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Notes on Tolstoy

Tolstoy

by Henri Troyat
Fayard, 888 pp., $13.00

Tolstoy

by Henri Troyat, translated by Nancy Amphoux
Dell, 762 pp., $1.65 (paper)

Doubleday has published a translation of Henri Troyat’s Tolstoy. This translation by Nancy Amphoux seems competent, but it is smoother in the French, which makes the conflicts and vicissitudes of the tumultuous Tolstoys run off at a very rapid pace—although the French version, as a piece of bookmaking, is of a clumsiness quite foreign to the French tradition. One would have expected a paperbound two volumes like Troyat’s biography of Pushkin, but what we get is a hardbound monstrosity, six by almost nine inches and almost three inches thick, which is nearly impossible to handle without a reading rack.

This huge volume is introduced on the jacket as follows in a blurb signed Jean Bassan:

Tolstoy and Troyat suggest an easy parallel: two names that begin with T, two Russians at least in origin [Troyat is actually Armenian], two stout and solid fellows (deux gaillards solides et larges), two mountains of blackened paper, two authors of romans-fleuves, of historical novels, two great novelists of the Russian land, the same classical predisposition for simplicity and work well done. All this goes without saying.

The writer then goes on to point out certain differences, among them that Tolstoy was born in 1828, whereas Troyat was not born till 1911. This idiotic ballyhoo should not, however, prejudice one against M. Troyat’s book, which is, so far as I know, the best presentation of Tolstoy’s whole career that is at present available in English. Aylmer Maude’s The Life of Tolstoy is still an indispensable work—I am sorry to see that it no longer appears in the list of the World’s Classics—because Maude was one of Tolstoy’s secretaries as well as a trusted translator, and is able to give a firsthand account of Tolstoy’s domestic relations and of the difficulties caused by the interference of Chertkov, the old man’s tyrannical disciple.

What M. Troyat has put together is a record of Tolstoy’s life from the copious letters, diaries, and memoirs of Lyov Nikolaevich himself, his wife, his children, and his friends. Has ever an eminent writer been so documented by written evidence? The number of members of the family who kept diaries seems from our point of view incredible. One of the daughters, Tanya, started hers at twelve. The conflict between Tolstoy and his wife over Chertkov, against whom she developed, not, it would seem, without cause, a mania of jealousy, over the right to publish her husband’s writings, on which she was partly dependent for the income to support the family, and over the possession of his later diaries, in which she felt she had been maligned—all this has been pieced together in a depressing but absorbing narrative.

The comic aspects of Lyov Nikolaevich’s life from the moment of his religious conversion are too obvious and too well-known to be described here at length. While preaching chastity, poverty, and the inescapable obligation to share the manual labor of the muzhik, he continued to give his wife pregnancies, most of them resulting in children, up through the age of seventy; to live comfortably among his family, with a secretary and a doctor in attendance; and although he did learn to make shoes and sometimes worked in the fields, to occupy himself chiefly with the production, subject to Chertkov’s censorship, of his innumerable religious tracts.

In all this, despite his profession of humility, there was certainly a fair amount of vanity.

Once for all [he had written at twenty-five] I must accustom myself to the idea that I am an exceptional being, one who is ahead of his period, and who is by temperament absurd, unsociable and always dissatisfied…. I have been lying to myself in imagining that I have friends, that there were people who understood me. A mistake! I have never met a single man who was morally as good as I am, who has always in every situation been drawn, as I have been, to the good. Who, like me, is always ready to sacrifice everything for this ideal. It is on this account that I find no society in which I feel at home.

He was later to speak much of his imperfections, but, even discounting the stock reproaches that women make to their husbands, it is possible to sympathize with the Countess, Sofia Andreevna, when she complains of Tolstoy’s “vanity, his desire for glory, the need to have himself talked about as much as possible.”

He unloads everything on me [she writes in her diary], everything without exception: the children, the management of the properties, his relations with people, his business affairs, the household, the publishers. He scorns me for taking care of all that, he shuts himself up in his egoism and constantly criticizes me. And what does he do himself? He goes for walks, he rides, writes a little, does whatever he pleases, does nothing whatever for the family and enjoys the profits of everything: of his daughter’s help, of his comfort, of the adulation that is squandered on him, of my submission to him and the trouble I take for him. And the glory, this insatiable thirst for glory to which he has sacrificed everything and continues to sacrifice everything!

In all this, on the part of Tolstoy, there was evidently a certain perversity. He liked to make people uncomfortable by reminding them at the dinner table that not everyone could enjoy these luxuries. “Why,” he demanded in the course of one of their parlor games, “must Ustyusha, Alyona, Peter, etc. [the servants] cook, prepare things, sweep, clear away, serve, while the gentlemen eat, stuff themselves, go to the water closet and eat again?” One of the relatives he liked best and who interested him most was a cousin, Alexandrina Tolstoya, who was a maid of honor to one of the grand duchesses. When he made his discovery, by revelation, of what he regarded as the true Christianity, he harangued her insultingly for her Orthodox faith: “Whether rightly or wrongly, I consider your faith as a work of the Devil, uniquely conceived to deprive humanity of the salvation promised by Christ.” He recalled this letter after sending it, but wrote another in a not very different vein:

I understand that any woman can desire her salvation, but then, if she is a true Christian, she will begin by dissociating herself from the Court, from the world; she will go to matins, she will fast, she will save herself as best she can. How has a courtier’s situation come to be a diploma of theology? It is comic in the highest degree!

It is as if he had discovered only late in life that the church depends on the state and the state on the police and the army, and that hence all run counter to the teachings of Jesus; and as if he were reprobating other people for not having always known and acted on this.

Is it Tolstoy’s notion that Alexandrina, rather remarkably intelligent though she evidently was, would be ready to give up her social position and the Orthodox ritual she had been practicing all her life for the extremely subversive doctrines of her now fanatical cousin? And how much of his gospel of asceticism and his gesture of stripping himself of his property may not have been due to the impulse to worry and exasperate his wife? When he was asked to give land to his peasants, he was able to protest that he was powerless, since everything now was in the name of the Countess. When people wrote him complaining that he was not living up to his principles, he would reply that he was sorry, that he was deeply embarrassed, but was fatally caught in the web of his family and other obligations.

At the time of the terrible famine of 1891-2, not far from the Tolstoy estate, he at first took the attitude that there were plenty of people who were ready to feed the starving out of pride in the name of benefactors and in order to prevent them from revolting; whereas the fundamentally important thing, for the purpose of combatting the famine, was not to give the people bread, but “to love the hungry as well as the fed.” And yet as the misery grew worse and more people were dying of hunger, he was unable to remain indifferent and, contrary to what he thought were his principles, he undertook to organize effective relief and in this he was aided by the Countess and his daughters. He fought for and financed the Doukhobors, who were then being persecuted for their refusal to serve in the army; and though he would not take part in political and social reforms, he was in general opposed to suppression by the government and insisted on the paramount importance of obeying one’s individual conscience. He was perhaps a kind of Protestant at the same time that his aspirations to saintliness were quite those of a Russian holy man.

It is evidence of his great vitality, of his extraordinary insight into other personalities, and of his genuine if intermittent efforts toward nobility of moral character that he should have been able to command, to the end of his long life, so much reverence as well as admiration. All this M. Troyat has got into his book compactly and without much commentary. (It should be mentioned that the Dial Press has published a translation by Ann Dunnigan of The Last Year of Leo Tolstoy by V.F. Bulgakov. Bulgakov was Tolstoy’s last secretary, and he shows how, up to the agonies of the final moments, the family went on performing the familiar rituals of Russian life, the celebration of days sacred to the saint after whom one had been named, the amusements such as “post office” and chess, the enjoyment of music and the discussion of literature, and the entertainment of guests on a scale which to us seems quite staggering.)*

* * *

What follows are more or less detached notes for which these books provide a pretext.

In college I read translations of “The Kreutzer Sonata” and “Master and Man,” and although I was rather impressed by the latter, the absurdity of the former and the bleakness of both discouraged me from further reading of Tolstoy. When, however, I was studying Russian after a trip to the Soviet Union, I sat down to War and Peace. I came to it under favorable circumstances. I was then living alone in the country in Connecticut beside the small Mianus River. I was buried in a fairly large forest with not another house in sight. I would begin to read or write after dinner and not go to bed till four in the morning. It was winter, and the only drive was covered with snow. I could imagine myself perfectly in the country house of the Bolkonskys, when the smooth and worldly official, Prince Kuragin, is coming to present his worthless son for the hand of the Princess Maria, whom he wants to marry for her money, and her father, the laconic old Prince, whose attitude toward the Kuragins is anything but cordial, makes his servant put back on the road, in order to obstruct their arrival, the snow that has just been removed in their honor.

  1. *

    Tolstoy’s daughter Alexandra has published a pamphlet, The Real Tolstoy (Henry S. Evans, Morristown, New Jersey), protesting against Troyat’s book. Most of her criticisms are matters of detail, which, however correct, are not particularly important or are not particularly important or are matters of her own interpretation of the behavior of her father. After all, Tolstoy’s inconsistencies are a matter of record on the part of a good many witnesses; and Troyat’s general picture of Tolstoy does not seem to me, as it does to her, disparaging. Her only point that may have a certain importance is her assertion that her sister Maria informed her before her death that their mother, in order to correct the impression produced by Lyov Nikolaevich’s account of her conduct, had concocted a retrospective diary designed to refute his complaints.

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