The Cossacks: Read from March 09 to May 17, 2013

Olenin < Pierre < Levin

They are all pretty much the same character with Levin bearing the fullest expression of what Tolstoy thought the ideal man should be.

Yet unlike Pierre and Levin, Olenin was left empty-handed and disillusioned. He tried to be something he is not and could not every be. He turned his back on his responsibilities back home and promptly ran into the backs of the entire Cossack people. To make matters more bitter, the Cossacks, though not Russian, are part of the great land of Russia, a people more Russian than the white Russians – and still Olenin could not find his way to that ideal of nature, of grace, and of love.

So what went wrong for Olenin?

Tolstoy did. Tolstoy did Olenin wrong by not writing the novel well enough.

The most glaring problem with this novel is that it’s not long or varied enough. We get the whole story told about Olenin and not much more. Even more oddly we get it in the 3rd person and not the 1st which would have cured many of this novel’s woes. However, POV aside, we have a main character whose troubled and disillusioned past we know almost nothing about and over the course of a story in which he (and thus we) never have an intimate relationship with anyone else in the novel save for Daddy (himself an outsider) never feel attached to anyone.

Now had Tolstoy really taken the time and built up the longing desire in Olenin to fit it, had really broke him down slowly but steadily, that passion to leave behind ‘the west’ and join ‘the east’ would have raised the stakes. However, as it stands, we progress from one brief, but beautifully described scene to another and rather quickly too. Nothing ever really feels at stake because we instinctively know Olenin will never marry a Cossack girl and will never be accepted by these people.

Yet even with that said, this novel could have been saved had Tolstoy understood better what he was writing as he was writing it. Yet it isn’t until the very end do we get ‘the point’ when Daddy says that Olenin should never rush into a fight with the group, but always stand off to the side because it’s safer to be alone. And in some ways even this isn’t the best point for Tolstoy to make because that doesn’t really give us much of a story. We get Olenin riding away angry at the end without anyone even paying him much attention.

And yet still this could have all worked had Tolstoy not just dismissed Olenin at the very end. The ending could perhaps have made this a better book had Tolstoy known what he was trying to say with this novel. Yet as it stands Tolstoy wanted to say something about an idyllic life that can’t be achieved but we don’t feel the sting of the reproachment because we never fully saw the story from only Olenin’s POV (which is why 1st person would have been better).

Luckily for us, Tolstoy was able to flesh out these themes and better understand what even he wanted in War and Peace and Anna Karenina. Here he took his time, fleshed out the characters, and understood that while one of privilege might not be able to become a ‘simple and happy serf’, it’s still possible to be happy (like Levin).

A shame about this novel too is that with Tolstoy’s personal experiences and his great eye for culture and detail that all we get of these people is this novel. This could have been a great work and though I see what Turgenev also saw in it, Turgenev this is not.

I really wanted to love this novel, I wanted to get lost on the steppe, to see these people, to share in that life, and at times the novel does work, but overall it’s a let-down.