The unique thing about Tolstoy as a writer is that he found it intolerable to be one. Many writers hate writing, or find it impossibly difficult, or can only write about what it means to be a writer. Tolstoy not only had literary genius but could use it with ease. His sense of himself was so great that it extended to everything else: nothing seems more natural as we read him than to become, as it were, Tolstoy. He writes so naturally that we seem to be doing it for him.
And yet he hated writing. Is this perhaps what made him so uniquely good at it? He is devoid of the self-approval that invisibly permeates so many good novelists—Turgenev, Flaubert, George Eliot, even Proust and Henry James—novelists whose work displays a masterly sense of art well done, style achieved, the magnificent conquest of the insuperable problem. Tolstoy’s problem is nothing to do with art. It is to do with being Tolstoy: a Russian, an aristocrat, a married man, a seeker after God. In Isaiah Berlin’s memorable phrase, it is to do with being a fox who passionately wanted to be a hedgehog.
One of the many paradoxes about him is that although everything he wrote is about his own enormous, egocentric dilemma, the enthralled reader is only rarely conscious of the fact. Yet in War and Peace Tolstoy is obsessed with his childhood, with the recovery of a joyous, innocent time, with the vision of a great, splendid, self-liberating Russia, in which he can feel wholly at home. It is the reader who finds the book as large and as varied as life itself. Everybody knows that Tolstoy put himself into Anna Karenina as Levin, the seeker, the simple gentleman, the family man, but that likeness is a formal one, even in a sense a falsifying one. Levin is a convenient but very misleading idea of Tolstoy concocted by himself: in reality he should have said, as Flaubert said about Madame Bovary, “Anna Karenina, c’est moi.” It is Anna who finds life impossible, and who embarks on a solitary, passionate, and ultimately sterile journey which ends in suicide at the railway station. It is Anna, even more significantly, who finds when it is too late that she cannot live without the society she grew up in, without her son and family—all the things she had abandoned in order to be with her lover. No wonder Tolstoy said of his many drafts of the plot of the novel that whatever he planned or altered he could do nothing to stop Anna’s suicide.
It is the great merit of A. N. Wilson’s new biographical study that he manages, against all the odds, to destabilize Tolstoy, to rescue him from admirers and detractors alike, to make us see the man and the writer as if for the first time. This is no small achievement. Tolstoy has been written about, one would have thought, to the point of stalemate. From Aylmer Maude onward there are long and comprehensive biographies—by Nik Gudzy, Ernest Simmons, Henri Troyat—all of whom make good use of the huge stacks of Tolstoyana originally put out by family and friends, by disciples, philosophers, critics. No question of Saint Leo in all these. For many years the biographers have included the rough sides of Tolstoy in their portraits; and even the feminists and the champions of his long-suffering wife, Sofya Andreyevna, now agree to present what has become an essentially stereotyped portrait. Even Tolstoy the monster is a matter for hagiography, his faults and shortcomings as settled and enshrined as his fame.
Without in the least setting out deliberately to debunk any of this Wilson does, as I say, manage to destabilize the historical and biographical icon of Tolstoy, both the one he himself created and the one imposed on him by later opinion, favorable or unfavorable. Wilson’s Tolstoy seems alive and contemporary, his problems our problems. His sexual conditioning and expectations invite here a comparison with those of a rock star, as well as with Shakespeare and Dickens. Tolstoy’s continual and gnawing sense of the pointlessness of a rich man’s existence, in a society in which rich people can do what they want, finds itself equally cogent in a world of yuppies, or of the spoiled progeny of Soviet apparatchiks. Himself a prolific novelist, Wilson appears to understand instinctively what might be called the unacceptable face of authorship, its falsifications, self-engrossments, addictive compulsions. When Tolstoy was young he wrote as he gambled, despising it even as he was unable to stop. When old, he hated the atmosphere of his early work, pitilessly observing its sentimentality and evasiveness, utterly indifferent to its openness and honesty and its marvelous power of observation. Wilson observes philosophically that all novelists falsify, and most wipe the slate clean each time and start afresh, but Tolstoy’s work, like his whole personality, was a perpetual obsession to him. “As I was then, so am I now,” he murmured in old age. In an important sense there were no periods or stages in Tolstoy’s life and writing.
Temperamentally Wilson seems unusually intimate with his subject. So far from dissociating himself, as most biographers do, from Tolstoy’s more obviously cranky aspects, he is not above being a bit cranky himself, looking with real curiosity into his subject’s views on vegetarianism or virginity, and at times putting forward similar prejudices of his own.1 Like Tolstoy himself he is both God-obsessed and skeptical, though he takes himself less seriously, and indeed the constant play of humor is one of the most agreeable and unexpected aspects of the biography: it is always amused but never iconoclastic.2 Moreover Wilson has studied the Russian sources far more thoroughly and effectively than most of his predecessors writing in English have done. While not pretending to be a Russian scholar, with all the caution and pedantry such experts tend to exhibit, he loves the language and has learned it effectively, so as to read widely in the Russian sources. He venerates and makes exceptionally good use of Eykhenbaum, the doyen of Soviet Tolstoy scholars. All this makes his biographical study one of the most unusual of recent years, and one of the best.
Wilson’s lively informal tone can be slapdash at times, and he makes some odd errors. Specialists in Russian literature no longer subscribe to the old legend that Dostoevsky’s father was murdered by his serfs, and that this was the cause of Dostoevsky’s epilepsy. Nor is he above the occasional use of vulgar cliché. Remarking on Tanya Bers, Tolstoy’s vivacious sister-in-law, that she had big ears, which added to the animation of her face while detracting from conventional good looks, he cannot resist remarking: “No china doll she.” On the other hand Wilson does contrive to make us really feel, as if it were happening at this moment, just what Tanya’s attraction was for Tolstoy; why there was so much animosity between him and Turgenev; why he was so careful never to meet Dostoevsky. And although every reader of War and Peace knows that Tanya was Tolstoy’s model for Natasha Rostov, Wilson manages to make the actual Tanya come alive as herself, and not just the spirited girl who became the famous character. Undoubtedly she was the catalyst who provided the central inspiration for Tolstoy’s huge project, and enabled him to get it going, but he was never in love with her. Turgenev said he could only write novels when a little in love, but Tolstoy needed something different: the contemplation, from the position of detached fascination, of a beautiful woman (like Anna Karenina) who personified the qualities he most secretly admired and saw in and for himself—vigor, ruthlessness, irresistible charm.
Making the comparison with Dickens, who fell in love with his sister-in-law just because she lived in the house but was not his wife, Wilson observes that Sofya was Tolstoy’s wife in a particularly basic way: the strong one on whom he depended, the helpmeet, confidante, mistress, and mother, to whom, in a sexual sense, he was unreflectingly faithful. And like an oriental he refused to allow her to display her arms, shoulders, and bosom to the glances of others. It was Tanya, and not his wife, whom he took in a highly decolleté dress to the ball at Tula when the Czar was visiting. Wilson reminds us of an episode involving Tanya that is much more upsetting than anything in War and Peace. Tolstoy’s brother Sergey, who was living with his gypsy mistress, Marya Mikhaylovna, on his neighboring estate, fell madly in love with Tanya, and she with him. They became engaged, but at the last moment Sergey
came into the house and glanced into Marya Mikhaylovna’s room. He saw her at prayer before her icon and something told him that he could not go through with his plans. That night he wrote to Tanya telling her that the gipsy woman was in despair and that he could no longer marry her, Tanya. Tanya, ever ebullient and volatile, tried to poison herself, but it was not a very successful attempt. Her misery on this occasion was all useful to Tolstoy when he came to describe the grief of Natasha Rostova for Prince Andrey in War and Peace.
Tanya, on the rebound, married a rather dull fellow called Kuzminsky. But, as Wilson says, she was a survivor.
Though it is slighter in scope and relies less on modern Russian scholarship than Wilson’s. Martine de Courcel’s study is in its own way of much interest. Instead of larking about among the passages of Yasnaya Polyana, as Wilson does, telling us what he thinks of Tolstoy and of life in general, she has embarked on a careful interpretation, in psychological terms, of some of the key events in Tolstoy’s life and the most puzzling paradoxes of his genius. “The ultimate reconcilation” is for her the great man’s perhaps unconscious decision, in his last days, as he prepared to leave Yasnaya Polyana, to stop being a sage, a reformer, a Tolstoyan, and revert to his real vocation: that of being simply and solely a writer. One can see in this view a perhaps equally unconscious bias toward the assumption in French culture that a grand érivain is just that, and that art exists for the sake of art. Tolstoy in fact belonged to a very different cultural tradition, in which he resembles almost all other Russian writers; like them he is concerned with the whole business of being Russian, of thinking and speaking for and with the community. Turgenev, the cosmopolitan exile, in his old age implored Tolstoy—“great writer of our Russian land”—to return to doing novels, but the implied distinction meant little in Russia, or to Tolstoy. He was always just Tolstoy, for himself and everyone else.
Nonetheless De Courcel’s thesis about Tolstoy’s psychological roots is undoubtedly persuasive and has very considerable interest. She points out that Tolstoy prepared for each project he undertook by a prodigious amount of reading and preparation, consulting friends and experts and drawing up elaborate plans. It was rather as if he planned to get married each time, and start a home and family; and like a responsible engaged couple he had endless discussions about jobs and homes. Indeed the domestic metaphor goes further, for it is important to Martine de Courcel’s argument that Tolstoy was orphaned at an early age. The pattern of his life was in some sense that of a man determined to be his own mother and father, and in fact becoming his own id and superego. This would explain why he found writing so objectionable but was unable to stop; why he hated gambling and whoring but persisted in them compulsively. The wires were thoroughly crossed. As his own father and mother he despised writing as a nonfamily activity, and longed for “home” and all its certainties. As a writer he embarked each time as if on a family project, himself the patriarch, the child, and the eternal mother.
For Martine de Courcel the final irony is that Tolstoy left his wife and home, at the end of his life, in order to find a “real” one in literature, a final and—as it were—all-embracing literary project. This can hardly be the case as a matter of fact. Tolstoy was, after all, exceedingly old and in poor health when he died alone in the railway station, and although it is true that new ideas and projects were constantly presenting themselves to him, right up to the end—the urge to leave “a little of my flesh in the inkpot” (an oddly parturitional metaphor)—he is unlikely to have been able to realize them. Martine de Courcel may nonetheless be right in perceiving in his flight from Yasnaya Polyana “what futurologists call a ‘directional scenario,’ one in which the data of the present make up a model already found in the past, and thus permit the construction of a model for the future.” In citing the parameters of this model, where his successive major works were concerned, she emphasizes “the chance encounter with an incident or true story”—the local suicide that led to Anna Karenina, and a triple suicide in Moscow, which a friend read to him from the paper only four days before he died, and which he asked to have cut out so that he could brood about it later. One of his last and finest stories, Hadji Murad, came from recollecting an anecdote that he had heard long ago in the Caucasus and discussed with his brother Sergey.
To this one might add that Tolstoy could be as “literary” in his inspirations as any other writer subject to the anxieties of influence. For his early work he pillaged Dickens, and the original opening of Anna Karenina was suggested by the first sentence of a story of Pushkin’s he had been reading to his children. All these things blended, and as he himself murmured on his deathbed: “I keep on writing and everything comes together like music.” We remember the fugue that young Petya hears in his head in War and Peace on the last night of his life—he is killed in the attack the following morning—without even realizing that it is a fugue. All Tolstoy’s major works contain the same mysterious unifications, secret harmonies. But it may well be the case that his “mother-and-father complex,” together with all the unspeakable tensions of life at home in his last years, made writing seem for him a forbidden, even a disgusting, activity; and that he broke this spell when he finally left home.
Martine de Courcel ends her book with the following short paragraph:
In the end, then, Tolstoy accepted being what he was—neither a saint nor a reformer, but a writer who wanted to decipher the meaning of life and bequeath that meaning to mankind: he went away to write.
There may well be something in that, and there is at least a Faustian majesty in the image of the great writer expiring on the brink of what might have been his last and greatest novel.
Wilson’s knockabout brilliance is unbothered by theories like these, but his assessment of Tolstoy is not in practice so different. We all know the kind of person involved, the kind of person that his own family, in their candid moments, recognize Tolstoy to have been, especially when he was young—a bossy, tiresome, self-preoccupied overachiever. His sister remembered how he nearly drowned in a pond which he had said was only a foot or two deep and jumped in to prove he was right; and how he almost died of exhaustion because he said it was child’s play to run behind the carriage between two stages on the road. Turgenev, a masochistic, sweetly unself-confident man many years older than Tolstoy, became a favorite target of his quasiparental bullying. One of Wilson’s liveliest chapters is called “Bronchitis is a Metal.” Turgenev had complained to Tolstoy that his chest was bad and he had bronchitis, hoping to get some sympathy, only to have the young man snap back at him: “Bronchitis is a metal.” As Wilson points out, the Russian word bronchit does sound rather as if it might be one, and Tolstoy may have misheard. But the story is typical of his lack of feeling as Mr. Know-all, the man who later ordered his wife to drink kefir, wear bast shoes, and breast-feed her children as long as possible. As the biographer Lord David Cecil used to say, if Tolstoy had told him to take a certain course he would have known it must be right to do just the opposite.
In a particularly interesting section of his study Wilson points out that Tolstoy frequently manipulates the past in his writings, referring back to childhood events or emotions that had been quite recent. He pretended to have had as a child experiences he had actually just been having as a young man. There was probably no conscious insincerity in this, and it was the basis of some of his best early writing. Eykhenbaum long ago observed that it is not safe even to take Tolstoy’s diaries as a literal record of events, however passionately sincere Tolstoy may have felt while writing them. He indicates how Tolstoy edited his experiences with his own family and his mother, his military service in the Caucasus, and even his day-to-day account of his siege of Sevastopol in the Crimea.
His own diaries are to a large extent influenced by eighteenth-century models, like those of Rousseau and Franklin. And like lesser writers Tolstoy could falsify by timely omission. When his brother Dimitry was dying of consumption Tolstoy was going through one of his most assiduously “social” periods; and after a perfunctory visit to his brother’s sickbed, which repelled him, he dashed back to a season of balls in St. Petersburg. This did not stop him from working up the scene for one of the most moving passages in Anna Karenina, in which Levin plays a very different role. As Wilson dryly points out, Tolstoy had the experience and later supplied the meaning. “‘Emotion recollected in tranquility,”‘ he remarks, “is another phrase for making up things after the event.” But we all do it, and Tolstoy is a genius at it. It is the scale on which he does things that enlarges our sense of ourselves, as well as showing all of us what we are like.
November 24, 1988