Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 25, 2021

‘Alyosha the Pot’, by Leo Tolstoy, translated by Clarence Brown, in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, by George Saunders

The last story that George Saunders explores in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain is Alyosha the Pot, by Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), first published in 1911. It’s a disarmingly simple story.

Aloysha is a peasant lad, given his nickname because he broke a pot when on an errand, and the boys never stopped teasing him about it.

He’s an unprepossessing boy, skinny, lop-eared (his ears stuck out like wings) and with a big nose. He’s none too bright, and anyway he has so many chores at home he doesn’t have much time for study.

Six years old and he was already watching after the sheep and the cow in the pasture with his baby sister, and a little older he was looking after the horses day and night.  By the time he was twelve he was ploughing and driving the wagon.  (p.349)

Alyosha is an innocent fool.  Everyone from his father to his eventual employer, a merchant, exploits him yet he remains meek, biddable, and always in a good mood.  Indeed, when he first fails to impress the merchant when he is taken there to replace his elder brother who got drafted, it is his cheerful obedience that seals the deal.

‘I thought I was going to get a man to take Simon’s place,’ said the merchant, looking up and down, ‘and what’s this snot-nose supposed to be? What good is he to me?’

‘He can do anything—he can hitch up a team and go get stuff and he works like crazy. He just looks puny but you can’t wear him out.’

‘Well, looks like I’ll have to find out.’

‘And the main thing is, he’ll never give you any back talk.; He’d rather work than eat.’

So Alyosha began to live at the merchant’s. (p.350)

In a story only six pages long, it is not until half way through that there is any departure from this tale of drudgery, abuse and exploitation.  Alyosha’s father takes all his wages and abuses him when he wears out his boots and the cost of the replacements is taken out of his pay.  There is just a hint of hope when Alyosha, often late for his meagre dinner, has his meal kept hot for him by the cook, and also when he is given small tips during the holidays and is able to save up for a red knitted jacket which, when he put on he couldn’t keep a straight face he was so happy.  (BTW that clause, reproduced verbatim, is a rather clumsy translation.  But see below what Saunders has to say about this style of translation).

Yet, perhaps because of Tolstoy’s preoccupation with religion, Alyosha prays.

He didn’t know a single prayer.  His mother had taught him some but he’d forgotten them all, but he still prayed, mornings and evenings, prayed with his hands, and crossed himself. (p.351)

Ustinya, the cook, is an orphan, and she works just like Alyosha does.  She becomes fond of him, and mends his trousers, and leaves him buttered cereal in the pot.  And in his second of drudgery he finds out, to his amazement, that besides those connections between people based on someone needing something from somebody else, there are also very special connections.  

He finds out that Ustinya feels something for him, and that she needs him.  And with his simple view of the world, where he had heard that it often happened that peasants like him married the cook, he asks her to marry him.

This brief chance at happiness is doomed.  The boss’s wife doesn’t want her cook getting pregnant, and it’s an easy thing for her to get Alyosha’s father to prevent the marriage.  Alyosha goes on with his miserable life, never complaining, until one day there is a terrible accident and he dies.

Tolstoy, who was renowned for his empathy with peasants, wanted to show how little agency they had in their lives.  Alyosha’s early death is a reprieve from a life that had no pleasure and no hope of any improvement.  When he is on his deathbed we learn that he believes in an afterlife and that he will be rewarded for doing the best he could with the fate he endured with good grace.

In his heart he thought that if it’s good down here when you do what they tell you and don’t hurt anybody, then it’ll be good up there too. (p.354)

You can see why the Soviet revolutionaries were anti-religion.  Peasants whose religion taught them to be compliant rather than demand justice and equity were a barrier to change.

Image credit: Tolstoy in 1897, by F. W. Taylor – Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39880503


Why does Saunders include this story in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain?

At last there is something of interest: he compares three different translations of the passage in which Alyosha discovers love—Sam A Carmack’s; Pevear and Volokhonsky’s; and Clarence Brown’s. He points out that there are three different Ustinyas presented: one who causes Alyosha to feel that he could be ‘needed … and caressed,’ another who ‘wants to serve him and to be loving to him,’ and a third who needs Alyosha to be around ‘so as to do something for him, to be nice to him.’

But this may be a particularly challenging passage,  Brown had this to say about translating it: ‘When Alyosha first awakens to the notion of disinterested sympathy, of plain human fondness, the thought is so astonishing that Tolstoy’s syntax collapses into a a kind of hash; this is an image of Alyosha’s almost languageless mentality groping towards a new idea.  Most translators thwart Tolstoy by rendering this story in a style suitable for the drawing rooms of War and Peace. I have tried to be as low, simple and even ungrammatical as the original. (pp. 358-9)

Saunders goes on to say that Tolstoy is using a modernist technique, showing that a person and his language can’t be separated in narration.

Saunders also notices something I missed.  When Alyosha’s father is dismissing the idea of marriage out of hand, he also insults Ustinya.  On both counts, Alyosha fails to stand up for what he wants and for also for Ustinya.  True to form he is meek and obedient.  But the difference I had failed to notice was that instead of accepting his fate with good cheer as he usually does, Alyosha bursts into tears.

Saunders also makes mention of Gogol’s story The Overcoat in the context of stories in which a nonentity springs briefly to life.  Which is a good reminder to me to read that one too.

But he spoils all that with a lot of waffle about how he recognises that Tolstoy was holding Alyosha up as a moral exemplar but he (Saunders) doesn’t want to admire him.  He writes that he feels sorry for the character Alyosha, but he wishes that he’d had the guts to stand up for himself.

Remember how Billy Budd went to his death, another victim of injustice, with grace and innocence?  Tolstoy and Mark Twain were onto something that Saunders just doesn’t seem to understand….


Have I been too hard on Saunders?  He has, after all, read these stories many more times than me, and a great deal more critical theory about them besides.  Plus, the origins of this book in a course that he’s teaching means that he’s trying to reach a bunch of young students who, if they’re anything like the ones in a tertiary course that I took in writing short stories, have read pitifully little and are possibly much more interested in writing their own short stories than in reading anybody else’s.  What seems like waffle and inane attempts at humour might be essential strategies in getting them to pay attention.

Nevertheless, since I always give my honest response to the books I read, the truth is that I loved reading the Russian stories, and I read the rest of it only because I was mildly interested in how he might make use of them to teach.  And I progressively lost interest even in that as I went on.

Author: Leo Tolstoy
Title: ‘Alyosha the Pot’, in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders.
Translated from the Russian by Clarence Brown for The Portable Twentieth-Century Russian Reader, Penguin, 1985
Publisher: Bloomsbury 2021, first published in 1911
ISBN: 9781526624284, hbk., 408 pages
Review copy courtesy of Bloomsbury


Responses

  1. “And I progressively lost interest even in that as I went on.” Do you know, that was exactly it. I started the book prepared to take an interest and respond to what Saunders was saying but by the end I really didn’t care at all. The stories were brilliant, and I’m glad I read them, but his commentary was definitely not aimed at me.

    As for this story – it must be one of the saddest I’ve ever read. Breaks your heart. And if Saunders thinks Alyosha should have stood up for himself, he’s completely missed the point.

    Like

    • Yes. But it’s kindof an American ‘thing’ to do that, isn’t it? Yes, I know I’m generalising, but it’s the subtext in all the movies and literature, their history since standing up to the Brits and in their foreign policy. It’s also in their gun culture, because guns even up the odds: you can still get your own way if you have one. The message is that you stand up for yourself and follow your dreams etc. Don’t get pushed around. The meek don’t inherit the earth in the US.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This story reminded me of Clarice Lispector’s “The Hour of the Star.” Well worth a look if it hasn’t crossed your path yet.

    Like

    • Thanks, Brendan, I don’t know that one. In fact #DuckingForCover, I’ve never read any Clarine Lispector…

      Like

  3. I’ve just finished the first story/commentary and I did the exercise along the way. So far, I’m finding it interesting enough to recommend it to an acquaintance in her early 20s who has just started to think about writing and is in the Woolf/Plath phase, but I did notice that Saunders and I weren’t feeling the same things at the pause-points. Nonetheless, I like the attention he pays to details (e.g. how subtle details shift, in response to a simple connector like ‘but’) and the underpinning of structure and other ideas that aren’t as complicated as they sound and do impact how we experience a story. The comparison of translations will make this one extra interesting for me as well!

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    • I did too, in the beginning. It only wore thin as I went along, though I liked all of the stories.

      Like


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