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 candor. 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 behavior; 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, terrorizing his wife, Sofia Andreevna. His demonstrative vegetarianism and peasant labors became 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. [Read More]