Monday, August 04, 2008

Dear I've Been Reading Lately,

A discussion this week with Jenny Davidson about the publication of So I Have Thought of You, a collection of letters from the splendid Penelope Fitzgerald (a copy of which is winging its way to me across the ocean as we speak) has convinced me that this week ought to be, despite not a whit of planning on my part, a Letters Week! I do, after all, love letters.

Fortunately for this theme, I happened to begin the week with a bit from Kafka's letters. As I've also recently been reading Tolstoy's letters, it seems right to continue by quoting a letter from him that, unusually, could serve as the opening--or perhaps even the whole--of a story by Kafka. Sent to his English translator Aylmer Maude on November 3, 1910, at the end of his ill-starred final flight from the (somewhat self-induced) marital hell of Yasnaya Polyana, it was written in English in response to a letter Maude had sent inquiring about his health. Tolstoy's letter in full reads:
On my way to the place where I wished to be alone I was taken ill . . .
Four days later he was dead.

Tolstoy's letters, like his biography, serve as a reminder, should we need one, that acute perceptiveness and talent needn't necessarily bring with them true understanding of oneself, one's relations to others, or--perhaps most troubling--of how one ought to live in the world. A passage from a letter to Turgenev, sent from Moscow in May of 1882, illustrates this poignantly:
I'm quite calm, but sad--often because of the exultant, self-assured madness of the life of the people around me. I often don't understand why it has been granted to me to see their madness so clearly, and they are completely incapable of understanding their own madness and their own errors; and we just stand opposite each other without understanding each other, being astonished, and condemning each other. Only they are legion, and I am one. They seem to be happy and I seem to be sad.
He was right about his understanding, insufferable because of it, and never quite capable of reconciling what he knew of other people and what he knew of himself. Therein lies the tragic sadness of Tolstoy's life.

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