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Tolstoy Journal, March 10, 2017, “My hero is truth”

Yesterday I had to write a book review, the link to which I will soon share.

I also did not get much Tolstoy read, but I do have some passages from Wilson’s book on Tolstoy.

Here is one: “Dickens, Pushkin and Dostoyevsky have all given us glimpses of this self-destructive madness [gambling]. Tolstoy, interestingly enough, write very little about it. Nikolay Rostov’s stupidity over gambling in War and Peace was nothing to Tolstoy’s. He was compelled to go on playing until he had lost his birthright, the very house where he was born. The big house at Yasnaya Polyana was sold and transferred to another site to pay off all these card debts. When Tolstoy was to return there, it was not to the old memories, which in any case he did not have, of his parents, but a new world of his own invention. Was that part of the reason he gambled? The thrill of gambling, like that of religion, is precisely its offer of excitingly capricious reward, or alternatively, annihilation. The real gambler may not want to be dispossessed, but on one level, he needs to be. ‘When shall I cease at last to lead a life without purpose or passion or to feel a deep wound in my heart and know of no means of healing it?’ he has asked his journal in November 1854.”

Not sure I agree with Wilson’s comparison of religion with gambling because in religion “capricious” is not the key word. But perhaps there is some truth to the comparison in the deep waters of the psyche.

“This is the strain in Tolstoy which was to dominate the second half of his life–the preacher, the prophet, the denouncer of obvious evils in an obvious way. He is not, like the artist of the first sketch (or parts of the second) [Wilson is talking about the Sevastopol stories], a fascinated observer, prepared to stare at everyone’s face, and describe things exactly as they are. He is not, except in the crudest sense, a rhetorician. But he is arrestingly certain of his own moral rightness. He did not emerge as a result of some sort of mid-life crisis after the artist had finished Anna Karenina. He is there from the beginning. His is an unsubtle voice, almost devoid of charm, but, unlike the scribes, he speaks with authority, and however repelled we may be by him, we stop and listen: ‘The hero of my tale–whom I love with all the power of my soul, whom I have tried to portray in all his beauty, who has been, is and will be beautiful–is Truth.'”

“It was at Chornaya Rechka (‘Black Stream’) that Tolstoy discovered the truth of what he had already read in Stendahl’s The Charterhouse of Parma–that one cannot tell the ‘truth’ about battles since all the witnesses are people who are too busy staggering about in smoke, squelching through wounded bodies, drunk with vodka, fear or courage, to have any clear sense of what is going on.”

“For it is, as C. S. Lewis suggested, in its [War and Peace] apparent lack of form that much of the book’s vast moral strength lies.

“‘I thought that the strong narrative lust, the passionate itch to see “what happened in the end” which novels aroused necessarily inured the taste for other, better, but less irresistible forms of literary pleasure. . . . Tolstoy, in this book, has changed all that. I have felt everywhere. . . . that sublime indifference to the life or death, success or failure, of the chief characters, which is not a blank indifference at all, but almost like submission to the will of God. . . .’

“It is this ‘sublime indifference’, a Homeric quality, which was given to Tolstoy, both on the field of battle and–much more interestingly–when he held a pen in his hand.”

 

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