According to Woody Allen, "Tolstoy is a full meal. Turgenev is a fabulous dessert. Dostoyevsky is a full meal with a vitamin pill and extra wheat germ."
All I had read of Tolstoy in the past was "Childhood", his first work, which I enjoyed (until the very dark and almost throw-away ending), but which did not suggest a main course more weighty than Turgenev. So I approached these four short stories with a light step and a full stomach, expecting, well, a light dessert. This opinion seemed well founded at first: the stories are fables, written in the style of fairy tales, dealing with moral questions. I took these to be religious parables, and the first of these was sentimental enough to lull me into taking it as a straight Christian ethics lesson. The second was, again, well told, but well within the compass of a child.
The third story made me realise that I was dealing with a different man altogether, and made me doubt my smug estimation of the previous two tales. In it, Tolstoy as good as calls all religions equal, in so beautiful and simple a way that it seems utterly obvious. Which is quite a trick. I started wondering why more people hadn't read this, and finally remembered that Tolstoy's religious ideas were an inspiration to Gandhi.
The final tale is the pick of the bunch. "How Much Land Does a Man Need" is suspenseful, funny, exciting, deeply moral, and has a finale that is as dark as, well, a Russian winter.
I was so jolted by this that I was forced to reassess the first half of the book. It seems that Tolstoy's spiritual world is a complex one, and these simple fables, like all good fables, require some meditation and digestion. Like a full meal.
Next: A Princess on Mars by E R Burroughs.