One popular parlor game is making a list of books that “changed one’s life.” If I were to create a list, it would border on Hyperbole, a rogue nation if ever there was one. Influential books? In another country (with apologies to Hemingway) entirely.
When I was still in college, I read and enjoyed Tolstoy’s two giants, War and Peace and Anna Karenina. I was taken most with Levin in AK, Tolstoy’s autobiographical character, and I even named my new puppy (long gone to the puppy fields in the sky) after Levin’s hunting dog (Laska, for you trivia buffs).
In W&P the characters of Pierre, Nikolai, and Andrei fascinated me. Nikolai’s sister, Natasha, too. These men were probably splintered versions of Levin. And Natasha? An idealized woman for Tolstoy: young, pretty, intellectual, the equal of any man.
Anyway, the influential book was neither Anna Karenina nor War & Peace, it was Tolstoy’s Diary (expurgated, alas), of which I found a cool old copy gathering dust in the stacks at my university library. I read it twice in one winter — the same winter I plowed through all of Ivan Turgenev’s novels (that was one Russkie Winter!).
Young Tolstoy was obsessed with self-improvement, both spiritually and physically. Taken with Benjamin Franklin’s works and thoughts, he kept “Franklin Journals” in his diary, vowing, say, to write for two hours the next morning after doing exercise for an hour, not to mention to acting more kindly to this one and tolerating more sufficiently that one.
What cracked me up was how horrible Tolstoy was at the Franklin method (I imagine Franklin — that cagey hypocrite — was horrible, too). The next day Tolstoy would sternly excoriate himself for the preceding day’s failures: he got drunk (again) when he said he wouldn’t, he gambled (again) at cards when he promised he’d avoid it, he partied all night (again) like any rich Russian noble should (because he could!), and he winked at a pleasant peasant lass (again), following her (again) into the barn to make hay while the sun shined (outside).
Young Tolstoy, so pitifully human and honest, so good-intentioned, and such a wonderful failure, appealed to the college me, a kid with every intention of leading the writing life (and already gaining credits and a worthy GPA in the partying life).
Of course, for Tolstoy, all of these good intentions would be echoed later in life, when the prospect of impending death did what the youthful Franklin Journals failed to do — pushed him not only to compliance but to a kind of fanatic extremism (one that would ruin some of his writing by making it didactic and overly religious). Old age finally had pushed this “seer of the flesh” (as the Russian critic Dmitri Merezhkovsky called him) to becoming something he, at heart, wasn’t — a “seer of the spirit” like Dostoevsky (another kettle of sturgeon entirely).
So, yeah. Loved Tolstoy’s Diary. It didn’t change my life (my wife took care of that), but it was so-o-o relatable. In the Diary, I found and followed up on some of his readings at the time, too (Pushkin, Sterne, Dickens, Rousseau, Lermontov, and the aforementioned Turgenev, for example). Because of the Diary, I read and fell in love with Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, Turgenev’s Sportsman’s Sketches, and Pushkin’s Belkin’s Tales.
I even tried my own Franklin Journals briefly. Like the master, I failed roaringly.
Young Tolstoy would be proud.