From childhood Tolstoy has seemed to me the greatest figure of modern times, and still does. I see him as one of those extraordinary beings in whom the conflicts of an age work themselves out. In this sense, his own life is his greatest production more so even than his supreme masterpieces like War and Peace, Anna Karenina and Resurrection. Its interest is inexhaustible. If a new biography or study of him appeared annually I should still want to read them all. There have not been quite as many as that, but still a great many, in the latest oneby Henri Troyatthe bibliography contains seven pages of biographies and related studies, and, as is explained, the list is by no means complete.
M. Troyat's own biography (following his excellent Dostoevsky) is ample, and to the best of my knowledge complete. He is himself of Russian origin, and so can get inside Tolstoy's skin. The available documentation is in any case fabulous. All the Tolstoys were great diary-keepers. I have often amused myself by imagining the scene after lights-out at Yasnaya Polyana, when surreptitious candles were lit and notebooks brought out to record the impressions of the day's events, visitors and quarrels; then, as the night wore on, the padding about in stockinged feet to take a clandestine peep at one another's versions. Tolstoy himself kept a, supposedly, really secret diary which was hidden away; in his, as it were, open one he often used to carry on his disputes and quarrels with his wife, Sonya, who, he well knew, was bound to take a look at it sooner or later.
Probably no marriage in history has been so fully documented as the Tolstoys'; we know everything about itdown to the minutiae of their sexual relations. It certainly cannot be described as happy, but it went on for a long time and produced a large progeny. As M. Troyat shows, Tolstoy and Sonya clashed at every point. She was considerably younger than he was, decidedly conventional (though she thought otherwise) and a member in good standing of the Russian Orthodox Church. Tolstoy's ways and attitudes were utterly his own, without reference to anyone else or any outside considerations. The more passionate his Christian faith became the more he loathed the Churcha by no means unusual situationand the more its dignitaries loathed him.
Poor Sonya hated his friends, particularly the humourless, pompous Chertkov, who I must say does seem to have been a pain in the neck. On one occasion he recorded: 'Tolstoy has learnt to ride a bicycle,' adding 'is this not inconsistent with his ideals?' On another, Tolstoy noticed a mosquito on Chertkov's bald pate and smacked at it with his hand. 'What have you done, Leo Nikolayevich?' Chertkov rebuked him, 'You have killed a living creature! You should be ashamed of yourself !'
Tolstoy, a deeply sensual man who at one period in his life abandoned himself to furious sexual indulgence, and remained to the end prone to what he called impure thoughts, became increasingly convinced that Christian salvation was attainable only if one died in the flesh to be reborn in the spirit. Sonya, understandably, found his abhorrence of his sexual appetites at the very least disconcerting, especially when, as was liable to happen, he was swept helplessly into frenzied indulgence of them with her. One has an impression in her diaries of the old fellow, after one such bout, rushing about their connubial bedroom tearing at his beard and crying: 'Woe ! Woe I'
Deeply as I sympathise with Tolstoy's position, honesty compels me to recognise that it cannot have been much fun for the Countess, more particularly as the scene, thinly disguised but easily recognisable by all her friends, was quite likely to crop up in one of her husband's moralistic tales. In addition, his passion to identify himself completely with the muzhiks led him to give up bathing and attending to his person, with the result that his assaults on Sonya were oftento add to everything elsephysically repugnant to her.
She herself complicated matters by developing a middle-aged passion for a rather foolish musician and frequent visitor to Yasnaya Polyana named Tanayev, with whom, to Tolstoy's intense disgust, she sometimes played duets. One should add that she got herself into so sick a state of mind one way and another that she came to accuse Tolstoy of homosexual relations with Chertkovas unlikely a proposition, I should have said, as falling in love with a parking-meter.
There were also unending rows about moneyin Tolstoy's view, next to sex the greatest single impediment to human virtue and felicity. He was right, of course, but his own efforts to rid himself of his possessions and live like the muzhiks were constantly frustrated by the alleged needs of his family and Sonya's championship of them. In the end, like King Lear, he made over the inheritance to Sonya and the children, with disastrous consequences which may well, as George Orwell has suggested, have induced him to take such fanatical exception to that particular play of Shakespeare's, as well as to his work in general.
Poor Tolstoy! He so desperately wanted to model his way of life on the Sermon on the Mount, which embodied everything he believed in and cared for on earth. And the harder he tried the less adequately he seemed to succeed. Yet, after all, it was the effort which countedthe effort and the vision. There was a kind of grandeur in the very disparity between his aspirations and his performancein his fantastic vitality and exuberance, in the glory of him; some relationship with life which made him, at one and the same time, inextricably a part of life and yet immeasurably above it and beyond it. Gorky put it best, perhaps precisely because he did not sharein the Chertkov senseall Tolstoy's views:
I know as well as others that no man is more worthy than he of the name of genius; more complicated, contradictory, and great in everythingyes, yes, in everything. Greatin some curious sense, indefinable by wordsthere is something in him which made me desire to cry aloud to everyone: 'Look what a wonderful man is living on earth.' For he is, so to say, universally and above all a man, a man of mankind.
Gorky's account of a glimpse he once caught of Tolstoy by the sea is memorableone of the best things of the kind I have ever read:
I once saw him as, perhaps, no one has ever seen him. I was walking over to him at Gaspra along the coast, and behind Yessupov's estate, on the shore among the stones, I saw his smallish angular figure in a grey, crumpled, ragged suit and crumpled hat. He was sitting with his head on his hands, the wind blowing the silvery hairs of his beard through his fingers; he was looking into the distance out to sea, and the little greenish waves rolled up obediently to his feet and fondled them as if they were telling something about themselves to the old magician. It was a day of sun and cloud, and the shadows of the clouds glided over the stones, and with the stones the old man grew now bright and now dark. The boulders were large, riven by cracks, and covered with smelly seaweed; there had been a high tide. He, too, seemed to me like an old stone come to life, who knows all the beginnings and the ends of things, who considers when and what will be the end of the stone, of the grasses of the earth, of the waters of the sea, and of the whole universe from the pebble to the sun. And the sea is part of his soul, and everything around him comes from him, out of him. In the musing motionlessness of the old man I felt something fateful, magical, something which went down into the darkness beneath him and stretched up like a searchlight, into the blue emptiness above the earth ... I cannot express in words what I felt rather than thought at that moment; in my soul there was joy and fear, and then everything blended in one happy thought: 'I am not an orphan on the earth so long as this man lives on it.'
I feel the same because Tolstoy once did live on the earth. In dealing with such a titan as Tolstoy, moral judgments in the ordinary sense are absurd. Nor, again in the ordinary sense, can one speak of tragedy, even in the case of his last crazy sortie from Yasnaya Polyana and Sonya to die in the station-master's little house at Astapovo, an obscure railway station on which while Tolstoy lingered there, the eyes of the whole world rested. It all had the sort of aptness which eliminates tragedy the tragic grandeur and absurdity of life itself.
Observer, 20 March 1968
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