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Tolstoy Journal, February 16, 2017: The Green Stick

Although I took a little detour with Henry James, I have been reading Tolstoy, finished Volume III last night, and have started Volume IV, so I’m on schedule. And very very glad, the more I read Tolstoy, that I am reading Tolstoy this year.

I have also been reading one of my “travel books,” the first volume of Ernest J. Simmon’s biography of Tolstoy. I am up to page 158 and will start transcribing here the passages I underlined. I also bought A.N. Wilson’s Tolstoy and have read a good chunk of it.

It struck me this morning that Tolstoy breaks every creative writing rule that we proclaim. He tells an awful lot, but when he shows the showing is brilliant, perfect. Volume IV begins with long passages about history and fate, philosophical musings, lecturing, definitely a no-no, but, for me, at least, it works because he is, as James says you should be, sincere, and he is not afraid to wonder about those questions everyone wonders about but thinks is out of place in the novel. Maybe you can’t do it if you’re not Tolstoy or Proust or Joyce but it makes you wonder about all these writing rules we live by.

Here are some passages from the beginning of Volume IV:

“On the twenty-fourth of June, the forces of Western Europe crossed the Russian Frontier, and war began: in other words, an event took place opposed to human reason and human nature.

“Millions of men committed against one another a countless number of crimes, deceptions, treacheries, robberies, forgeries, issues of false assignats, depredations, incendiary fires, murders, such as the annals of all the courts in all the world could not equal in the aggregate of centuries; and yet which, at that period, the perpetrators did not even regard as crimes.”

Later: “Fatalism in history is unavoidable, if we would explain its preposterous phenomena (that is to say, those events the reason for which is beyond our comprehension). The more we strive by our reason to explain these phenomena in history, the more illogical and incomprehensible to us they become . . . . History, that is to say, the unconscious, universal life of humanity, in the aggregate, every moment profits by the life of kings for itself, as an instrument for the accomplishment of its own ends. . . . Napoleon, notwithstanding the fact that never before had it seemed so evident to him as now in this year 1812, that it depended on him whether he should shed or not shed the blood of his people,–verser le sand de ses peuples, as Alexander expressed it in  his last letter to him,–was in reality never before so subordinated to the inevitable laws that compelled him–even while, as it seemed to him, working in accordance with his own free will–to accomplish for the world in general, for history, what was destined to be accomplished.”

In other words, the man at the top, who everyone thinks is the most powerful (didn’t Plato also say this in The Republic?) in the world, is really the weakest most driven man in the world. The one with the most to fear.

Here are some quote from Simmons’ biography:

p. 3, “But it is more likely that Indris, from whom Leo Tolstoy descended in a direct line in the twentieth generation, was of Lithuanian origin.”

I underlined this because my wife is full-blooded Lithuanian. Note also that Dostoevsky has a lot of Lithuanian in him.

p.9, “Unusual moral and spiritual qualities endeared Tolstoy’s mother to all who surrounded her. Although quick-tempered, she exercised the utmost self-control. When provoked to fierce anger, her maid once told Tolstoy [his mother died when he was two and he had no memory of her] she would go quite red in the face and even begin to weep, but she would never say a rude word–she did not even know any. Sincerity and simplicity dignified all her relations with people. Modesty was so deeply ingrained in her nature that she seemed literally ashamed of her own mental, moral, and spiritual superiority. Large, beautiful eyes transfigured her homely face and reflected the spiritual depths within.”

p. 10, “Obviously, the conglomerate strains that contribute to the Tolstoy line discourage the customary pious occupation of biographers of tracing ‘racial influences.’ Lithuanian, Scandinavian, and Tatar blood are mingled with the Slavic. Leo Tolstoy would have dismissed any such attempt with the proud assertion that he was a Russian. If God had favored him with a second choice in the matter, he once thoughtfully admitted, he would choose to be an Englishman.”

p. 11, “Genius has no ancestors or descendants; it is an accident of nature and hence inexplicable in terms of human influences.”

p. 13, “The boundless love of a soul always striving towards the infinite, the eternal, and hence never at peace, is the dominating trait that runs throughout the whole characterization. Tolstoy believed boundless love to be the chief attribute of his mother’s nature. In later life he rarely spoke of her to his own children, but when he did it was always with such tenderness and reverence that they thought of her as a saint.”

p.23, “Nikolai [Tolstoy’s eldest brother] solemnly announced to them one day that he possessed a wonderful secret that could make all men happy. If it became generally known, a kind of Golden Age would exist on earth: there would be no more disease, no human misery, and no anger. All would love one another and become ‘Ant Brothers.’ The children adopted the idea with enthusiasm and even organized a game of Ant Brothers. Boxes and chairs were covered with shawls, and they all cuddled together in the dark within the shelter.

“Nikolai had disclosed the Ant Brotherhood to them but not the chief secret–the means by which all men would become everlastingly happy. He had written this secret, he said, on a green stick buried by the road at the edge of a ravine in the Zakaz forest.”

p. 24, “Two years before his death, Tolstoy dictated to his secretary, N.N. Gusev, the following: ‘Although it is a trifling matter, yet I wish to say something that I should like done after my death. Even though it is a trifle of trifles: let no ceremonies be performed in putting my body into the earth. A wooden coffin, and whoever wishes, carry it or cart it to Zakaz, opposite the ravine at the place of the ‘green stick.’ At least, there’s a reason for selecting that and no other place.’ When he mentioned the green stick, Gusev observed, tears filled his eyes.”

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