Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Family Happiness, The Tolstoy Book Mentioned in Into the Wild

I wanted to read Tolstoy's Family Happiness after watching Into the Wild a few months ago: an emotional, philosophical film based on John Krakauer's biography of Christopher McCandless in which the book is mentioned.

In 1992, McCandless decided to leave his comfortable American home to hike into the Alaskan wilderness and find the solitude and connection with nature he so yearned for. This was all done under the alias Alexander Supertramp - amazing, right? I don't want to give away the rest of his story, but here's his Wikipedia entry if you want it revealed. I'd recommend the film wholly, although the ending really did get to me.

Into the Wild quotes the following passage from Family Happiness:

“A quiet secluded life in the country, with the possibility of being useful to people to whom it is easy to do good, and who are not accustomed to have it done to them; then work which one hopes may be of some use; then rest, nature, books, music, love for one's neighbour — such is my idea of happiness.”

I love this quote. Taken without the context of the rest of the novel, you get the impression that it's a story of idealist and tranquil ways of living. However, the marriage of Masha and Sergei - although beginning in this happy manner - deteriorates over the course of the novel. Masha gets bored of quiet life in the country, and she becomes a little flirty. The novel touches on fading love, naivety, and the position of a couple within society.

I'll quote here another passage from Family Happiness that was found highlighted in Chris McCandless's copy of the book:

"I wanted movement and not a calm course of existence. I wanted excitement and danger and the chance to sacrifice myself for my love. I felt in myself a superabundance of energy which found no outlet in our quiet life.”

I'm sure that a lot of people will relate to this. Personally, I run from the first signs of danger, but perhaps this will change in future. I did find it very easy to relate to McCandless's wish for solitude, and moreover the way Masha and her husband live their lives in the opening time of their marriage. Both connote peace and time for reflection.

When I first started reading Family Happiness, something immediately struck me as odd: Tolstoy was writing in conversational first-person, and from the perspective of a woman. Had I ever witnessed this before?! He was a genius of his time, that's for sure. I do wonder what Sofya thought of this novel though. There are clear connections between the literary marriage and Tolstoy's own, an example being the age difference between husband and wife (Tolstoy married Sofya when he was 34 and she was 18, not far from the ages mentioned in the novel).

This is a lovely short piece by Tolstoy, and I'd certainly recommend it if you wish to ease into the author's work without yet facing War and Peace and Anna Karenina.

Family Happiness in Into the Wild
Christopher McCandless and his bus.

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Violet said...

I love Tolstoy's writing to bits, but he was such a brute to Sofya. He certainly mined their marriage for material to turn into novels, and poor Sofya had to copy out his scrawl and be lacerated by the barbs in his writing. I feel very sorry for her.

I read Into the Wild and I think that boy had some serious problems. I mean, who in their right mind goes off into the wild so unprepared? My judgement may be prejudiced by the fact that Mr V is a Survival instructor. :)

Lucy said...

Sofya was in a very difficult situation: her unending work wasn't appreciated, and she didn't even have financial security guaranteed after her husband's death. I remember that Tolstoy was involved with a young peasant girl, and echoes of it often appear in his writing. Having to write and correct such excerpts must have created a great strain on the relationship, alongside Sofya's happiness. Poor woman.

I agree that Chris McCandless was consumed by ideals and ignored all possible risks (and they were countless). I find very mixed messages in his life story.

At least your safety is ensured!