Today, many readers have read or recently reread Anna Karenina, thanks to Oprah Winfrey’s selection of the book for her club. The translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (Penguin, 2004) is wonderfully fluent and brings new life to the classic, and one can only be thankful that so many readers have taken the book up. But one also wonders what Tolstoy, who turned down the opportunity to be the first Nobel Laureate in Literature, would think of the source of his novel’s enhanced popularity. A materialist who eschewed materialism, the master would likely have stood scathingly apart; and in the wake of Oprah’s debacle with haplessly fictionalizing memoirist James Frey, we suspect that Tolstoy would agree with the New York Times op-ed writer who wrote that if Oprah wants to help publishing she might do so by choosing better books. Hear, hear!
Anyone with a grain of literary knowledge could select Anna Karenina for a book club, but making reliable recommendations of lesser-known works is trickier, so we’d like to offer a pick that enriches Oprah’s gimme. If you’ve read Anna Karenina, and especially if you’re a writer developing your art, we recommend Tolstoy’s first published book, Childhood, Boyhood & Youth. The twenty-four-year-old author’s genius was already on display in this early work, which is autobiographical and lit by passionate intelligence. Later in his life, when any of Tolstoy’s children wanted something, they would usually go to their mother instead of their father, though their mother asked numerous questions before granting or denying a request. They went to her instead of their father because, while Tolstoy wouldn’t question them, he saw everything without asking. His art from the very beginning offered a transparency of human nature, and to read his first fiction, knowing his masterworks, is to see the growth of the soul.