Discovering Tolstoy

Unrivalled greatness

Discovering Tolstoy

Magical Moscow The resonance of  Leo Tolstoy is still alive here.

Leo Tolstoy died 100 years ago, on November 20, 1910, and his name has become synonymous around the world with the greatness of Russian literature. But in Russia, Tolstoy’s philosophy — “Tolstovstvo” — with its calls for nonviolence and its free interpretations of the Gospels, still provokes fierce debate.

In 1901, the Russian Orthodox Church excommunicated the writer; on the eve of this 100th anniversary of his death, the church declined appeals to reconsider.

Actually, it’s unlikely that Tolstoy would have been too upset by this: The force of his talent gave him a unique opportunity to go his own way and to celebrate life in all its manifestations.

I get a physiological pleasure from reading Tolstoy, and the more I read him, the greater the pleasure. His words generate smells, sounds, vibrations of feelings and moods. They are broader than any philosophical doctrine, and more significant even than the author himself, whom his words mercilessly exploit. In all literature, perhaps, there never was so “idea-less” a writer who released into the world writing that fills us with admiration of its power, and fear of its candour.

Tolstoy’s words seem to break away from the writer to reveal the meaning of existence — sometimes surprising the writer himself in the process. Marcel Proust considered Tolstoy to be the almighty lord of his works, controlling all their actions and thoughts. If so it is a generous lord, who is great because he gives freedom to his heroes, and they, on entering our memory, become more alive than the living. Natasha’s first ball, the horse race in “Anna Karenina,” the illness and death of Ivan Ilyich — all these fill the reader with both elemental delight, and also with the horror of confronting the very sources of existence. Sometimes it seems that Tolstoy was born to overturn the rules of literature and to laugh at its pretensions to be a textbook of life.

Tolstoy did not like to discuss ‘literature,’ and did not much like writers like Dante and Shakespeare. He did not regard himself as a professional writer. He was more a serial killer of literary canons. His mind and body raged with such unchecked passions that it was not possible to make ends meet.

He was a monster in his personal behaviour; he hated “progress” and the “age of progress”; he hailed freedom for women in a world of stern social convention; he loved the simple peasant, though by blood and habit he was the complete lord. Lenin was unusually accurate when he called Tolstoy a “mirror of the Russian revolution.”

I love to read about Tolstoy’s relationships with his famous contemporaries, so full of misunderstandings and treachery. He hated Turgenev for his ‘democratic thighs’ and love of chatter. He longed to challenge him to a duel with hunting rifles at six paces. He described the horrors of war in his Sevastopol stories, yet his own character was equally belligerent, terrorising his wife, Sofia Andreevna. His demonstrative vegetarianism and peasant labors bore the brunt of jokes (“A muzhik comes before the count and announces, ‘The plow is served”’).

André Gide in an essay on Dostoevsky wrote that Tolstoy obscured the greatness of Dostoevsky. But with time, the prevalent view among intellectuals came to be that Dostoevsky’s mountain was higher than Tolstoy’s. Yes, Dostoevsky has clear goals and defined action. The curtain opens and we watch how a godless existence leads inexorably to sin and evil. Crime becomes punishment.

By contrast, when Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina throws herself under a train, what is it? Her punishment? High tragedy? The fate of fallen women? A delirious stream of consciousness? There is no answer. For that, in Tolstoy’s logic, you go to the police, not to the writer. In Dostoevsky, life is subservient to thought. In Tolstoy, thought is in a constant spin, like the grenade that will explode and take the life of Prince Andrei Bolkonsky.

Tolstoy’s novels arise out of the small details of his daily diary; they grow out of social gossip, childhood impressions, family legends. He waters this garden, and there grows a tree with heavenly fruit — delicious, fragrant, juicy, unique.

The most unreal literature in history — socialist realism — tried to co-opt Tolstoy. It hoped to imitate his style to overturn the world. Yet by definition Tolstoy can not be imitated: To write like Tolstoy one would have to be an unpalatable, individualistic count.

At the end of his life Tolstoy himself came to criticise the excessive praise for War and Peace and Anna Karenina — it was the same, he said, as praising a great physicist for dancing the mazurka well. How is that for a brilliant misunderstanding of himself and his creative nature? Eventually, Tolstoy the preacher came into conflict with his own talent. His theory of nonviolent resistance inspired Gandhi and revealed the oriental roots of Russian thought.

The Leo Tolstoy I love, however, is the skeptic, the hedonist, the constant mover. I love the prickly face, the unkempt beard and the childlike search for a magical ‘green stick’ in the forest that held the key to universal happiness. His final secret flight from his home at Yasnaya Polyana appears as the height of madness. It creates the impression that the time had come for the writer to throw himself under the train.

Recently I visited Yasnaya Polyana, about 100 kilometres south of Moscow, and I wandered though his house-museum among the furniture and objects of an aristocratic nest. Suddenly I understood where War and Peace came from — it was the long, fuss-free day of the country estate, the samovar tea ceremony, the walks through the clean air.

Two provincial policemen were stationed at the gate to the estate. Had they read Tolstoy? I asked. We did him in school, they replied.

Without Tolstoy, life would be paler and poorer. His phrases, gnarled like the roots of a tree, his observations, as accurate as a marksman’s, belong not only to us, but also to future generations.

Comments (+)