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Sabbath Day – Fathers and Sons

March 13, 2015

So, after spending an entire week reading 20th century French literature (see last week’s sabbath post), I was inspired to spend this past week perusing 19th Century Russian literature: Tolstoy, Chekhov, and Turgenev.

I began thinking of Tolstoy a few weeks ago while reading Atul Gawande’s book Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. Gawande uses Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Illych to illustrate the isolation and agony experienced by those who are dying when no one around them is willing to acknowledge the immanence of death. But while this story confronts us with mortality, it raises important questions about life and what makes life worth living. “Maybe I did not live as I ought to have done,” Ivan wonders. “But how could that be if I did everything properly?”


Tolstoy wrote a lot of very long books; Anton Chekhov, on the other hand, was the creator of the modern short story. I read several of these with my son this week, which was great fun. He laughed uncontrollably through “Chameleon” – a story about a people-pleasing, conflict-adverse police inspector. He was alternately amused and saddened by the story of a starving eight year old boy whose mouth made chewing motions as he dreamt of eating food in “Oysters.” Chekov’s own favorite story, “The Student”, would make a perfect Good Friday meditation. (My son also, briefly, wondered what I would look like if I grew a beard like Anton).


Though reading short stories all week long, I began my sabbath day proper late last night with a couple of Chekhov’s plays, Ivanov and Uncle Vanya. I first read the latter in a high school drama class. It was perhaps because this sabbath day was going to end with conference call with colleagues resisting climate change that I was particularly struck by this monologue delivered by the young doctor Astrov:

You can burn peat in your stoves and build your sheds of stone. Oh, I don’t object, of course, to cutting wood from necessity, but why destroy the forests? The woods of Russia are trembling under the blows of the axe. Millions of trees have perished. The homes of the wild animals and birds have been desolated; the rivers are shrinking, and many beautiful landscapes are gone forever. And why? Because men are too lazy and stupid to stoop down and pick up their fuel from the ground. (To HELENA) Am I not right, Madame? Who but a stupid barbarian could burn so much beauty in his stove and destroy that which he cannot make? Man is endowed with reason and the power to create, so that he may increase that which has been given him, but until now he has not created, but demolished. The forests are disappearing, the rivers are running dry, the game is exterminated, the climate is spoiled, and the earth becomes poorer and uglier every day. (To VOITSKI) I read irony in your eye; you do not take what I am saying seriously, and—and—after all, it may very well be nonsense. But when I pass peasant-forests that I have preserved from the axe, or hear the rustling of the young plantations set out with my own hands, I feel as if I had had some small share in improving the climate, and that if mankind is happy a thousand years from now I will have been a little bit responsible for their happiness. When I plant a little birch tree and then see it budding into young green and swaying in the wind, my heart swells with pride and I– (He sees the WORKMAN, who is bringing him a glass of vodka on a tray) However — (He drinks) I must be off. Probably it is all nonsense, anyway. Good-bye.

This was nearly 120 years ago. The changes that horrified Chekov would be reversible, given time, while today we are facing irreversible planetary change. Astrov’s speech reminded me of a short essay my son wrote last Sunday about the ambiguity of being human. I was really proud of his reflection.

The bulk of my Sabbath day was spent all by myself, sitting quietly in the sun and reading Ivan Turgenev’s novel Fathers and Sons. (I also spent two hours reading in Hastings Tea Room, just a block from our new home). I was completely absorbed all day, almost like being on vacation. I finished reading just in time for my conference call.

Ivan Turgenev

It will be a busy week coming up, and I don’t expect much time for reading, but post-Easter I am considering a few more national literature tours.

Any suggestions for me? Countries and authors please…



3 Comments leave one →
  1. March 16, 2015 6:46 pm

    As long as you’re doing Russian lit, give Gogol a look. Just finished reading War and Peace last week. Glad I finally did!

  2. March 17, 2015 9:46 am

    Thanks Mitch. I have two translations of Gogol’s “Dead Souls” on my shelf, unread, right next to the Turgenev. Though it may not be obvious, I have had limited time for reading, and Gogol was more than I could handle in a week. Someday, soon.


  1. Reading National Literature | revgeary

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