Above is the Wilson biography of Tolstoy, one of my “travel books” into the land of Tolstoy. I did not begin Volume V yet, will do so tonight or tomorrow; in the meantime I’m reading Wilson and Simmons. So far, in general, I find Wilson’s book more fun to read, but the Simmons biography is much more thorough. Wilson was criticized by C.S. Lewis scholars and fans for his biography of Lewis, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. I think his scholarship is sometimes hurried, but his insights into the writer’s life and thus into Lewis and Tolstoy’s life, are deep. They strike me as true and well said. Simmons reports the details of Tolstoy’s life, with a few comments; Wilson tells the story of Tolstoy’s life and comments on it, meditates on it.
Here is a passage from Wilson’s biography:
“One of the things which makes him such a memorable writer is his extra-consciousness, or super-consciousness, of existence itself. Although there was nothing, absolutely nothing, in his first twenty years of life to suggest that he would become a great genius in any sphere, the clue to what makes hims special resides in this preternatural ability to be aware. We all know that there is such a thing as life, that we are alive, that the world is there, full of sights and sounds. But, when we read Tolstoy for the first time, it is as if, until that moment, we had been looking at the world through a dusty window. He flings open the shutters, and we see everything sharp and clear for the first time.”
This is exactly the kind of passage I am talking about above. Wilson’s biography abounds with comments like this, that for me get to the heart of Tolstoy; Simmons work is dryer but fuller. But Wilson describes his feeling well, this feeling you get as you read Tolstoy, that when you look up from the book you are looking up from life. Jim Harrison spoke of the writer being one who is aware, and others have said the same.
This passage also reminds me of the philosophy of metaphysics, that is, the study of being as being, existence as existence. Modern philosophy, when it is not linguistics, has become the study of epistemology, how we know what we know, and modern literature, to some extent, has followed that trend. But Tolstoy, though he is just as adept as Proust or Joyce in describing the interior life of his characters, does not jettison reality as the image in our brains. Reality is there. This is life. And he describes how it is to live.
There is a great quote of D.H. Lawrence in John Braine’s Writing a Novel (I tried to find a passage I remembered about being aware but couldn’t find it) that pertains to this facet of the novel (it’s a lot longer than I remembered but will include it anyway and the bonus is it mentions Tolstoy at the end):
“You can fool pretty nearly every other medium. You can make a poem pietistic, and still it will be a poem. You can write Hamlet in drama: if you wrote him in a novel, he’d be half comic, or a trifle suspicious: a suspicious character, like Dostoyevsky’s Idiot. Somehow, you sweep the ground a bit too clear in the poem or the drama, and you let the human Word fly a bit too freely. Now in a novel there’s always a black tom-cat that pounces on the white dove of the Word, if the dove doesn’t watch it; and there is a banana-skin to trip on; and you know there is a water-closet on the premises. All these things help to keep the balance. . . .
“We have to choose between the quick and the dead. The quick is God-flame, in everything. And the dead is the dead. In this room where I write, there is a little table that is dead: it doesn’t even weakly exist. And there is a ridiculous little iron stove, which for some unknown reason is quick. And there is an iron wardrobe trunk, which for some still more mysterious reason is quick. And there are several books, whose mere corpus is dead, utterly dead and non-existent. And there is a sleeping cat, very quick. And a glass lamp, alas, is dead.
“What makes the difference? Quien sabe! But difference there is. And I know it.
“And if one tries to find out wherein the quickness of the quick lies, it is in a certain weird relationship between that which is quick and–I don’t know; perhaps all the rest of things. It seems to consist in an odd sort of fluid, changing, grotesque or beautiful relatedness. That silly iron stove somehow belongs. Whereas this thin-shanked table doesn’t belong. It is a mere disconnected lump, like a cut-off finger.
“And now we see the great, great merits of the novel. It can’t exist without being ‘quick’. The ordinary unquick novel, even if it be a best seller, disappears into absolute nothingness, the dead burying their dead with surprising speed. For even the dead like to be tickled. But the next minute, they’ve forgotten both the tickling and the tickler.
“Secondly, the novel contains no didactic absolute. All this is quick, and all that is said and done by the quick, is in some way godly. So that Vronsky’s taking Anna Karenina we must count godly, since it is quick. And that Prince in Resurrection, following the convict girl, we must count dead. The convict train is quick and alive. But that would-be-expiatory Prince is as dead as lumber.
“The novel itself lays down these laws for us, and we spend our time evading them. The man in the novel must be ‘quick’. And this means one thing, among a host of unknown meaning: it means he must have a quick relatedness to all the other things in the novel: snow, beg-bugs [sic?], sunshine, the phallus, trains, silk-hats, cats, sorrow, people, food, diphtheria, fuchsias, stars, ideas, God, tooth-paste, lightning, and toilet-paper. He must be in quick relation to all these things. What he says and does must be relative to them all.”
This makes me want to dive into a novel myself, that is, write another, but I also want to argue with Lawrence about Vronsky and Anna and the Prince. I would argue that Vronsky is dead and the Prince is quick, but I will withhold judgment till I re-read both Anna Karenina and Resurrection. One thing I do remember, though, is that in the story, “Master and Man,” the whole story for me was quick except the ending when the Master throws himself on the servant to save him from the snow. Somehow that struck me as Tolstoy forcing his message, and perhaps that is what Lawrence is getting at here.