Childhood is the first of Tolstoy’s books to be published and also the first in a trilogy; the other two volumes are Boyhood & Youth, unsurprisingly. It was originally intended to be a quartet, but Tolstoy moved on and never wrote the fourth volume. Childhood was originally published anonymously, which, given the Russian government and their harsh view of art, was technically illegal, but Tolstoy refused to disclose his identity to the publisher. The book started a real fire among the Russian literati and it’s easy to see why even now. I read the Judson Rosengrant translation, published by Penguin in 2012; I tend to like Penguin’s translations. It’s always kind of a frightening thing to pick up something by a “literary genius” from another time. Sometimes these books can be a slog, even if they are ultimately rewarding. Childhood, thankfully, isn’t a slog at all. It’s only around a hundred & twenty pages and, while there isn’t much in the way of plot exactly, it’s kind of a page turner. Tolstoy gets really deeply inside the head of Nicolay, the protagonist of the trilogy. Ever since its first publication, this trilogy often gets called autobiographical, but I don’t really think so. Obviously, Tolstoy has some inspiration and insight here that he’s recalled from his own childhood, but the circumstances of Nicolay’s life are different in very significant ways. Tolstoy, for instance, never knew his mother; she died when he was only two. Nicolay, on the other hand, has an intimate relationship with his mother in this book. I think to make too much of the autobiographical links between Tolstoy and Nicolay is to underplay the real genius of Childhood as a novel. It’s really wonderfully crafted in the way it introduces characters and turns them into real people and yet keeps almost the entire book filtered through Nicolay’s childish perspective. Like I say, it isn’t the plot that drives this book; it’s the characters, Nicolay in particular, but also the narrator’s grandmother, the eccentric tutor Karl Ivanych, the arrogant bully Seryozha, the captivating beauty Sonyechka. The relationships and the characterizations are sharply drawn and I found myself just really enthralled by the prose, which is straightforward, but captivating, and really pulled into the world of Nicolay. Tolstoy himself would later denigrate this trilogy, and, sure, after you’ve written War & Peace, something like Childhood will probably seem extremely slight, but as far as I’m concerned, this wonderful little portrait in miniature holds up as a masterpiece, small field of focus or no. 4 stars.
tl;dr – Tolstoy’s first novella is through the eyes of a youngster; sharp characterizations & fascinating relationships make this both a masterpiece & an entertaining page-turner. 4 stars.