Sunday, January 28, 2007

Tolstoy's "Childhood, Boyhood, Youth"

January 29, 1996

Dear Willis and George,

As I was traveling, just after New Year’s, in nineteenth century Russia, I met a very interesting figure. His name was Nikolai Petrovich. I would like to describe him to you.

I was lucky enough to be welcomed into young Nikolai’s home at his father’s family estate of Petrovskoe. You can imagine the curiosity with which the family and their servants regarded me. It is not often that they had received a guest from the late twentieth century. However, Natalya Nikolayevna, Nikolai’s mother, was in the habit of providing lodging to the wandering religious lunatics that were so common at that time so it was not such a stretch for her to accept me as one more soul in need of shelter and nourishment. Nikolai’s father seemed less tolerant of my presence, but was apparently resigned to providing for whatever strays his wife saw fit to bring home. All in all I was able to enter their home and observe them with a minimum of disruption in the daily routine. After a few comments on the strangeness of my accent when speaking either Russian, French, or German, the members of the household settled back into their normal way of life.

Once I was settled into my lodgings, which consisted of a small and spartan bedroom located on the top floor of the house near the attic, I began to observe the family and to make note of their activities. The choice of which person in the household I should make the object of my study was not difficult. I decided to focus my attention on Nikolai, the younger of the two boys in the family. Piotr Alexandrich and Natalya Nikolayevna were out of the question. The former because he made it quite obvious that he could barely stand to be in the same room with me, and the latter because she was such an incredible bore. Volodya, the older boy, was a nice enough young man, but was at the age at which everything must be treated with a mild contempt, lest he accidentally display some childish emotion. The other children were too young, and the servants, who considered me a freeloader and probably an agent of Satan, refused to speak to me. Ten year old Nikolai, on the other hand, was at the age when some of the magic of childhood still exists.

At first glance, Nikolai was not an attractive child. He had somewhat small and closely set gray eyes, a broad nose, and thick lips. To top it all off he was cursed with a head of hair that refused any attempt by a brush or comb to restrain its enthusiasm for standing straight up. The greatest disadvantage to his looks, however, was that somehow (perhaps by means of a mirror) he had apparently decided that he was quite ugly. As a result he had developed the bad habit common to ugly people of consciously trying to conceal those features which are considered to be the cause of the ugliness. Of course this only brings the feature into greater clarity for the observer. Nevertheless, when caught unaware, or when he was too distracted by other considerations to concentrate on his own appearance, Nikolai Petrovich projected a warmth and charm that was much more attractive than any physical feature could be.

I have to admit at this point that Nikolai chose me as an object of study in much the same way that I chose him. I never really had to ask probing questions of him, as he usually volunteered as much information about himself as I could want. In addition, he asked many questions of me which I had to be careful in answering lest I confuse his young mind as to the nature of my “voyage” to his country. As to the condition of his mind, I have to say that it was in the full flower of a young boy on the cusp of childhood. He was full of energetic imaginings and playful exuberance that seemed to enliven any activity in which he took part. The only times this energetic good nature seemed to flag was when his big brother teased him about being childish, or when someone called attention to his looks.

Despite his immediate liking for me, I came to realize that Nikolai was indeed a very shy boy. A good deal of this shyness obviously was rooted in his dissatisfaction with his appearance. However I feel that it could also be attributed in part to an acute sensitivity he had to pleasing others. He seemed always to be berating himself for one failure or another, and always seemed to measure himself by unattainable standards. An example of this was on the recent hunt that the family went on. Nikolai was sent to catch a hare, and when one did not present itself immediately, he began to daydream as young boys will. When suddenly a hare appeared, it caught him off-guard and got away. Nikolai berated himself soundly for this innocent mishap, which was only observed by Turka, the huntsman.

The day after the hunt he and his father and Volodya set out for Moscow. Piotr Alexandrich had decided that the boys needed to grow up in less “country” surroundings. They were to stay with Nikolai’s grandmother, who inspired respect and fear in the boys that bordered on awe. Nikolai was soon over the grief he felt at parting with his mother and was kept occupied by the newness of his situation. It was at this time that I encountered another example of his shyness. It so happened that shortly after their arrival, the boys were instructed to prepare gifts for their grandmother’s name-day celebration. Nikolai prepared a lovely little poem for her, but, as he confided to me, there was a certain line that caused him some anxiety. In this line he wrote that he and his brother would love their grandmother as much as their own mother. To anyone other than Nikolai, this seems perfectly natural and even mundane. To him, however, it was the cause of a good deal of guilt. It seems that he was afraid that people would think that he had forgotten his mother and replaced her with someone else. To the outside observer this may seem like a trivial consideration, but to Nikolai it was of the gravest importance. His anxiety and shyness grew to an almost unbearable pitch as the time at which he was to present the poem approached. At the time he related this story to me, somewhat later that day, he seemed quite recovered from his ordeal. However, from what he told me, I would guess that until his grandmother and his father showed their approval of his poem, he must have been mortified.

Although Nikolai was a particularly sensitive young fellow, I have to admit that he was not immune to certain character flaws that are all too common among youngsters. One of these flaws was a kind of hero-worship that he had for one of his relations, one Seriozha Ivin. Seriozha was a bit older than Nikolai, and very attractive. From the time Nikolai first met him, he was under his influence. Strangely enough, Nikolai rarely ever talked to Seriozha, but was content to admire him from a distance. This was all well and good enough, except for the fact that Seriozha was quite a braggart and a bully and he was aware of the power he had over others and used it to his advantage. Because of this Nikolai was led into doing things that normally would have been contrary to his gentle nature. One example of this was the way Nikolai took part in the bullying of poor Ilinka Grap. At the time he knew it was wrong to treat the boy in the way they did, but under the influence of Seriozha, he went along with the prank anyway. I fear that when Nikolai grows up, he will look back on that chapter of his life with some measure of shame.

Happily the reign of power which Seriozha held over Nikolai did not last for long. At the ball thrown in honor of his grandmother’s name-day, Nikolai met Sonya, and immediately transferred all the affection he had for Seriozha to her. This was not Nikolai’s first experience with love, for I had seen the way he gazed at Katya back at Petrovskoe. However, this new love that infused his young soul was like nothing he had ever experienced. He found that he no longer particularly cared for Seriozha, and he could barely contain himself when talking about Sonya. It was quite gratifying to see a young person so energized with emotion as Nikolai was that night after the ball. It was as if all of his insecurities and shyness had been drained away, leaving only his new-found love.

Now I must address the sadder portion of my account. Of course we know that all of the people that I met on my “journey” are long since dead, from the oldest to the youngest. For that reason I was able to remain unusually objective when I found out that Natalya Nikolayevna was ill and was not expected to recover. As soon as Piotr Alexandrich received news of her illness, he prepared to take the boys back home. We arrived back at Petrovskoe very shortly before she died. The entire family was plunged into an abyss of grief. Poor Nikolai once again was caught up in the riot of his young emotions. He was naturally stunned by the sudden loss of his dear mother, yet he was unsure of how to show his grief. More than anything else he felt guilty for having so much sadness for himself, and not enough for his mother. He greatly feared that people would not think him appropriately grief-struck so he affected the actions of one completely out of control with despair. Thank heavens for Natalya Savishna! She, who grieved more than anyone at her mistress’s death, was the only one who was able to help poor Nikolai in his grief. It was with her that Nikolai was able to talk about his feelings, and it was she who showed him that it was proper for each person to show his grief in his own way.

Poor Natalya Savishna! Nikolai didn’t realize yet how important this old woman had been in his life. I think that only with the death of his motherdid he begin to see how much that old woman really loved them all. Hopefully Nikolai learned from her about the unselfishness of love.

Shortly after the funeral I was obliged to take leave of Nikolai and his family. I was sorry to leave, yet eager to return to my own time and place. As to Nikolai, I think that he was about to embark on a journey of his own. With the death of his mother his childhood had come to a close. It was now time for him to move on to the next phase in his life, that of boyhood.

I hope this letter has helped you both to get a better picture of Nikolai and his family. I have to say that this whole trip has been quite an experience for me. I must go now, but I will see you soon in class.


Mike McCool

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