of wisdom", Tolstoy curated a collection of thoughts with accompanying marginalia, He hints at the deterioration of his life at the end. As he obsessed over this collection (tweaking it endlessly) he also withdrew from both his exterior world and his sweeping range of thought into religious isolation. He famously died alone, a broken and confused old man, refusing to see his wife.

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