Tolstoy and Steinbeck

The first time I arrived to Armenia it was spring of 2019. Still cold, the people of Yerevan were bundled tight, cigarettes poking defiantly out of layers of coats and hats and scarfs. There was a snow storm the first week, it was March I think the last of the season; I’ve always loved the quiet of the snow, and watching it pile up on Republic Square in front of the imposing pink-tufa government houses, on a large oblong island where an iron Stalin used to sit and glare down at his military parades was somehow nostalgic, though it was my first time there.

We took a day trip, I was there for work – I would live there for work later – and we went up into the South Caucasus mountains. Around Lake Sevan which was frigid and covered with a long winter’s blanket of snow and ice; it was a study of steels and muted blues. Then through the tunnel to Dilijan, an old soviet resort town, an older Armenian forest village where the devs still dwell in the deep forests that encompass the town. Devs (or Divs) are Caucasian forest djinn, always abducting pretty girls or causing mischief for loggers. The Caucasus have their own Red Riding Hood and Hansel and Gretel stories, in fact very similar. We visited the high school and the town and had a meeting with the mayor (an old soviet mayor, as wide as he was tall, greasy mustache matching his greased back hair and smelling of stale cigarettes) where we heard of the travails of the towns folk. “We need public lighting in our village,” one villager said. “For in the night the wild animals attack.”

Eurasia is still Eurasia.

I am reading a biography of Leo Tolstoy (review coming). Of his time on his land outside Moscow; his adventures first in the Caucasus (it is where all good Russian writers develop their skill – for Tolstoy the North Caucasus fighting Imam Shemil and his merry band of Chechen rebels), and then in Crimea defending Sevastopol against the invading British and the French and the Turks, who sought control of Crimea (control of the Black Sea has always been the vision of empire, and he who controls Sevastopol controls Crimea). Of his struggles against weakness (women and drinking and gambling) in his wild youth; his attempts at empathy of the muzhiks, his frustration with his own noble classes.

His love of wild Russia.

Sometimes I feel that all the wildness has been tamed out of the world. Or, actually, more accurately put – that the natural wildness, the struggle against mother nature has been won but immediately replaced with a failed struggle against ourselves. We in America no longer fear the wild animals at night, but we certainly fear other people. America too in the past had a lot of wildness; its indomitable spirit came from its vast plains and majestic purple mountains. From the badlands of South Dakota to the painted deserts of Arizona. It is majestic. Maybe that’s why Russia and America have always had such a fraught relationship; two epic countries one old as time and another new and bursting with energy and purpose. Both locked in a never-ending struggle.

Tolstoy wrote in the 1850s surrounded by people like Turgenev and Dostoyevsky; those dramatic 100 years between the December and October revolutions when Russia came of age. We too had a coming of age, though our adolescence was shorter; Fitzgerald and Hemingway and Steinbeck, narrating the emergence of American greatness during the tumultuous turn of the century. “The Cossacks” up against “Grapes of Wrath”.

There is a lot to be said of where the world is going. Monumental changes are taking place; our populations are shrinking, and aging, causing all sorts of stress. Old people don’t consume much. We are coming to terms with the fact that our tremendous explosion of prosperity, led by America and reaching every corner of the globe, might not have been good for the environment or sustainable in any real sense. Like a poor man who wins the lottery and buys a large house in Fauquier County only to realize that the massive tax bill comes due every year at the same time, the light bill is exorbitant and the maintenance of the stables costly; and decides he must either reinvent himself or declare bankruptcy and return to conditions worse than those he had when he started.

I guess my point is, who will narrate the coming world? And, why is it that in times such as these, does our own community of writers suck so much?

Lev Gumilev wrote about civilizational decline and the signs, and one line made me laugh. “They will print millions of books but none of them will be worth reading!” Ha!!!

I imagine my own books are counted in those.

About Joel D. Hirst

Joel D. Hirst is a novelist and a playwright. His most recently released work is "Dreams of the Defeated: A Play in Two Acts" about a political prisoner in a dystopian regime. His novels include "I, Charles, From the Camps" about the life of a young man in the African camps and "Lords of Misrule" about the making and unmaking of a jihadist in the Sahara. "The Lieutenant of San Porfirio" and its sequel "The Burning of San Porfirio" are about the rise and fall of socialist Venezuela (with magic).
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