Tolstoy the Great

Tolstoy and the Novel

by John Bayley
Viking, 316 pp., $6.95

Leo Tolstoy
Leo Tolstoy; drawing by David Levine

Les chefs-d’oeuvre sont bête,” wrote Flaubert, “ils ont la mine tranquille comme les productions mêmes de la nature, comme les grands animaux et les montagnes.” He was not, but might have been, thinking of War and Peace, that vast, silent work, unfathomable and simple, provoking endless questions through the sheer majesty of its being. Tolstoy’s simplicity is baffling. “overpowering,” says Mr. Bayley, “disconcerting,” because it comes from “his casual assumption that the world is as he sees it and as he says it is.” Like other nineteenth century Russian writers he is “impressive” because he “means what he says,” but he stands apart from all others and from most Western writers in his identity with life, which is so complete as to make us forget he is an artist. It is that effect in his novels which Mr. Bayley calls “the transparent statement of existence.” This transparency is the peculiar mark of his greatness: he does not wish to puzzle or impress; he is not a virtuoso performer but a creator; his work is not a riddle to be solved but a realm to be explored. He is the center of it, but his egocentricity is of a special kind. Goethe, for example, says Mr. Bayley, “cared for nothing but himself. Tolstoy was nothing but himself.”

Mr. Bayley suggests that the core of his creation was his sense of absolute freedom, freedom that exists irrespective of physical or intellectual environments, and is indeed best exercised in a confining world, a prison camp like that in which Pierre Bezukhov learns to be fully himself, or the rigidly conventional society from which Anna Karenina tries to break away. This is probably as close as one can get to the heart of the multifarious Tolstoy, whose way of writing and whose philosophic theories are all manifestations of his imperious demand for a freedom which is limited only by the laws of nature and of an innate moral order. These are sensed by men and may be freely accepted or rejected by them but they may not be outwardly imposed.

His ego embraces the world. He is the creator and legislator, but not the subject, of his work. Thus his descriptions do not imply, as do Turgenev’s,

that the author is a fixed point, and that the work of art—like a yoyo—will unroll itself from him to the length of its string and then coil itself back to him again. Tolstoy is not a fixed point; he is constantly on the move, carrying us with him. His delight in the object in itself…is like that of a man in a train who does not want to miss anything as he goes past, carried onward by forces greater than his own sense of words.

It is this enjoyment of the self in relation to the world, and only through the world, this capacity to get…

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