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.
I was surprised to find the book so amusing: the scene at the death of Pierre’s father and the episode of debauchery with the bear. The atmosphere was anything but bleak. And the vitality of the characters was amazing. Tolstoy is perhaps—in a less caricatured way from those of either Dickens or Proust—the greatest mimic in fiction, and this is something that cannot be brought over in translation. Though I did not always know which syllable of a Russian word should be stressed and could not have read a page aloud correctly, the voices of the characters, in my winter solitude, seemed to come right out of the pages and to animate my little house: the dry brusquery of the old Bolkonsky, compelling his son, Prince Andrei, to acknowledge the failure of his marriage: “Ploxo delo, a?” “Chto ploxo?” “Zhena!” (“Bad business, eh?” “What is bad?” “Wife!”); the wheedling diplomacy of the old Kuragin, who tries to reassure the grasping elder princess by calling her “Moya golubushka” (“my dear little dove”); the girlish high spirits of Natasha, more or less transformed by Constance Garnett into a proper little English girl such as one finds in the drawings of Du Maurier, with her gay and rather infantile family. “Smotrite na papà” (“Look at papa”), cried Natasha for all the ballroom to hear
…(completely forgetting that she was dancing with a grown-up), bending her curly head to her knees and filling the whole room with her ringing laugh…. “Batyushka-to nash! Orel!” (“Our Father! An eagle!”) exclaimed the nurse loudly from a doorway.
And the invidious often comic contrast between the characters when they are speaking their formal French, and when they relapse into their good old blunt Russian.
There is always the imputation of a kind of dishonesty of sophistication to the use by these Russians of French: it is only by resorting to French that Rostopchin fleeing from Moscow in flames is able to justify his behavior, even though he is only explaining it to himself. The cool tone of the comment on what the characters are doing is the tone of Tolstoy himself, of the personality of the author, who always remains aloof almost to the point of irony, the tone of the aristocrat, who, though not without admiration for certain of his imagined aristocrats and though proudly patriotic as far as the war with the French is concerned, is reluctant to admit any stake in anything that is going on. His enthusiasm for the peasant Kataev, who appears toward the end of the book, is rather a giveaway of the comparative unreality of this too wise and simple character.
The only possible objection to War and Peace has been made by Dmitri Mirsky: that it is something of an idealized idyl of the life of the old nobility, of the author’s grandparents and parents, the mother whom he never knew, the father who died while he was still a child. The closer he comes to his own experience the more he is bound to be biased by the moral problems he is forced to confront.
(I recommend War and Peace to anyone learning Russian. The frequent conversations and correspondence in French afford an occasional relief; the vocabulary and style are not difficult; and since the novel is very long, the foreign reader will find, when he has finished it, that he has learned quite a lot of Russian.)
* * *
The carelessness of Tolstoy’s style is a part of the aristocratic tone. He insists upon descriptive accuracy at any cost of clumsiness of language. This results in a piling-up of modifiers and a needless repetition of words that evidently made Turgenev’s flesh creep. So the nonchalant grammatical constructions of Proust—caught over, I suppose, from St. Simon—were taken to task, rather pettily, by Gide. Here is a phrase from War and Peace (II, 18): “Repulsing the with surprised but dry eyes regarding her Natasha”…and here is the arrival in the station of the ominous railroad train at the beginning of Anna Karenina (I, 17):
Actually, the locomotive gave a whistle from the distance. In a few minutes the platform shook, and puffing with the weighed-down by the frost steam, rolled past the locomotive, with the slowly and rhythmically bending and straightening-out shaft of the middle wheel and the saluting bundled-up frost-covered engineer; after the tender, always more slowly and more strongly shaking the platform, a wagon began to go by with baggage and a yelping dog; at last, vibrating to a stop, the passenger cars arrived.
That Tolstoy was not at all concerned about these constructions is shown in Hajji Murad (I), written very late, which is full of such sentences as the following: “On a cold November evening, Hajji Murad rode up late into the smoking with fragrant dung-straw brick smoke [“Kizyachuyin“] Chechen unpacified village Machket.” In English we should take care of many of these modifiers by making them into relative clauses, but this overdependence on participles seems to be a weakness of the Slavic languages. Yet such are the pace and suspense of the stories that Tolstoy is telling that these clotted phrases do not impede them.
* * *
I do not know how much the foreign reader of Tolstoy is aware, in Anna Karenina, of the issue that Tolstoy is raising between the life of the Karenins and Vronskys in St. Petersburg, and that of Levin and Kitty in the country outside Moscow. For young people, especially young women, the shade of contempt that the author feels toward the people of Petersburg may not be perceptible at all. The affair of Anna and Vronsky may seem simply a romantic though tragic love story. Yet it is plain that Anna’s creator does not take a lenient view of Anna, so beautiful but so immoral: she is damned by the Biblical epigraph; and Vronsky is made little short of ridiculous. Through a reckless desire to excel, he has broken the back of his mare in the races, as he is later to do with Anna; he bungles an attempt at suicide in which it seems evident that he has only half wanted to succeed; and, after Anna’s effective self-destruction, he goes off in the train with nothing worse than a toothache, to the war against the Turks, of which Tolstoy did not approve. A stern moral judgment is half-hidden in this partly seductive story.
* * *
Childhood. Adolescence, and Youth, all written when Tolstoy was in his twenties, are in the main autobiographical, but are mixed with elements of fiction. They are remarkable and very interesting but in certain ways rather unsympathetic. Yet what is unsympathetic is due to Tolstoy’s instinct for telling the truth about himself. His characteristic traits are seen to have emerged very early. His reaction to being made to speak French—bound up with his reaction against mere elegance—when he is reprimanded by his sister’s governess for speaking Russian instead of French, makes him want to chatter in Russian; and he loathes a later French tutor, who disapproved of him and punished him severely.
In our country, the people of a certain class [he writes in Youth], who love in a beautiful way, not only talk to other people about their love, but invariably, talk about it in French. It sounds strange and absurd to say so, but I am sure that there have been many people of a certain society, especially the women, whose love for their friends, their husbands, their children would be quite annihilated if they were forbidden to talk about them in French.
This prejudice against the French was probably reinforced later as a result of the Crimean war, in which Tolstoy as a young man took part, when the Russians were beaten by the French and the English.
A certain exhibitionism in Tolstoy’s religious attitude is illustrated thus early in his story of his first confession, which has taken place in the narrator’s home, but which he feels obliged to supplement when, after lying in bed at night and remembering a sin which he has failed to acknowledge, he gets up early and goes to the monastery in order to discharge the duty of confessing it. The priest is at morning mass and cannot attend to him at once, and while waiting in a rather bare and shabby anteroom, “which spoke to me clearly of some new and up to now unknown life, of a solitary life of prayer and quiet and peaceful happiness, ‘The months pass, the years pass,’ I thought, ‘he is always alone, he is always at peace, he always feels that his conscience is clean before God and that his prayers are heard by Him.’ ”
This impulse toward asceticism continues to be felt but it has always kept a certain dramatic character, a certain desire to be known as acting out these gestures of humility. One may note here also the scene in one of the uncontinued beginnings of the projected novel on the Decembrist conspirators, in which a man of fifty-two, going to church on Maundy Thursday, remembers how once, at the age of twelve, he had felt a temptation to interrupt the mass by crowing like a cock and is obliged to make an effort to dismiss such buffooneries, which even now haunt him as impulses, and recognize his sins and pray. It is this kind of impious self-assertion, later masked as apostolic vocation, that is seen to develop to immense proportions in the later years of Tolstoy’s life and that makes his professions and behavior, so insulting and troublesome to his wife and which result in his excommunication, rather suspect as a demonstration of saintliness. He was obviously disappointed at never being penalized by the government, which for once in his case showed good sense. He longed to be imprisoned, a martyr.
* * *
There is a story of Chekhov’s which has all the appearance of having been inspired by Tolstoy. The connection seems further emphasized by its being called “A Story without a Title.” Mr. Ronald Hingley, the author of Chekhov: A Biographical and Critical Study, says that it was written at the time that Chekhov was most under the influence of Tolstoy but that in this story he was “attacking asceticism,” “one of Tolstoy’s cardinal propositions.” There is, however, I think, more to the parable than this.
The abbot of a monastery, so remote from the centers of civilization that the only exciting events were occasional glimpses of a tiger, loved music, wrote Latin verses, and played the organ so beautifully that even the deaf old monks were moved. One night, when they had been living like this for decades without seeing any other human beings, a hunter who had got drunk and lost his way knocked at the gates of the monastery. When the monks took him in, he reproached them for leading such a withdrawn and tranquil life while the people of the cities were headed for hell: “Some are dying of hunger, while others, not knowing what to do with their gold, are drowning themselves in debauchery and are perishing like flies stuck in honey.” Is it not the monks’ duty to save them?
The drunken words of the city-dweller were audacious and quite improper; but they had a strange effect on the abbot. He decides he must visit the city, and on the next day starts out with his staff. He does not return for three months. The monks, who had much missed his music and his sermons, threw themselves on his neck and overwhelmed him with questions, but he only bitterly wept and would not speak a word. He had evidently had a grueling experience. Without either eating or drinking, he locked himself in his cell for seven days. When at last he emerged, he told them that he had started out gaily enough, seeing himself as a soldier going forth to battle and certain of his victory. But what he found in the city was such as he could never have dared to imagine. By an unlucky chance, the first dwelling he entered turned out to be a house of debauchery. There half a hundred men were squandering their money, getting drunk, and using language such as no God-fearing men would dare. They feared not God or the Devil or death, but were happy and felt free to do whatever they pleased. And the wine, which was as clear as amber and which gave off golden sparks, must have been powerfully sweet and fragrant, because everyone who drank it smiled blissfully and wanted to drink more. In that sweetness lay the Devil’s enticement.
The old man became more and more inflamed; he wept with anger and went on to describe what he had seen. On the table, in the midst of the roisterers, stood a wanton woman who was half-naked. It would be hard to imagine anything more wonderful and captivating. He describes her with all her charms. She seemed to be saying, “Look how naked and how beautiful I am!” She drank wine and sang songs, and let anyone do what he liked with her.
He told them also about the races, the bull fights, the theaters, the artists’ workshops where they depict and mold naked women from clay. He told them how beautifully and harmoniously and with what marvelous inspiration they played on invisible strings, and the monks listened to him hungrily and began to sigh in rapture. Having described all these temptations, the old man cursed the Devil and went back to his cell and shut the door.
When he came out the next morning, the monastery was empty. All the monks had run off to the city.
This was rather Tolstoy’s situation when, in the interests of his religion, he denounced his early novels, which had given his public so much pleasure.
* * *
What confronted Tolstoy now that he seemed to have disposed of all other obligations and to have attained all personal goals was the degraded position of the muzhiks. And then there was the question of salvation.
The gulf between the peasants and the educated classes in Russia was so wide that it presented to the Russian intellectuals and Westernized landowners a problem that, if they tried to think seriously about it, made them reformers or revolutionaries, or filled them with despair or stunned them. From Chernyshevsky, with his novel Chto Delat’?, to Lenin’s political program with the same title, What To Do?, this question was reiterated through the nineteenth century and during the later revolutionary period. Tolstoy echoed it in Tak Chto-zhe Nam Delat’? in connection with his exploration of the misery of the Moscow poor. This question, as put by Tolstoy, sent a vibration through all the West from Gandhi to Jane Addams. There were poverty and degraded people everywhere, but in the West it was easier for the comfortable classes to be callous to this state of things or to contribute to occasional charities, and, except in the case of the American Negroes, the gulf was not so wide, even after the emancipation of the serfs, between the educated people and the peasants, as it continued to be in Russia.
One must always remember this appalling disproportion in connection with Russian literature and history. Among the great writers, Turgenev, abandoning his estates, left Russia, except for short visits, in order to live in the West and made fun of the Russian idealists who thought that the salvation of Russia was coming “out of the peasants’ overcoat”; Chekhov, the grandson of a serf, was occupied mostly with the educated classes, but gave horrible pictures of the peasantry. Tolstoy tried to be a muzhik and denounced all art, including his own, which could not be understood by the peasant; the lower classes had to be gradually educated. Tolstoy, in his schools for his peasants, had of course tried to do this in a very small way. What a terribly long distance there was to go is shown by the slow results of education in the Soviet schools. Tolstoy’s relapse into religion, in a belief, as the only hope, in the example of the virtuous and benevolent man, seems a throwing up of hands in despair at the spectacle of so much evil, of which the abasement of so many human beings constituted a large part.
Tolstoy found himself now in the unusual, for a great writer perhaps the unprecedented, situation of having everything he could possibly want in a material way and having realized, in a literary way, all of his possible ambitions. He had a title and a distinguished ancestry and an extensive country estate, no adverse parental pressures, an attractive and intelligent wife, first-rate intellectual powers, and an imaginative genius which had enabled him to produce two masterpieces of fiction that were bringing in a good deal of money: when he heard of his former colleagues’ receiving important official appointments, he would sometimes remark ironically that “though he had not himself earned a Generalship in the artillery, he had at any rate won a Generalship in literature.”
But he had served in the war against Shamil and had nearly been killed by a shell, he had fought in the Crimean warfare, and had declined or disregarded three crosses for valor; he had had innumerable women; he had seen all he wanted to see of Western Europe. He had acted as an Arbiter of the Peace, after the liberation of the serfs, with such an impartial justice as to infuriate many of his fellow nobles; he had instituted and directed a school for the peasants’ children on a system of his own creation. He was, although sensitive, physically strong. It is no wonder—though so rare a phenomenon—that, having experienced and accomplished so much at a relatively early age, he should ask himself, as he does in A Confession, what there was to hope for and aim at next. Life at last has confronted him with a great blank. How is this blank to be filled? There is no further way to excel save through some effort of spiritual ennoblement.
The difference between Tolstoy’s great early novels and his so much less satisfactory late ones is due to his having been able, in the former, to split up his own complicated personality into the several personalities of his characters—as in Pierre Bezukhov, Prince André, and Nicholas Rostov—each true to its own laws and each more or less of a piece. When he falls back on dramatizing his own mixed nature in an attempt to reduce it to something more easily acceptable, he produces such relatively implausible creations as Ivan Ilyich, Father Sergius, and Prince Nekhlyudov.
* * *
The best way to get an idea of the drama created in the Tolstoy household by the conversion of Lyov Nikolaevich is to read his play on the subject, And the Light Shines in the Darkness, begun in the early Eighties and not continued till 1900, the interval having extended through the period of his domestic conflicts. Tolstoy’s imagination for family relations had always been one of the most striking features of his fiction. There are in War and Peace the families of the Bolkonskys and the Rostovs, in Anna Karenina the Karenins and the Levins. In his story of a horse, “Kholstomer,” (sometimes translated as “Yardstick”), this imagination for the family extends even to the family of wolves who devour the horse’s dead body: their physical characteristics are described, and we are told that the mother wolf makes a special point of feeding the smallest cub first.
So in this play, Tolstoy is very well aware of the reactions to his proposed reforms of the other members of the family, and he actually makes these reactions seem far more sympathetic to the reader than the ideals professed by the reformer. He is trying here to dramatize the situation, and in assigning his own ideas to the moralist, he produces, as Mirsky says, a one-track fanatic who resembles his intolerable disciple Chertkov and who hardly does justice to his confused and torn self. The dramatic projection does not work in such a way as to justify the moralist. The balance becomes upset between him and his suffering family. There is not even the kind of balance that is preserved between Levin and Vronsky.
And yet the reformer’s position is fundamentally Tolstoy’s own. This moralist refuses to defer to or to make any compromises with the army, the Church, or the judiciary system. He will not take into consideration the problems that these institutions have been set up to deal with, or ask what would happen if they did not exist. (In his version of the Gospels, he had never hesitated to correct the words of Jesus as misreadings if they did not agree with his own opinions.) We are shown the man in the play arguing with the local priest and getting the better of it. But we also see the perplexities and convulsions of his family confronted by a well-off father who wants to give away his property, to deprive his wife of her social position and his children of their inheritance. Tolstoy’s ambition is to announce his special revelation, regardless of consequences. He desires to figure as a voice of God. Gorky rightly said that Tolstoy and God were like two bears in one den.
Tolstoy wrote four acts of this play but got no further than notes for the fifth. But in the outline that he left, the reformer is shot by a princess whose son the prophet has inspired to resign from the army as a conscientious objector. (This ending is not included in the current twenty-volume Collected Works published in the Soviet Union.)
But in general, it seems to me, most of these post-conversion stories suffer from their being deformed by the moralistic bias. “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” has often been much admired; but I cannot believe that a provincial judge, even ill and on the verge of death, would so have felt the futility of his life. Tolstoy would have had—he did have when he wrote A Confession—such broodings as he attributes to Ivan Ilyich, but I cannot believe that Ivan would have had them, or that Tolstoy, in his early phase, would have invented so implausible a character.
In his other famous late story, “Father Sergius,” the main character becomes preposterous. Sergius is at first presented as a dashing young officer and man of the world who is about to marry a girl of his own class. But he finds out that she has been the Tsar’s mistress, and since he has always aimed to excel in everything, and he cannot bear to be outranked, and since he cannot challenge the Tsar, whom he has previously adored, to a duel, he throws the girl over and decides, since he cannot in any other way hope to surpass the Tsar, to excel him in piety and penance. He therefore first enters a monastery but later goes on to live in a cave, where he devotes himself to prayer and self-mortification.
In consequence of healing a sick boy, having been nagged by the boy’s mother, he gets a great reputation as a healer, a starets or holy man, and soon he finds that people are flocking to him for cures and advice in their difficulties. But he comes to feel that this new position lays him open to the sin of pride. He now almost believes in his powers as a healer, and this is beginning to alienate him from God—since he has come to be working now not for God but for other people. He accordingly gives up his ministrations and devotes himself in solitude to worship; but a disaster to this piety occurs when he cannot restrain himself from raping or at least having intercourse with a sick girl who has been brought to his cell. He now emerges and becomes a vagabond and achieves his final victory over himself when he accepts twenty kopeks from some upper-class people who are traveling in a coach and on horseback and who among themselves are speaking French. He had been known, in his days in the army, for his outbursts of insubordination, but he has now got the better of his temper.
Now, Tolstoy was of course well qualified to understand the spiritual pride of Sergius, his ungovernable sensuality, and his equally ungovernable determination that no one should ever top him. But he is quite unable to imagine his hero’s existence in the cave—which, to a non-Russian, non-religious reader is equally unimaginable. What is the use of these endless sessions of prayer and worshipful meditation? Would they not certainly pall on a man who had enjoyed all the pleasures of society?
The only attempt of Tolstoy to become a self-impoverished pilgrim was not at all like Father Sergius’s. He once set out, disguised as a peasant, with two attendants, also disguised, and with a valise, which was carried by them, containing the indispensable conveniences, and after having arrived at his destination, a monastery, went to sleep on the floor of a flophouse. But his neighbor, a cobbler, kept him awake by snoring, and Tolstoy soon put a stop to this. The abbot of the monastery now found out who he was and immediately transferred him to a first-class hotel; he was passed before the common people who were waiting to see the starets, and entertained as a guest of honor. He could not face going back on foot, but returned by the train, though third class, and was met by his coachman with a carriage.
* * *
Resurrection is more impressive because it deals with actuality, a situation much less of fantasy. It seems to me an underrated book. It has become a critics’ cliché to say that it is by no means equal to its more celebrated predecessors. It was begun in December, 1889, twelve years after Anna Karenina, but not finished till 1899, when the author made it ready to be published for the purpose of raising money to finance the journey to Canada of the heretical sect of the Doukhobors, who refused to serve in the army. Tolstoy said of the novel that he did not have time to make it what it ought to be; but what he seems to have meant was not that he did not have time to polish and prune it but that he ought to have brought it closer to his conception of the kind of thing that could be easily understood by an unsophisticated audience.
Prince Nekhlyudov has to sit on a jury and finds himself in the position of judging a peasant girl with whom he has had a love affair and who has since then lapsed into prostitution and is now accused wrongly of having robbed and poisoned a merchant. Nekhlyudov offers to marry her, but she cannot take this seriously; and most of the rest of the story consists of his persistent attempts to rectify the judicial error. These take us through a whole panorama of tsarist officialdom, which gives Tolstoy an excellent opportunity to exploit his inexhaustible interest in how different kinds of people behave and live. He even includes a group of young revolutionaries, of whose projects he disapproves but whose point of view he is able to understand.
These judges and generals and rebels open up for Tolstoy a whole new department of contemporary life. Resurrection takes you closer to the machinery of the government than anything he has written before. In the end, Nekhlyudov succeeds in getting his girl’s sentence commuted—hardly a possibility under the present Soviet regime—but he insists on following her to Siberia. We get a vividly imagined picture of an elderly general and his wife who have been assigned to duty there—another instance of Tolstoy’s success in presenting the life of a family existing under special conditions. Nekhlyudov’s former love finds an admirer better suited to her than he is; and Nekhlyudov discovers the New Testament, which he borrows from one of the prisoners.
Tolstoy was contemplating a sequel which should show Nekhlyudov’s subsequent struggles to lead a truly Christian life, but this sequel was never written. His own problems, one supposes, overwhelmed him. The title of this novel involves a kind of play on words that does not come out in translation. “Voskresenia” means both “Sunday” and “resurrection,” and the satirical accounts of the Orthodox services, one of them in a prison chapel, are intended by Tolstoy to contrast with Nekhlyudov’s real voskresenia when he is brought to it by the words of Jesus.
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It is easy to suppose one can fancy the scorn which Tolstoy must have felt on receiving from Turgenev’s deathbed the famous last letter in which Turgenev begs him, addressing him as “great writer of the Russian land,” “to return to literary activity.” Tolstoy had asked what the use was of making up tales about imaginary people when real ones were demanding attention to their problems. Yet something like a granting of Turgenev’s request was eventually to take place.
The short novel Hajji Murad was produced in sporadic spells between 1896 and 1904, and it has the look of a holiday from the dutiful business of writing tracts and standing up as the prophet of a reformed religion. It is a kind of return to the methods and the point of view of War and Peace. Hajji Murad, a Caucasian chieftain, is compared to a wild thistle. He does not fit into civilization of the Western, even the Russian, kind. At first, an ally of Shamil, the formidable Chechen chieftain, who from the fastnesses of his mountains defended his people against the armies of the Tsar, Hajji Murad, ambitious of leadership himself, betrays him and goes over to the Russians, with whom he hopes to cooperate in crushing Shamil. Shamil holds his family as hostages: two wives and a son. The Russians treat Hajji Murad with respect, but they and he are aware that he can never really belong with them; and one day he gives them the slip and tries to rescue his family by a reckless raid.
It is obvious that Tolstoy is able to identify himself with Murad more naturally than with Father Sergius. Hajji Murad is willful and intractable alike as an ally of Shamil and as a protégé of the Russians. He is killed in a fierce battle by the followers of Shamil. But the story ranges very widely among characters not always directly connected with the passionate career of Hajji Murad: the Tsar’s court, Shamil and his followers, the Russian officers, the death of a Russian soldier whose wife is relieved at having him killed because she has been got pregnant by a Russian clerk. It is here that we rejoin War and Peace.
Tolstoy’s moral principles come into play in his treatment of Nicholas I, who is made a detestable figure: he acquires a respectable young girl as his mistress and, while enjoying a conviction of righteousness for having abolished capital punishment, thinks nothing of virtually condemning to death by making him run a gauntlet of beatings, a student who has struck his professor. But a fragment and an omitted chapter of the manuscript, unpublished at the time of Tolstoy’s death, show how his preoccupation with the lives of different kinds of families led him away from this bitter portrait. He began to become interested in the Royal Family and he seems to be trying to explain how Nicholas got to be what he was.
This additional matter has also unaccountably been omitted from the selective Soviet edition. It is illuminating, by the way, to compare the texts published by Chertkov in Germany, which show in brackets what the censorship would not allow, with the recent English edition of Babi Yar, which shows omissions imposed by the Soviet censor. The effect is very much the same. In the one case, what is removed is everything derogatory to the Tsar; in the second, everything that unpleasantly reflects on the recent procedures of the Soviet government.
* * *
In all Tolstoy’s talk about love and God, it is a little hard to know what he means by either. He does not seem very much to love others; and what is his communion with God? He is more impressive when, at the time of the famine—though, as he said, in violation of his principles—he is saving the lives of the starving, or when he is compromising with his children and with Sophie Andreevna, to the last of whom he owed so much. For the rest, the cult of love and God seems often, as with Father Sergius, an arid self-directed exercise that simply raises the worshipper in his own esteem.
February 25, 1971
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. ↩