This is my second Penguin Little Black Classics book choice – my first book was A Cup of Sake Beneath the Cherry Tree by Kenkō (read my review here) and I thought this was a great opportunity to read some of Leo Tolstoy’s work. Leo Tolstoy was a Russian writer in the 1800’s and is most famous for his book War and Peace and his other work Anna Karenina. This book has two stories from his original work titled, How Much Land Does a Man Need? and Other Stories published in 1836.
How Much Land Does a Man Need?
The first story is Tolstoy’s famous parable, How Much Land Does a Man Need? which tells the tale of a Russian peasant farmer who boasts a lot and becomes a little greedy. The beginning of the story reminded me of children’s book Town Mouse, Country Mouse by Jan Brett as two sisters compare their different lives and positives of living in a town compared to living in the country. So we think everyone is content but then everything changes when the country wife’s husband says if he had more land that even the devil wouldn’t scare him. From this a very clever story is told about how the devil indulges the man and creates opportunities for him to gain more land and be richer. It is interesting that the man’s wife at the start of the story is content with life but the man wants more and never really considers his family when acquiring new land opportunities. It may be a sign of the time when this story was written that men handled these type of affairs and women ran the house but I think Tolstoy is showing how man’s greed can make people forget what they have in life already and what is important. Of course the husband may be telling himself he is doing it for his family but Tolstoy is pointing out that in reality the man is not thinking about his family at all. We never know where the story is going until the last three lines which answers the question to the title of the story. I won’t spoil it for you.
Overall this story is brilliant and the moral teaching in it is still relevant today. Essentially it makes us think about our lives, what we consider important and what we should consider important, happiness in life and being grateful for life and what we have. Also about how we are tempted by things. I really enjoyed this story and would recommend reading it.
What Men Live By
This is the second story in this book which is completely different to the first story. It tells of a poor shoemaker who shows generosity to a man he found naked and cold at a church. His family take him in and the man helps the shoemaker for many years until he is ready to leave for a specific reason revealed at the end of the story. This is a very emotive story of hardship, human kindness and happiness. It is also very spiritual and I think may represent Tolstoy’s take on the Good Samaritan story. But what he has done is make his version more real for those reading it by setting it in a world his readers know.
For me I thought this was a lovely story but not as good as the first story in this book. Again the message in the story is still relevant today and makes us think about appreciating what we have in life as here may be others worse off than ourselves.
In both these stories, Tolstoy’s writing style is so easy to read and he captures the atmosphere, and mood so well that we can easily grasp the messages behind the stories and moral teachings. His descriptions are just enough to set the scene properly despite these being short stories.
I would definitely recommending reading this book as it is a taster to his writing and may even inspire you to read more of his work.