Today’s travel book is the Modern Library edition of The Cossacks, translated by Peter Constantine with an introduction by Cynthia Ozick. I include other translations of Tolstoy’s works just for a sense of perspective and breadth though my main focus is on themes and ideas and the power of Tolstoy’s work, not the merits of various translations. There is a quote at the top of this book from Turgenev about The Cossacks: “The best story that has been written in our language.”
It is interesting, in reading biographies of Tolstoy, that his relationship with Turgenev was somewhat similar to that between Dostoyevsky and Turgenev. In both cases, it was a love-hate one. He exasperated them and they, him. Both Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky were “seers,” they were both prophets in a way; ideas and causes enraptured them. Turgenev was more of a pure artist. He didn’t care so much about causes and ideas. He wrote of life as he saw it, with exquisite sensibility, and though he was aware of the ideas and saw their importance, life itself was all to him. Sensation. Yearning. And he was content to leave it at that; Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, seers of the flesh and the spirit respectively (getting this from George Steiner’s book) were not.
I did not read any Tolstoy yesterday; starting Volume V today. By month’s end I will have read War and Peace, which is a good feeling to have for this aging bookworm. I read in one of his letters that C.S. Lewis had read War and Peace three times. Whatever you think of his religion, he was one of the world’s most prodigious readers.
Here are some quotes from Wilson’s biography of Tolstoy:
“In Tolstoy, consciousness itself was overdeveloped. In a non-Wordsworthian sense, the world was ‘too much with him’.”
“‘The Ant Brotherhood was revealed to us, but not the chief secret–the way for all men to cease suffering from any misfortune, to leave off quarrelling and being angry, and become continuously happy–this secret he said he had written on a green stick buried by the road at the edge of a certain ravine, at which spot (since my body must be buried somewhere) I have asked to be buried in memory of Nikolenka.'”
I am not sure from which work that passage comes from Tolstoy because, frustratingly, Wilson just notates it as coming from a certain volume of the Jubilee Edition; I assume it comes from Childhood but I’m not sure.
“It was almost exactly at this date [while learning his catechism in Kazan but already convinced it was all false] that he began to read Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a writer who–if this title belongs to anyone–was the greatest single influence on the development of Tolstoy’s thought. . . . The Savoyard priest [in Rousseau’s novel, Emile] does not reject God, but finding all manifestations of the supernatural, and all ideas of the future life, quite unknowable, he prefers to concentrate on those elements in religion which do immediately concern him: that is, matters of morality and conscience as they impinge on his own soul: ‘I am aware of my soul; it is known to me in feeling and thought: I know what it is without knowing its essence. . . . Our first duty is towards ourself. . . . Conscience is the voice of the soul, the passions are the voice of the body. . . . Conscience! Conscience! Divine instinct, immortal voice from heaven; sure guide for a creature ignorant and finite indeed, yet intelligent and free.’
“‘At various crucial moments of his life, Tolstoy found himself rediscovering the faith of the Savoyard priest; the oftener he discovered it, the more certain he became that it was his own inner vision: hence the confusion he sometimes felt about whether he or Rousseau had written the works of Rousseau. Rousseau’s appeal to him need not be laboured: the acceptance of the near ungovernability of sexual passions; the idea that though the dogmas of the old religion be false, the kernel of moral truth contained within them can be rediscovered and made new; the love of simplicity, rural life, and the idea that virtue is best practised in retirement from society. . . . ”
I am planning on, to inform this book, reading more of Rousseau, especially, Emile and his Confessions. Here is a sort of sidebar passage about Rousseau from Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust: A History of Walking, because the latter is a fascinating book and because Rousseau has to do with Tolstoy and it would be interesting later if the Tolstoy-Rousseau connection via the idea of walking were to bear some fruit. I’ll try it and see what happens. (A perhaps interesting fact is that I had a friend once who said I reminded him of Rousseau, and I don’t think he meant it entirely in a good way; for what it’s worth.)
Here is Solnit on Rousseau: on second thought, I have decided that, though fascinating, it would be too long of a detour. I need to stay on the main trail; but I do recommend Wanderlust, it is a fascinating book.
Wilson: “Tolstoy was to become one of the most notable of nineteenth-century Russian dissidents, one whom both the Government and, subsequently, Lenin recognised as more than half-doing the revolutionaries’ work for them [this is what Zweig noted in his book on Tolstoy] while always remaining an anomaly in the political spectrum.”
“It was in this enforced solitude that Tolstoy first began to keep a diary. Its first words are, ‘It is six days since I entered the clinic. . . . I have had gonorrhoea, from the source where you usually get it.’ . . . What singles him out is what happened when he began to keep a diary, a record which was to develop, eventually, into the practice of fiction.
“With many gaps, he was to remain a compulsive diarist until his last days of life. The diary was a confessional, a notebook, a catalogue of moral laws. It was never to be the chatty, observant sort of diary kept by a Boswell or a Pepys. It was not a diary which focused much attention on other people. Centre stage, always, and for the rest of his life, was Tolstoy himself.”