Tolstoy in Doubt

Tolstoy's Letters: Volume I, 1828-1879; Volume II, 1880-1910

selected, edited, and translated by R. F. Christian
Scribner's, 737 pp., $35.00
Leo Tolstoy
Leo Tolstoy; drawing by David Levine

You think that I am one thing and my writing is another. But my writing is the whole of me.

Thus Tolstoy wrote in 1885, in one of the long and bitter letters to his wife in which he sought to explain the appalling suffering which they had caused each other since his spiritual crisis of the 1870s. Their misery was all due, he believed, to one fatal mistake: she had succumbed to “the general opinion that a literary artist…should write works of art, and not think about his life or improve it, and that all that is a kind of folly or mental illness.”

Tolstoy’s onslaughts on the principle of moral neutrality in art began in earnest only after the religious conversion he described in A Confession, which he began writing in 1879. But it was a principle that had always been alien to him. When as a young man in the 1850s he had turned for a brief period from writing to teaching and work on his estate, this was because he had temporarily ceased to find in art and beauty a sufficient answer to the central preoccupation of his life—the search for the truths by which men should live. When, having returned to writing in the early 1860s, he produced his greatest novel, War and Peace, he was apprehensive, as he wrote to his friend the critic Strakhov, that people might praise “the sentimental scene with the young lady…or other such rubbish,” and might not notice “the chief thing”—his views expressed in the epilogue on the limits of freedom and dependence, which were the essence of an outlook “formed in me God knows by what toil and suffering.”

His fears were well founded: as Isaiah Berlin has pointed out in his famous essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” the “philosophical” passages in War and Peace have traditionally been seen as irrelevant digressions alien to the artistic structure of the work, early evidence of the tragic folly that would lead him to renounce his artistic calling for a role in which his talents were undistinguished: that of moralist and preacher.

That Tolstoy the artist continues so frequently to be divorced from Tolstoy the thinker can be partly accounted for in English-speaking countries by a significant gap in the relevant material available in translation. Tolstoy’s belief in the unity of his art and his life led him in his last years to give as much careful thought to the posthumous editing and publication of his diaries as he had ever done with regard to his literary works. Throughout his life those letters which dealt with the questions which most preoccupied him were meticulously copied and preserved. However, only partial translations of the diaries exist, and very few of his thousands of letters have been available in English. We now have 608 of the most important letters in the selection…

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