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 beyond the self and, without losing hold of it, to delight in objects outside, submitting to being “carried onward” by “forces greater” than the tools of art, to be one’s conscious and self-conscious, reasoning, and dogmatizing self and at the same time to live in another man’s skin, and to be always propelled by an inward vigor in which others are irresistibly caught up—it is this triple gift that is the root of Tolstoy’s theories of art, of history, nationality, ethics, and religion, all of which are aspects of his lasting desire to attain some kind of supreme Wholeness, without doing injustice to diversity. “Train your reason to be in keeping with the whole,” he wrote in his diary at the age of seventeen, “with the source of everything, and not with a part, with the society of men; then your reason will be united with this whole, and then society, as a part, will have no influence on you.” This, in Isaiah Berlin’s classic essay on Tolstoy’s view of history, was the desire of “the fox,” who, according to the Greek poet, Arsilochus, “knows many things” to become “the hedgehog” who “knows one big thing.”

WITH ALL HIS DIVERSITY, the multiplicity of living characters in his fiction and his varied modes of writing, Tolstoy and his work are all of a piece. The famous “conversion” of his middle years, so movingly recounted in his Confession, was a culmination of his early spiritual life, not a departure from it. What followed, however different on the surface, was not a break with the past but a sequel to it. The apparently fundamental changes that led from epic narrative to dogmatic parable, from a joyous, buoyant attitude to life to pessimism and even cynicism, from War and Peace to The Kreutzer Sonata, came from the same restless, impressionable, dissatisfied depths of an independent spirit, yearning to get at the truth of its experience. “Truth is my hero,” wrote Tolstoy in his youth, reporting the fighting in Sebastopol. And truth remained his hero, his own, not others’, truth. Others were awed by Napoleon, believed that a single man could change the destinies of nations, adhered to meaningless rituals, formed their tastes on established canons of art. Tolstoy reversed all preconceptions; and in every reversal it was the “system,” the “machine,” the externally ordained belief, the conventional behavior he overthrew in favor of unsystematic, impulsive life, of inward motivation and the solutions of independent thought.


In his work, the artificial and the genuine are always exhibited in dramatic opposition: the supposedly great Napoleon and the truly great, unregarded little Captain Tushin; the “system” of the French and the “swarm life” of the Russians; Nicholas Rostov’s actual experience in battle and his later account of it; Andrew Bolkonsky’s preconceived notions about the glory of war and what he discovers at Schön Grabern, Austerlitz, and Borodino; the Europeanized St. Petersburg of Anna Pavlovna’s snobbish and empty soirées and the “Russian” Moscow of the Rostovs’ genial household; Alexander Karenin’s bureaucratic proprieties and his wife’s natural, imperative, unconventional demands on life; Levin’s passionate search for the right and the just and his half-brother Koznyshev’s interest in the mind as nothing but a means to intellectual exercise; and in Resurrection, the socially and religiously sanctioned “due process of law” and the brutality and injustice it not only condones but perpetrates. The natural, simple, and true is always pitted against the artificial, elaborate, and false, the particular against abstractions and generalizations, knowledge gained from observation against assertions of borrowed faiths.

Tolstoy’s magical simplicity is a product of these tensions, and all his work is a record of the questions he put to himself and of the answers he found in his search, and rejected or accepted. The greatest characters of his fiction exemplify this search, and their happiness depends on the measure of their solutions; their stories are bildungsromanen. This is true of Nicholas Irteneyev in Childhood, Boyhood and Youth, of Pierre and Andrew in War and Peace, of Levin in Anna Karenina, of Ivan Ilych, of Prince Kassatskiy in Father Sergius. Tolstoy wanted happiness, but only hard-won happiness, that emotional fulfillment and intellectual clarity which could come only as the prize of all consuming effort. He scorned lesser satisfactions. Here Mr. Bayley seems to me to make some serious mistakes. Aware of the value Tolstoy set on a man’s pleasure in himself, he fastens on the Russian word samodovolnost—which does mean literally “self-satisfaction” but is most often used in the pejorative sense of “complacency” and “conceit”—and makes it serve every kind of satisfaction with the self: “self-reliance,” “self-absorption,” “self-sufficiency,” “self-esteem,” as well as “isolation,” “complacency,” and “conceit,” bringing under its aegis, even though he distinguishes between what he calls samodovolnost of the body and samodovolnost of the mind, such disparate characters as ardent Natasha, long-enduring Platon Karataev, childish Petya, naïve Nicholas Rostov, the physically centered Vronsky, and the spiritually torn Levin. This is misleading. It suggests, which is surprising in so good a book, a certain blindness to Tolstoy’s meaning.

Of course one may argue that different men are pleased with themselves for different reasons, but it is the reasons that matter to Tolstoy; and to compare Anatole Kuragin with Natasha, to see him as primitive, childlike, and idyllic and liken his “childish appetite” to Natasha’s eagerness, even though a “spoiled version” of it, is to miss Tolstoy’s view of him as the typically vicious creature of a depraved society with the power to pervert the naturally good, to overlook the basic Tolstoyan contrast between, on the one hand, spontaneous and innocent delight, that reaches out from itself to others and is generous and beneficent, and, on the other, egotistic vanity that turns upon itself and uses others and is unscrupulous, unprincipled, and destructive. It simply will not do, with whatever qualifications, to equate Tolstoy’s monsters or fatuous self-gratification—Napoleon, Anatole Kuragin—or his commonplace, superficial creatures—Stiva Oblonsky, Nicholas Rostov—with his exemplars of natural greatness, Natasha, Levin, Pierre Bezukhov.

There are other observations of Mr. Bayley’s with which I cannot agree. That remarkable scene in War and Peace, for example, in which Pierre witnesses the execution of prisoners, Mr. Bayley finds “not completely moving or satisfactory,” because Pierre appears in it not as “a real character” but as the author’s mouthpiece. To me, on the contrary, the episode is profoundly moving and highly satisfactory; even though I know that Tolstoy was here recording his own experience at an execution he had seen many years before, Pierre seems perfectly real, his reactions characteristic of him and essentially human, with that eternal humanity which in Tolstoy’s eyes transcends differences of societies and periods of history. Nor can I agree with Mr. Bayley’s opinion that the steeple-chase in Anna Karenina is “not quite the self-justified thing we should expect.” In my view, it is not only supremely “self-justified” but central to the book, not just “pivotal” in the plot because it “precipitates Anna’s confession to her husband,” but a masterful epitome of the book as a whole, of its deepest and subtlest meanings, a marvel of condensation that brings together not only the elements of its story, the interrelationships of its characters, and the “problems” it consciously poses, but also its underlying cross-currents of thought and emotion, and all the intricacies of Tolstoy’s perceptions that are implicit in it.


On the other hand, Mr. Bayley often seems to me to turn a bright, new light on Tolstoy’s achievement, as for example, in addition to the comments I have already quoted, his pointing out that by contrast to War and Peace, in which there is “almost complete harmony between the narrative and the didactic sides,” in The Death of Ivan Ilych, Tolstoy imputes his own ideas to his hero and makes him die not as an individual but as a metaphor, or when he says that “At their best, Tolstoy’s details strike us neither as selected for a particular purpose nor accumulated at random but as a sign of a vast organism in progress, like the multiplicity of wrinkles on a moving elephant’s back.” Very good, too, are his analyses of Dolokhov and Sonya in War and Peace, and very moving his discussion of the rescue of Pierre and the death of Petya Rostov, which coincide in time, and seem to him to form the climax of War and Peace, “as if Tolstoy’s obstinate awareness of plurality had at last been reconciled with his struggle for the One.”

But then, as in the presence of nature—of Flaubert’s huge animals and mountains—so before great art, each wanderer can but report his own reading of it. When Vronsky and Anna Karenina are taken by their acquaintance Golenishchev to Mikhailov’s studio, and stand before his large, unfinished canvas, Golenishchev makes a pertinent remark which delights the great artist, for even though he knows that “it was only one reflection in a million that might have been made with equal truth,” this does not “detract for him from its importance.” So, perhaps, one should consider all criticism: insofar as it makes pertinent remarks, it is important. Mr. Bayley’s makes many such remarks.

This Issue

September 14, 1967