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Tolstoy for dabblers

June 11, 2010 | 12:10 pm

  Tolstoycovers

There are those among us who, while being entirely literary, have never read a book by Leo Tolstoy. Not a word of "War and Peace," not a sentence in "Anna Karenina." This is a grave situation, and these readers should be ashamed. I should know: I'm one of them.

It's not like I haven't tried: I took a Russian literature course in college. We read lots of Dostoevsky and had  full side helpings of Gogol. Heck, I even studied Russian as a language. But did I ever get to Tolstoy? Nope. Never.

The challenge is that Tolstoy's works are so big, it's hard to commit to them amid the ebb and flow of all these other books demanding to be read. But the website The Second Pass has revisited "Hadji Murat," also published as "Hadji Murad," Tolstoy's final, slender work. Critic Viktor Shklovsky once wrote, "Among his great works, Tolstoy has one that’s the best. It’s Hadji Murat." And even if it's not, it might just be the place for me to start.

"Despite running to just 120 or so pages," Levi Stahl writes, "Hadji Murat contains all that is peerless in Tolstoy; it is Tolstoy as bullion cube, each scene packed with the telling details that, for him, comprise the world."

Or then there's "Android Karenina," the new public domain mashup from Quirk Books, the publisher that started the trend with "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies." The parts of the book not written by Tolstoy were penned by Ben H. Waters -- the modern writer who provided the beasties in "Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters."

And then there is the final resort for the busy reader: a movie. "The Last Station," a historical drama starring Christopher Plummer as Tolstoy and Helen Mirren as his wife, comes to DVD June 22.

-- Carolyn Kellogg
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