Trouble in the Family

The Last Year of Leo Tolstoy

by Valentin Bulgakov, translated by Ann Dunnigan, with an Introduction by George Steiner
Dial, 264 pp., $7.95

Tolstoy, My Father: Reminiscences

by Ilya Tolstoy, translated by Ann Dunnigan
Cowles, 322 pp., $7.95
Leo Tolstoy
Leo Tolstoy; drawing by David Levine

A Frenchman is self-assured because he regards himself personally, both in mind and body, as irresistibly attractive. An Englishman is self-assured as being a citizen of the best organized state in the world, and therefore always knows what he should do and that what he does is undoubtedly correct. The German’s self-assurance is the worst of all, stronger and more repulsive than any other, because he imagines that he knows the truth—science—which he has himself invented but which is for him the absolute truth.

But the Russian is self-assured, Tolstoy went on to say, “just because he knows nothing and does not want to know anything, since he does not believe that anything can be known.” Self-assurance, the sense of his own existence, was immensely strong in Tolstoy, so strong that at moments it was bound to turn itself inside out into the negative state—that equally immense and terrifying loss of confidence in his own purpose and identity—that he suddenly experienced in middle age in a hotel room in the town of Arzamas. He wrote about this experience, which haunted him for the rest of his life, in “The Diary of a Madman.” But it is self-assurance that gives its prodigious authority to his novels: where other authors invent, what Tolstoy says is true just because he says so.

The obvious paradox has often been commented on, most notably by Isaiah Berlin in his study of Tolstoy’s personality, The Hedgehog and the Fox. The Russian “knows nothing and does not want to know anything,” and yet Tolstoy passionately wanted to know. When articles of appreciation were written in 1910 on the sixth anniversary of the death of Chekhov, whose reputation was already very high, Tolstoy was full of scorn, though he had liked and admired Chekhov during his lifetime. “The fact that he didn’t know and had never found the meaning of life strikes them all as being somehow special—they see something poetic in it!”

The comment is recorded by Valentin Bulgakov, the young man who became Tolstoy’s secretary during the last year of his life. Modest, sensible, surprisingly shrewd, Bulgakov naturally revered the aged Tolstoy, but also found himself becoming more and more sympathetic toward his wife, the countess. Like King Lear, Tolstoy never reached the state of simplicity and peace which he so passionately desired. He never found “the meaning of life,” but life compelled him, like Lear, to suffer its oppressions and incongruities until the final moment at Astapovo railway station when the meaning of life ceased to matter.

After only a few days at Yasnaya Polyana Bulgakov had some inkling of this.

A curious conviction rose in my soul that Leo Nicolayevich’s personal life, despite his advanced age, was not yet over, that he would undoubtedly undertake something more—something of a nature no one could expect from him now.

Bulgakov’s narrative is naturally dramatic,…

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