Genesis at Nine Years Old

The fact that we were talking Russian, and simultaneously reading the beginning of Genesis in church, reminded me of this scene from Anna Karenina:

The constricted and imperious Karenin has come to the schoolroom to teach his son his religion lesson.

Young Serezha tells his father that he has seen a family friend while he and his tutor were out for a walk in the park.

“She told me you’d been given a new star. Are you glad, papa?”

“First of all, don’t rock your chair, please. And secondly, it’s not the reward that’s precious, but the work itself…”

Serezha’s eyes, that had been shining with gaiety and tenderness, grew dull and dropped before his father’s gaze…His father always talked to him–so Serezha felt–as though he were addressing some boy of his own imagination, one of those boys that exist in books, utterly unlike himself. And Serezha always tried with his father to pretend to be that boy out of a book…

Karenin then insists that Serezha recite some Gospel verses and the list of the antediluvian fathers.

The verses from the Gospel Serezha knew fairly well, but at the moment when he was saying them he became absorbed in the contemplation of a bone in his father’s forehead, and he lost the thread…

The passage at which he was utterly unable to say anything, and began fidgeting and cutting the table [with his penknife] and swinging his chair, was where he had to repeat the patriarchs before the Flood.

He did not know any of them, except Enoch, who had been taken up alive to heaven…Enoch was the personage he liked best in the whole of the Old Testament, and Enoch’s translation to heaven was connected in his mind with a whole long train of thought, in which he became absorbed now while he gazed with fascinated eyes at his father’s watch-chain and a half-unbuttoned button on his waistcoat.

Serezha did not in the least believe in death, of which they talked to him so often. He did not believe that those he loved could die, above all that he himself would die. That was to him something utterly inconceivable and impossible. But he had been told that all men die; he had asked people, indeed, whom he trusted, and they too, had confirmed it; his old nurse, too, said the same, though reluctantly.

But Enoch had not died, and so it followed that everyone did not die…

By this point in the novel, Tolstoy already has managed to penetrate to the depths of five adult souls, skewering them in full view with both merciless accuracy and humane sympathy. Just when you think the man cannot be any more insightful, he presents the inner life of the nine-year-old, and it is as believable as the sun in the sky. Was Tolstoy a man or a god?

Click here to read the whole chapter. Better yet, quit wasting time on the computer, and go take the book out of the library. Anna Karenina is just about the best examen I have ever used to prepare for Confession.

One thought on “Genesis at Nine Years Old

  1. Father Mark,

    Surely, most young men are convinced of their own immortality until time wears (or beats) them down. It’s what allows organized warfare, just to begin with; but it also accounts for most of the behavior of men up to a certain age (which varies considerably from individual to individual). It’s also what allows them to aspire to greatness, even to sainthood.

    But, you already knew that.



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